Ten months ago, the Madden NFL franchise from EA SPORTS made its debut on the new console generation with the launch release of Madden NFL 25 on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One. While the game was improved over the version released in August on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it was an in-between effort which ultimately proved to have limited staying power, particularly compared to other sports games released in the same window. Even though this year’s Madden NFL 15 saw a limited development cycle, the end product has proven to better embody the expectations of a new-generation title, sporting improved gameplay and graphics which help offset deficiencies from legacy gameplay issues and overall career mode shortcomings.
As a tenth anniversary of sorts from Madden NFL 05—arguably the last title of the franchise to put significant focus on the defensive side of the ball—Madden NFL 15’s primary gameplay improvements come on defense. Each level of defense has seen improvements, beginning with the defensive line play. The “War in the Trenches” got a start on the offensive line in Madden NFL 25 on the new consoles, but in Madden NFL 15 the defensive linemen are shown some love with a complete overhaul of the control inputs. Pushing R2/RT while controlling a defensive lineman makes an attempt to anticipate the snap and get momentum going against the offensive line, and then pushing X/A or Square/X while engaged attempts power and finesse moves to get off blocks.
When not engaged, basic tackling has also seen changes in the game. A “vision cone”—calling to mind the QB Vision Cone of Madden NFL history—projects from the player being controlled on defense. The cone shows the tackle range of the player, and pushing X/A attempts a conservative tackle while pushing Square/X or using the Right Analog Stick attempts a Hit Stick tackle.
In practice, both the blocking interactions and tackling make for a user experience which better engages the player in the defensive side of the game. In Madden NFL 25 particularly, defense felt like an afterthought and was nowhere near as fun to play or as balanced compared to the offense, which had run blocking and Precision Modifier gameplay controls which led to more shootouts than close games. By contrast, Madden NFL 15 gives defenders a weapon in the “War in the Trenches” to create a more organic pass rush and force quarterbacks into making tougher decisions which enable the linebackers and defensive backs to have more impact on the game. After being frustrated by feeling like my inputs had limited impact on defense in last year’s game, I feel just as engaged on both sides of the ball in Madden NFL 15.
The balance of the passing game feels improved as well, with both zone and man coverages appearing to work with more success year-over-year. Linebackers and defensive backs make smarter reads, and seem more able to get their hands on the ball for deflections and interceptions. Unfortunately, interactions between wide receivers and defensive backs have still not received much attention; if you’ve been frustrated in the past by receivers not fighting back to break up a potential interception, or by receivers making catches in traffic too frequently while sandwiched between defenders, you’ll find similar results playing out this year. On the same topic, you’ll find little change to the number of penalties and variety of penalties called on default sliders; only penalties occurring as a result of direct user input like offsides and false starts seem to be happening.
Another focus of the gameplay design in the passing experience was to increase pass inaccuracy to help differentiate the elite signal callers from their backups, as well as to allow for new and varied catch animations to play out by receivers and defenders alike as they attempt to make plays on the ball. In past games, passes were essentially either perfect or off-target; there was no grey area in-between. Expanding the range of outcomes makes the game more organic; a ball slightly off-target can require a receiver to make a more difficult stretch for the catch, limiting the ability of the receiver to pick up yards after the catch once they’ve re-set their feet to run.
While this inaccuracy seems to work as directed for user-controlled players, even on All-Pro difficulty with default sliders the AI quarterbacks can go on superhuman runs of completions. Regardless of the ratings involved, a quarterback can complete in excess of 80% of their passes, even when a significant pass rush has been generated to disrupt them. Sliders and gameplay tuning may be able to tweak this experience, but at present the inaccuracies are hit-and-miss for the AI.
The last input-related gameplay tweak comes on special teams, where a new interface has been crafted for kicking and punting. Controls are still the same with regard to the use of the Right Analog Stick to “load up” a kick by pushing down and then flicking up in time with the meter, but a visible trajectory can now be seen (on difficulty levels lower than All-Madden) which is affected by the wind. Also, moving your directional indicator for the kick “skews” the path of the Right Analog Stick movement (think of how shots are handled in Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 14 as an analog), so if you’re not straight on with a kick, you’ll have to move the Right Analog Stick slightly off-center to adjust. The “forgiveness” for kick accuracy is directly tied into your kicker or punter’s ratings, leaving a small window of error if your players aren’t up to snuff. These changes make long field goal attempts anything but a sure thing, and make the decision-making process all the more involved when you’re facing the outside edge of your kicker’s range.
Outside of these gameplay elements, a number of other changes have been made with regard to playable camera angles and on-screen menus and displays. Pressing up and down on the directional pad pre-snap will cycle between cameras, running the gamut from up-close views suited best for running the ball to all-22 views which keep all players on the screen at all times. On defense, a special camera also focuses just behind the player being controlled, including the ability to use “player lock” on a single defender throughout the course of a play. The ability to use a different camera on any given play at the touch of a button—instead of having to go through menus—helps give the user more control and tailor their view towards whatever camera gives them the most visual feedback they need based on the play they’re running. Although I’ve continued to use a default camera more often than not, more options are always preferable to not having options to work from.
The playcalling screen has also been re-done, and as you cycle through your playbook you will have ready access to information about why a particular play would be suggested for the current down and distance scenario, or how many times you’ve called that particular play and what the average result has been. The game also draws from overall community metrics to provide statistical data on what plays the Madden NFL 15 have been calling and what the results have been. The new structure will take some getting used to, even for long-time fans of the franchise, but overall it does a better job of providing the information a player needs to be confident in their playcalling from snap-to-snap. It’s also worth noting that tempo controls (allowing you to speed up with No Huddle or slow down with Chew Clock) are available in the playcalling menu, and that Madden NFL 15 has adopted the NCAA Football No Huddle system of being able to access your full playbook instead of just being limited to certain plays when you hold Triangle/Y to send your offense into No Huddle mode.
Finally, pre-play match-up data has returned to the series in a manner similar to last year’s NCAA Football 14. Holding R2/RT and pushing the Right Analog Stick up or down opens a radial menu which displays the head-to-head match-ups between each potential receiver and their corresponding defender on the field at a given time. This allows you to exploit any potential mismatches, which helps if you’re playing with personnel you’re unfamiliar with. You can also use the radial menu to view the current fatigue levels of your players as well as the pass protection and run blocking match-ups of your offensive line against the defense. While this amount of data might be overwhelming to novice players, the ability to access the information allows players to be as well-informed as they want to be as they play Madden NFL 15.
Despite the issues noted here, one thing I’ve been impressed by thus far is Madden NFL 15’s ability to give me a good challenge at All-Pro difficulty without slider tweaks. In an offline Connected Franchise Mode with the Cleveland Browns, my week two match-up against the New Orleans Saints at home resulted in my first-ever tie in Madden at 24-24, in a see-saw game which saw Drew Brees begin the game by throwing two interceptions to rookie Justin Gilbert before the Saints settled into the game. Late in the fourth quarter, I needed a fourth down touchdown pass from Johnny Manziel to Jordan Cameron to go up by a field goal; the Saints managed to drive into field goal range and tie it up as regulation expired. In overtime, I drove to the three-yard-line but a fourth down pass attempt to win the game outright fell incomplete, letting the Saints take possession needing only a field goal to win. I traded defensive stops with the CPU, and then I stopped them at midfield with just over a minute left in the extra period. The Saints pinned me at my own 5-yard-line, and I wasn’t able to get into field goal range before time expired. Even though the end result was a tie, it was probably the single best experience I’ve had against the AI in Madden NFL in years.
Overall, the biggest achievement of Madden NFL 15’s gameplay is making the user feel as though their inputs actually matter on defense again. Controlling defensive linemen is actually fun again, and defense no longer feels like a frustrating interlude between offensive drives. The gameplay is still not perfect, and there are lingering legacy issues readily apparent to players who have been yearly buyers, but the amount of progress observable year-over-year makes for an enjoyable experience.