Madden 20 Review — This X-Factor Ain’t Enough
When everything goes smoothly, Madden 20 is one of the best-playing football games of the generation. Things don't always go smoothly.
Madden 20 is the latest in EA’s long-running NFL franchise. Since scooping up exclusive rights to the NFL license in 2004, the series has stood virtually unopposed in the video game football space. That has led to some innovative and extremely fun years for the series, while others have felt like EA Tiburon is resting on their laurels, to put it mildly. Madden 20 feels somewhere in between. The core gameplay is possibly better than ever, but a lack of modes, countless bugs, and other frustrations led to this being an entry casual fans can probably skip.
The biggest change is also the most welcome one. This year’s Madden finally lets superstar players feel like they are a cut above an average football player. To do this, the devs made several smart changes. The first is one that we’ve seen hints of in the past, but, after playing the game for several hours feels more deeply ingrained in the systems. More than ever, star players have had their mannerisms and play styles translated into the game.
When my franchise team came up against Aaron Rodgers, he was as dastardly as ever. Unlike most quarterbacks, he freely moved around the pocket, escaping defenders and finding a big gain out of what should be nothing. If I saw Khalil Mack off the edge, I knew I had to get that ball out immediately because he was going to beat his blocker. Even someone like Adrian Peterson plays true to life. He’ll go out there and gain minimal yardage five or six carries in a row. Then, when you think you have him bottled, he’ll rip off a massive 65-yard run for a touchdown.
Those are just a few examples of the many times I was impressed with how well the “names” of the NFL have been captured in this year’s Madden. The team at EA Tiburon has done this a bit in the past, but this year, it feels like a focus. All that said, you can make them animate differently as much as you want. If they don’t play differently, it doesn’t matter.
Fortunately, EA has implemented both a player ratings stretch and Superstar Skills. The stretch was greatly needed. In the past, when a high-level starter goes down to injury, you could easily plug-and-play their backup without losing too much. By stretching the ratings and making more players lower-rated, those backups actually feel that way. So, when Kirk Cousins tears his ACL in the first game of the season, and you’re stuck with Kyle Sloter as your franchise QB, don’t expect an easy path to the Super Bowl.
Superstar Skills further differentiate players like Patrick Mahomes and DeAndre Hopkins from guys like Jared Goff and Amari Cooper. All are high-performing NFL starters; however, only the former pair bring extra skills to the table that make them stand out. Every team has at least one player with a Superstar Skill (sorry to the Cardinals, Bills, Dolphins, Giants, Buccaneers, and Titans). And to further differentiate the league’s best, 50 players have X-Factor Abilities.
These abilities are game-changing skills that turn on when the player enters the zone. So, if Aaron Donald gets two sacks in a game, the opposing quarterback will start shaking in his boots as Donald’s “Fearmonger” ability unlocks. This makes his pressure, even while engaged by a blocker, force the QB to make terrible throws and end drives. Every ability is super useful, and a few will completely flip the script in tense moments. My only problem is that it seems easier for offensive players to stay in the zone, making them more effective. That’s something that should be tweaked as the game matures, but it is something to note.
All of this comes together in a product that, when it’s working, boasts some of the best gameplay in any Madden I’ve played. The operative phrase there is “when it’s working”.
The Madden series has always suffered from legacy issues that cause bugs and glitches to invade gameplay. That still happens way more than it should. The gameplay is smoother than before, but the glitches are still jarring and take you out of the experience, sometimes literally.
For example, I experienced a repeated problem while super-simming games. Randomly, the sim would end the game but not roll the end-game scenes. This left me stuck on the sim screen with no way to progress. The only way out was to just quit the game and start over. Also, I’m not sure if this is intended, but when playing in Arcade mode, the refs call a facemask almost every offensive possession during my Face of the Franchise mode. Most of the bugs are more frustrating than anything. It’s the sheer number of them I experienced that makes the game’s development feel almost lazy or rushed.
That same feeling rolls over into the modes EA has on offer. Longshot, the game’s former story mode, is gone. In its place is the incredibly boring Face of the Franchise (FOTF) mode. At first, I liked this mode because, unlike Longshot, you get to actually play football games and not just do mini-games over and over. The story bits they set up in the first hour or so of the mode also seemed like they might go somewhere interesting.
Spoiler alert: they don’t. Instead, after you’re selected in the draft, the only story is X-Factor players texting you with a challenge or your coach asking you if the team needs a rest. While it’s funny to imagine Tom Brady texting like a tween, it doesn’t really do anything impactful.
Sometimes you also get texts from the characters that were with you in college, but they don’t go anywhere. I was expecting to see your college’s star receiver join you after his last year of college, but he doesn’t. He texts you mid-way through your first season to say, “keep the league warm for me,” and then you never hear from him again. It just feels like missed opportunity after missed opportunity.
So, Face of the Franchise is mediocre at best. What’s normal Franchise mode got going for it? Not much. There are two additions that could be impactful for long-time players. The first is the scenario engine. Essentially, this is the same texting system from FOTF. You’ll get messages from people around the league and need to react to them as you see fit.
In my franchise, for instance, Minnesota Vikings 3rd string wideout Laquon Treadwell hit me up. He believed he was a future star and intended to prove it. If I could get him 2 TDs or 100+ yards in the next game, his development trait would go up to the star rating. Using this system, I was actually able to make Treadwell, a middle-of-the-road receiver, into a superstar with the “Double Me” X-Factor ability. I know Viking fans, we can only dream. It was a tiny side story that, if expanded upon, could give each franchise mode its own unique story.
The other addition is how they’ve tweaked player contracts. In the past, it was relatively easy to stockpile superstars because player contracts were well below their real-life counterparts. That’s changed now. If you’re playing with a team that has a player on a bad contract (say the Vikings and Kirk Cousins), it’s going to be hard to build around them. Because big-name players pull in major cash, you’ll also see stars hit free agency way more than in past entries. This should further open up each of your franchises’ variability.
However, even these positives need updates if they want to make them worthwhile. As mentioned above, the scenario engine needs way more storylines to stay interested. And contracts still need work. You still can’t front or backload them, and there’s no ability to restructure a deal down the line. The dev team has promised to add a fifth-year option and more scenarios, so there’s some hope that EA won’t completely abandon Franchise mode post-release.
The one mode we know they’ll stick with is Ultimate Team. At the time of writing, many of the modes are still locked off. But rest assured, everyone’s favorite card-collecting game mode is back. Whether that’s a good thing or not largely depends on your views on microtransactions and/or grinding out football games.
Personally, I usually stay away from Ultimate Team after the first few weeks. It’s just too much for me (and my wallet) to keep up with. That said, it’s still a lot of fun. Even with mostly solo options available, I had a blast trying to grind out some high tier cards. When everything opens up, I expect that it will be that same mode fans love.
I wish I could say the same about the total product. In a vacuum without any legacy glitches, Madden 20 plays better than most of the other games in recent franchise history. The Superstar and X-Factor skills go such a long way to making stars important. Everything comes together in a package that I want to recommend without any caveats.
Then the glitches hit. Then you realize there are basically only three modes worth talking about, and two of them are disappointing. Will hardcore Maddenites have a blast with all the new gameplay toys they have at their disposal? Absolutely. Do I think casual Madden fans need to rush out and buy this edition? Probably not. Madden 20 is a fine game, but it’s definitely an iterative version that doesn’t do enough to stand out from last year’s game.