Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Madden NFL 22 manages to move the franchise forward, but it’s a game of inches at this point and not yards. The end result is still a fun video game representation of football, and I appreciate that the developer seems to have learned some lessons from last year’s mistakes.
Annual releases are always hard, and the Madden games reflect NFL franchises in a lot of ways. Seldom is a roster completely stripped down and rebuilt complete. But every so many years, you see a lot of changes hit most teams (as a Lions fan – this year is an example of the franchise taking things in a new direction with a new coaching staff, a lot of new players – Stafford being gone for example – on the team and a glint of new hope. That’s what it comes down to – renewed hope (unless your team was the winner of last season’s Super Bowl) that your team will perform better. That the tweaks will bring about improvement and the end result on the field will be better than what was there the prior year. These truths are part of the NFL game as well as the Madden franchise.
Last season was a tough one for the franchise. The late release cycle to match the new console rollout certainly hurt momentum. The focus between generations was also evident. Madden NFL 22 has enough new features and improvements over last year’s game to satisfy my need for football, even if I would have appreciated just a little more out of this release. Those who feel that the yearly release cycle doesn’t offer enough value are likely not going to be swayed here. Those of us who enjoy scratching that football itch and are ready for the actual games to begin.
Let’s start with the overall performance. Visually the game doesn’t show all that much improvement at first glance. The longer I played, I appreciated how smooth it ran and noticed some subtle improvements some of the lighting effects. Something about the reflections off of the helmets has often struck me as cool, like shining lights glistening off of shiny cards in racing games. Crowds are usually treated as an afterthought in sports games (in years past they sometimes appeared to be nothing more than cardboard cutouts in the stands), but to its credit, Madden NFL 22 does a nice job tying crowd reactions to the action on the field and giving it a more lifelike feel (and ties in nicely to momentum as ta theme – I’ll touch on that later). They’re small details, but appreciated. That said, the odd clipping or other types of animation errors still happen and could stand to be further smoothed out.
As for the gameplay and features? I feel like the core running and passing mechanics haven’t been dramatically altered with this year’s release – and that’s fine. That was seldom the problem with last year’s release. It was the other things around the core package that go rough, especially in Franchise and Face of the Franchise. This year’s Face of the Franchise was a more enjoyable experience for me, even if the story itself seldom gripped me with its narrative. This is similar to career modes found in other sports games, and is a single player tale that serves as an introduction to many of the game’s mechanics. It’s more engaging that typical tutorials, and lets you take some ownership over your player character by selecting from a handful of different positions (in the past the focus was on QB, and last year you started as a QB who could transition into WR or RB), but the focus is more on properly developing your character.
You can choose your position from the outside, and you can tweak their physicality and role right out of the gates. You can have a juggernaut running back, or a quick one who focuses on elusiveness. You can design a QB who is big in the pocket focusing on a cannon arm, but there are more elusive builds you can put together too. Even this has a couple of flavors as it might be a pocket magician who shifts around to make a slippery throw under pressure – or perhaps a quarterback prone to tucking and running. It’s also worth noting that you can play a defensive player for the first time ever (just linebacker, which was a bit of a bummer as I tend to prefer playing linemen on defense, but again – inches of improvement).
Unlike years past, the narrative this year does away with the slightly overdramatic plotlines we’ve seen before, from game shows to weird rivals and so on (last year’s narrative crumbled for me when my player would have a phenomenal, record-setting game and coach is like: nah, let’s role out your rival next week just because it may give us a better chance at the win). Basically it’s a more traditional high school to college to pros grassroots story that was seldom particularly memorable – but at least wasn’t distractingly bad at times either.
Franchise mode is where I’ve traditionally sunk the majority of my time, dating back decades now. Seriously, my friends and I used to create teams and play through several seasons of franchise mode back in our college days, so from a pure nostalgia standpoint, this is where my time is mostly spent. There’s some new tweaks to things like player progression, drafting, scenarios and weekly strategy sessions are appreciated. One of the biggest changes is to how much control you have over your coaching staff. Coaches have skill trees now, which is a nice RPG-light system I certainly enjoyed. Additionally, a bit of extra nuance to the various bonuses in the form of offensive and defensive coordinators is also appreciated. For NFL fans, these assistance coaches are almost as notable as the head coaches, so it’s nice to see that additional granularity added.
Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) has never been my favorite mode (it’s a combination fantasy sports and NFL collectible card game that has a strong bias towards microtransactional purposes), but it’s a solid enough experience if that’s your thing. EA’s sports franchises all have some variant of it, and the mode is popular, so while it’s not my cup of tea – I know there is a segment of the population who will be happy it’s back. I didn’t notice a ton of changes from last year here, which I’m fine with. Strategy Cards are a new feature that allows you to provide specific boots to your team, but outside of that and more challenges, I didn’t see a lot new and shiny here. I much prefer the focus be on things like the two aforementioned Franchise modes, so I personally appreciate where the devs put their focus this year around.
The Yard is back as well, providing a more arcade-like experience with your created avatar. Here you can earn new items to stylize your player in a variety of different ways, with an emphasis on challenges to be tackled either by yourself or in co-op. There is also Superstar KO that has some 1 versus 1, 2 versus 2 or 3 versus 3 options. Not my favorite mode, but I appreciate how it’s unified with the Face of the Franchise mode, so what you do in one space can have a positive impact on the growth of the player in other spaces.
While the core gameplay of running, throwing and tackling hasn’t seen much of an update, there is still a ton going on under the hood. On the new generation of consoles, we have the introduction of the NFL Next Gen Stats database driving the AI of players. It’s going to be a bit hard to judge at this point as we only have a preseason game under our belts at the time of writing this, but the potential to use this system to help inform how the players on the field act is very cool. Still, for those familiar with these kinds of ‘next-gen’ stats, it’s fun seeing how miles per hour someone was running on the field, or seeing a quarterback’s tendencies throwing into different situations and gives a nice boost to the overall presentation, giving it a more lifelike, broadcast feel than years past.
Of more immediate note is the Dynamic Gameday. This ties into the crowds I mentioned earlier. You see some celebrations (cannons firing or specific crowd chants, etc) and cosmetic niceties specific to where the game is being played beyond just the look of the stadium and weather tendencies. More than that, there’s a new Momentum Factors system in Madden NFL 22 where home teams can gain certain perks when things are starting to swing their way. It’s the kind of thing I miss from the old NCAA football games where a really raucous home crowd can make it so the offense struggles a bit with audibles and routes, and you see that here in a sort of seesaw battle to either pump up or deflate the home crowd.
That being said, not all of these boosts are created equal. That probably makes sense, as I’m a lifelong Lions fan, and I’ve certainly heard our home stadium get rocking at times when attending games but… I can’t imagine that it’s anything compared to the ‘12th Man’ of Seattle’s home stadium. So it makes sense that one team might get something really useful like messing up play art or having visiting players get winded faster and less notable teams / homefield advantages yielding less impressive perks like no huddle resulting in a reduced clock runoff.
If you’re one of those people who feel like the annual releases are nothing more than roster updates, most likely it would take a massive release to convince you otherwise, and Madden NFL 22 is not that title. That being said, if you enjoy the core gameplay of the Madden franchise and can’t wait for some NFL action? There’s still a lot of fun to be had here and I certainly enjoyed my time with the game.Score: 7.75 / 10