Compared to counterparts like NBA 2K and MLB: The Show, EA Sports’ Madden series lacks a definite identity. While the former boasts a dedicated (though admittedly toxic) community around its addictive Park gameplay and the latter is known for a Diamond Dynasty mode that allows players to build a solid fantasy squad without paying for card packs, it’s difficult to sum up Madden’s public perception without mentioning its reliance on microtransactions and recycled content.
The main menu of this year’s Madden instalment is proof that EA are aware that they’re falling behind their peers, but are quite content to let it happen. Each of your gameplay options, from quasi-story mode Face of the Franchise to the arcade-inspired Yard experience is cribbed from the competition, feels as though it’s been included to check off boxes on a list of consumer expectations without really meeting them. It’s as functional a pick-up-and-play football sim as it’s even been, but much of what you can explore beyond exhibition mode doesn’t hold up beyond the surface-level scrutiny. Though attempts are made to bring Madden 22 up to date, it’s an overwhelmingly cynical experience that fails to follow through on its own good ideas.
It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career
Face of the Franchise, introduced in last year’s Madden installment to already-poor reception, is 22’s biggest misstep. The concept remains, following your created player from the NCAA playoffs to draft day and, with luck, to the end of an illustrious NFL career. The mode’s prior iteration was a hokey affair laden with soap opera plot twists that provide the illusion of choice within a barebones RPG system.
This year, the narrative errs in the opposite direction. It’s a by-the-numbers story of a hyped prospect and his entourage that travels from plot point to plot point without an iota of intrigue. I don’t expect too much in the way of script writing from a AAA sports title’s career mode, but it’s frustrating to sit through multiple lengthy cutscenes of awkwardly-voiced sports aphorisms before getting to touch the gridiron — especially when large chunks of them feel like Nike infomercials. I don’t need to know that “the most important part of training isn’t the physical, it’s the mental” to succeed at playing armchair QB. I’d take 21’s melodramatic dialog about congenital heart defects over this anyday.
Unfortunately, the gameplay itself provides little respite from the lackluster storytelling. Before your NFL career begins, you’ll participate in two short team drills that have little bearing on your draft position and a pair of nearly impossible-to-lose college football games shoehorned in during a flashback sequence. Unlike the now-defunct Superstar Mode, which was included in each Madden from 2006 to 2014, players are put in control of their entire squad, which breaks the immersion of the game’s role-playing elements.
After being drafted by the New York Jets and running some early preseason practices with the team, I was itching to take the field despite my reservations — only to be slapped with a final annoyance. A bug had caused my Jets to be scheduled against…themselves. There’s nothing more surreal than playing a season opener against a roster of clones, listening to in-game announcers rattle off the same names over and over to your own confusion. This mode is a mess.
It’s frustrating that leveling up your avatar carries over between Face of the Franchise and The Yard — one of Madden 22’s more compelling features, which returns for its second year. Playing fast-paced 6-on-6 ball is still a blast, and recruiting a lineup of pros through the mode’s globetrotting campaign is more cost effective wish fulfillment than the money pit that is building an Ultimate Team; unless you’re hoping to deck your avatar out in a cool outfit, of course.
Switching between different player builds makes it easy to tweak your lineup and play any position on the field in The Yard. However, the overall chaos of running an offense means that any player on the field could catch, receive, or run on any given play. Being able to snap to your halfback and dump a mid-range pass to the QB is a welcome bit of unpredictability in comparison to Face of the Franchise’s by the numbers slog, making The Yard much more worth the time.
It’s still not without its own faults, though. Most notable is The Yard’s lack of a real online mode. Sure, you can play against computer opponents in a co-op campaign with friends, but being unable to conduct player-vs-player matches a month after Madden 22’s release is a disappointment, especially when a launch date for ranked mode remains to be seen.
The entire game is riddled with these missing pieces. Madden 22 is a Potemkin village, hiding its dearth of finished content behind a flashy facade and doing all it can to steer players toward Ultimate Team.
To EA’s credit, Madden’s flagship Franchise mode received a much-needed overhaul this year, putting greater emphasis on staffing. Coordinators and player personnel can be upgraded using a skill tree system to help guide the direction of your team, giving players much more control over the intangible aspects of running a team.
Franchise’s cutscenes are also implemented well, usually taking the form of press conferences about upcoming matchups or future plans. These additions feel more cosmetic than practical, but I appreciate any effort expended into tinkering with a mode not tied to microtransactions.
The new changes don’t mean that Franchise mode isn’t as littered with bugs as the rest of the game, though. EA doesn’t sweat the finer details of the game, failing to edit the logos on coaches’ gear when they’re signed to new teams, for example. Though some glitches were addressed in an early title update, promised features like a scouting upgrade will not arrive until mid-October.
Though EA might like you to consider Madden 22 a work in progress, the product it released in late August was barely playable, and it’s not much better a month later. As usual, Madden is best enjoyed with friends on Sunday mornings before watching games on TV, but most of what’s available beyond Exhibition mode feels like a downgrade from the same product released 10 years ago.