‘Madden NFL 22’ review: a step in the right direction, but is it a big enough one?

Small gains on a long down

The Texans aren’t impressing anyone this season. For years they’ve mismanaged their talent, letting go of all-star players like Deandre Hopkins and JJ Watt for returns that have just not seen comparable value. While they have an arguably Top 5 quarterback in the league, Deshaun Watson is currently the centre of a disturbing sexual assault case in real life. Nothing has gone right for the team in years it seems. There were many wondering if this could be the NFL’s first 0-17 team.

No franchise has ever screamed ‘rebuild’ quite like the Houston Texans, a prospect Madden 22 makes reality. Trading away good but ageing players on expensive contracts for young talent to make something new. A swap for the problem Watson for Kyler Murray, Byron Murphy Jr, and Andy Isabella starts a whole new era for the Texans. They relocate to San Antonio and then win the Superbowl two years later with one of the youngest teams ever to do it.

There’s emergent storytelling that often goes underappreciated in sports games. Madden’s Franchise mode is a great example that harnesses that. It meets the NFL at a point in history and then hundreds of stories emerge randomly. As time goes on, maybe the Chief’s dominance collapses, maybe the Detroit Lions get it together, maybe Trevor Lawrence becomes the best QB of all time, all in one save game. It’s a strangely compelling narrative structure that encourages continued engagement as you discover these stories as they play out.

However, in recent years, Franchise has been left behind a little as Madden has pursued flashier and more gimmicky modes. An amalgamation of Ultimate Team that has made FIFA the juggernaut it is, a scripted story mode focused on your player avatar and even ‘backyard’ 6v6 modes with star players have all littered the start screen. The Madden franchise has become so spread across its focus, that many modes, like Franchise, once the entire pillar of the games, are often left behind for being ‘good enough’. Or perhaps from a cynical view, the sneaking feeling of being left behind due to it being less monetizable.

Madden 22. Credit: EA
Madden 22. Credit: EA

Thankfully, in Madden 22, the Franchise mode has seen a bit of love. While the overall structure is the same, some important details have been added to proceedings to get you more involved in the day-to-day. Importantly, there is now a pop-up before a match that helps you plan for your next opponents. This adds an important layer of preparation that has often been missing. Now, you don’t just go into a match as if it was the same team you played before or the team you will play next.

Instead, you’re faced with where that team ranks in the season, whether they’re stronger on the run or the pass. If, when they do pass, they tend towards short, middle, or deep passes. You can then choose a plan for your opposition. This is a subtle change but it helps fill out the experience in an important way – giving the rest of the league an identity. You’re forced to confront who the team you’re going up against are. Now, each opponent has a story, a personality that morphs over time. It’s an important addition adding a bit of character to the overall experience.

Staff members also have an experience currency now which can be spent on upgrades. Perhaps you want a coach to be focused on maximising Quarterback experience, or perhaps you have a star cornerback but want to pay a little less for his upcoming mega-contract. These upgrades add incremental decisions that do build-up, allowing you to grow a relationship with your staff, which has been missing in previous games, especially when taking over a franchise as an owner.

Madden 22. Credit: EA
Madden 22. Credit: EA

Of course, all of this would be nothing if the on-the-field action wasn’t there. Thankfully, this is still Madden. It’s a fairly decent approximation of gridiron football, a convoluted and messy game itself. If you’ve played Madden in the last ten years, you know more or less what you are getting into.

That isn’t to say there aren’t new aspects to contend with here. M-Factors are one of the biggest additions, and it’s one that largely works. Standing for ‘Momentum Factors’, this is a system that tries to make sense of the intangibles of a game. Home-field advantage and one team ‘flowing’ are hard to actualise in a simulation. This new system tries to capture it by providing in-game bonuses if you’re playing in your own stadium or have consecutive scoring drives. It’s a clever little idea that captures the ‘spirit’ of a game, that otherwise can’t be put into hard numbers as the simulation wants.

There are still issues with the gameday experience too though. It’s susceptible to technical and animation glitches. While the game looks great, some of the flow of action can feel a little janky. Also, as ever, some tenants have been true for years at this point: mobile Quarterbacks still run riot and certain routes are reliable enough to become crutches. Slant routes seem particularly powerful this year, especially when matched with a quarterback who can move around. These things have been so ingrained in Madden’s identity now though, would it really be Madden without a mobile quarterback running rings around helpless defenders trying to catch him. Ultimately, Madden 22 still captures the bizarre complexities of American Football well enough.

 

Rags to Riches, the game’s ‘story’ mode also returns with about what you’d expect. A story about a star player coming out of college as a superstar, who is super determined to be the best. However, in previous versions, the character often has to overcome some adversity – not so here. You come out of college with an agent and brand manager and you’re invited to a Nike showcase with some of the best players in the league, undrafted. It’s all topped off with getting a Nike endorsement. As a story, it feels like there are no real stakes as everything goes great, and the character you play is sickly sweet.

Throughout your journey to getting drafted, you’ll run drills, play some 6v6 games as well as some college football. This isn’t the first game to feature teams from college football in an official capacity, but sans a college football game, it’s always a neat novelty to come out in Texas Longhorns attire. However, beyond that and the underwhelming story, this more or less only serves as a small snippet of what Madden has on offer across its modes.

Ultimate Team also makes a return, though the experience is largely unchanged. Madden’s amalgamation has never been quite as compelling as its cousin over in FIFA. That remains true here. That is due to 1v1 matches online being longer and more cumbersome than a game of soccer, and that extends to the more complicated team building that the mode requires. It’s not quite as brisk and intuitive a mode and never feels like it quite works. It’s there if you want it though. That sentiment also extends to the Yard, which creates six v six matches. These are bright and fun, but feel a little too feature light to be something to sink a ton of time into.

Madden 22. Credit: EA

And that goes into some of Madden’s core problems. The Franchise mode and the act of playing football are great. Simulating a world and seeing the stories that emerge from it is a compelling narrative tool often underappreciated. However, it all feels a little held back. There are so many different ways to play football in Madden, but it can get in the way of the joy of just starting a franchise and, well… playing some football. As if the entire experience is spread a tiny bit too thin when beefing up the core modes of the game would go further.

Thankfully Madden 22 is a step in the right direction though. The Franchise mode has seen some love, it looks great, and the sport is as complex but compelling as its real-life counterpart. If you want to help rebuild the Houston Texans or continue the growing legacy of Patrick Mahomes on the Chiefs, you can spend tens of hours going deep into that. However, it still all does have a faint air of being a little stale. Hopefully, this focus on adding to the strongest parts of Madden continues, because so much about the series is great. It just feels like it needs to get some of its focus back.

Madden 22 is out now for PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Stadia. We tested the PS5 version.

The Verdict

Madden is as compelling as it ever was, but it can’t escape the slight feeling that things are spread a little too thin. Improvements to Franchise mode are welcome and help the experience, but they are smaller than perhaps they deserve. With so many different ways to play football, it’s a little difficult to get in invested in any one game.

Pros

  • Franchise improvements help and it remains a compelling game mode.
  • M-Factors is a neat system that tries to capture the intangibles of game-day.
  • It’s still a great simulation of the American football experience

Cons

  • Rags to Riches is not very compelling, with a sickly sweet protagonist and a situation devoid of adversity.
  • Ultimate Team and The Yard haven’t changed much and don’t provide as compelling an experience as other modes.
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