(This review first appeared on thumped.com)
When Pete asked if I wanted to review Madden NFL 15, I initially said no. You see, I haven’t played a Madden game since the Megadrive, so I figured I’m in no position to talk about this game because I can’t tell you what makes this game better than the previous fifty-odd iterations. Plus I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a game of American Football except one time when I was in New York over Thanksgiving and went to a friend’s house and the football came on and all the MEN went into the basement to watch the BIG GAME and I joined them because the idea of a man NOT watching the BIG GAME was kinda making everyone uncomfortable. Basically, I’m nowhere near an expert on this. I probably shouldn’t be reviewing this game.
Besides which, if you’re the kind of person who is likely to buy Madden NFL 15, you’ll probably have bought it already. Likewise, if you’re not interested in either the game or the sport, I doubted anything I could say here would convince you. But Pete is nothing if not insistent, so I got ready to write a review based on the things I did know about, like the politics of the NFL surrounding the recent Ray Rice incident. Or maybe the study by the Wall Street Journal which shows that although an average game of American Football lasts almost three hours, the ball is actually only on the field and in play for 11 minutes. I was going to talk about Friday Night Lights, a TV series about high school football in Texas and how it’s the most criminally underrated show ever made. I was ready to write around the game, rather than about the game. You know, the kind of review a real wanker would write.
But then I actually played the game. And, you know what? It’s actually won me over. I really, really like it.
It took a while to grow on me though. Like most EA Sports games these days, Madden NFL 15 opens by dropping you into the middle of an actual game and expects you to fend for yourself. Since I haven’t touched a Madden game in 20-odd years, I hadn’t a fucking breeze as to what was going on and it demolished me. If I’m being honest, more than any other game in recent memory, these first five minutes in Madden NFL 15 left me feeling a little alienated. It seemed to be a game shouting “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. GO BACK TO DESERT GOLFING ON YOUR PHONE, YOU LAZY FUCK.” I was ready to throw in the towel and dust off that wanker-review.
But something about the game made me want to persevere and figure it out. Along with Call of Duty, Madden is traditionally regarded as the game that the ‘core’ audience (whatever that means) tend to glom onto. And since I’ve already dabbled with a CoD addiction (300+ glorious, fun-filled hours in Modern Warfare multiplayer), I didn’t want to give up before I at least won my first game.
So I fired up the ‘skills trainer’. This is a series of drills designed to familiarise players with the mechanics of the game, starting with passing and blocking and so on. I guess this is mostly intended for people who are entirely new to the game but it still presumed a level of knowledge that I just didn’t have. To make it worse, the game doesn’t do a great job of actually communicating any information that might be useful to a new player. One of the first drills you run is practicing a lob pass. “Do a lob pass”, it says. Except at no point during these drills does it say how to actually perform a lob pass. So I failed my lob pass. And I failed. And I failed. I had no idea what I was doing wrong and the game seemed completely disinterested in telling me. It was only by chance when I was loading the game that I saw it in one of the random loading screens that flashes up for a couple of seconds at a time: briefly tap the button to do a lob pass, hold the button down to do a ‘bullet’ pass. This was like a eureka moment - once this was figured out, the game unfolded in front of me like a beautiful flower.
You see, I’ve realised that Madden is not the type of game to explain itself or hold your hand. In other games, like EA UFC, the equivalent of Madden’s ‘skills trainer’ is a series of extended quicktime event where even a complete beginner can easily rack up 100% scores and gold medals in no time. Madden NFL 15 is tougher. It’s not just a quicktime event - it’s knowing what to do and when to do it. And, starting out, you’ll fuck up the drills. You’ll fuck them up a LOT. You’ll be forced to restart again and again. And it’s only when you’re into double-digits of retry attempts that you’ll actually scrape a success. You’ll happily take your bronze medal and move onto the next drill. It’s not arcade game. It doesn’t try to compensate for your lack of skill or knowledge. And you know what? I appreciate that. It means that when I actually perform a dead-perfect lob pass, there’s an extra sense of achievement. I fucking earned that pass. And so that means I’m going to make a wild statement that might annoy some people. Okay? Here we go. If you’re like me where you have no interest in American Football and you know nothing about Madden (or have forgotten anything you did know), Madden is sort of like Dark Souls: an impenetrable melange of game mechanics where each tiny advancement feels like a massive success.
There, I said it.
Even for a non-fan like me, there’s a lot to appreciate about this game. I’m pretty impressed with the social integration. The game tracks each player’s stats and decisions in the game and add that to a cumulative database, so when you’re in a particular situation, the game can say “the majority of the community chose this play”. Similarly, players are encouraged to send in their favourite screenshots from the game to be used in the interstitial loading screens. So you’ll see a picture and it will say “submitted by @AssMan1993”. Probably more than any other AAA game in recent memory, Madden NFL 15 prides itself on its community focus. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s listening to its players and involving them in the game. For example, the game shipped with a bug that caused one player to be rendered as 1’2” tall. This glitch was fixed, but the massive viral popularity of the bug caused EA to turn it into an official game mode called “tiny titans”. That’s something I wish more games would take advantage of. The only other game I can think that does anything near as great a job of channeling the community is Dark Souls. Okay, I’ll stop with the Dark Souls comparisons now.
I said I wanted to play Madden NFL 15 until I won my first game. Well, I’ve done that. I reached the arbitrary goal I set myself for this game. And I think I’m going to keep playing this game. As a sport, American Football is still mostly Greek to me. I don’t know who any of the players are, what any of the positions do, or when to run a particular play. Christ, I even feel like a total fraud for just using the words “run a particular play”. And I’m sure this knowledge would really open up the rest of the game to me - there are entire game modes, like the fantasy football-type thing, that require this outside knowledge. But at this early stage, it’s all incidental shite that doesn’t actually matter. The important thing is that the basic game itself is actually lots of fun. And that’s what’s going to keep me coming back.