Madden NFL 15 Review: Getting Defensive

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Ever since the series' pixelated, late-'80s origins, just about every minute of Madden NFL Football has been played from the offense's point of view. In Madden NFL 15, the game's new defensive-player lock system reverses the iconic Madden camera angle and makes playing defense just as enthralling as manning the star quarterback.

This fresh take, combined with new modes and sharp visuals, makes Madden NFL 15 one of the most fun and feature-rich installments in the legendary pigskin series' history.

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Back on the field

If you've touched a Madden game in the last decade, you'll know what to do. To pass, you still just press whichever button floats over your receiver's head, and you'll still use a combination of juke, spin, strafe and shoulder-charge commands to evade the defense when running the ball. Once you dig deeper, you'll call audibles, adjust your offensive and defensive lines on the fly and expand your offensive moveset with the precision modifier.

Among Madden NFL 15's new gameplay refinements is the matchup stick, which shows how defenders stack up to receivers before the snap, allowing you to exploit your opponent's weak spots.

The game's play-calling menu is now neater and more informative. Instead of merely suggesting plays, it explains why those plays are solid strategic choices. The game also recommends plays based on choices made by Madden gamers worldwide — a feature sure to evolve as more fans pick up the title.

Beefing up the defense

The best offense is a good defense, indeed. Playing D is a completely revamped experience this year, largely thanks to the game's most significant new feature: Player Lock.

Activated with a click of the left analog stick, Player Lock mode places the camera directly behind your defensive player of choice, and has you control that player exclusively for the duration of the play. This allows you to focus completely on a single defender's job, whether you're looking to smother a star receiver or break through the offensive line to force a game-winning fumble.

Player Lock is complemented by new pass-rush mechanics, which turn the sometimes boring act of breaking through blockers into a fun and rewarding mini-game that tests your timing. Power moves have been remapped from the right analog stick to the Xbox controller's A and X buttons (X and Square on PlayStation), making it easier to immediately react to your opponents' blocks and blow past them. Correctly timing a tap of the A or X button to breeze through an o-lineman is satisfying, especially when it's followed up by a big hit on the QB.

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Whereas bringing down a ballcarrier used to involve a good amount of guesswork, the game's new Tackle Cone system gives you a visual prompt once your opponent is within tackle range. You can now opt to go for conservative or aggressive tackles, with the latter option posing a higher risk/reward factor.

After experiencing all of these mechanics working in harmony, I found myself genuinely excited to play as my team's defensive tackles and ends. That's certainly a first in my Madden career.

New ways to play

Even by sports-game standards, Madden NFL 15 brims with content. Early in the game, you're dropped into an improved version of the Skills Trainer mode from last year’s Madden NFL 25 (called that because it was the series’ 25th anniversary), a thorough tutorial that teaches you about both Madden gameplay and the game of football itself.

The new training drills brought me up to speed on the improved defense mechanics, and I enjoyed learning larger football concepts, such as how to identify and exploit a Cover 2 defense as a quarterback.

Training challenges become an arcade-style endurance test in the new Gauntlet mode, which has you complete as many drills as possible without failing. There are even boss stages consisting of over-the-top tasks, such as having to kick a field goal in hurricane winds.

Building a franchise

The massively detailed Connected Franchise mode from Madden NFL 25 makes a return, with options to pick up from last year's save file or to start fresh. Playable online or solo, Connected Franchise lets you live out full NFL seasons as a player, coach or owner, with an RPG-like progression system that allows you to boost your characters into prominence over the years.

No matter your character type, you'll have the option to play as a current NFL pro or as a Hall of Fame legend — or to start from scratch with a custom character. The latter option lets you set your own backstory; you can be an undrafted rookie looking to make a statement, or a former NFL great who's come back as a big-shot owner.

I just wish that the face options were a little less robotic for custom characters, and that coaches and owners had a wider choice of skin tones other than black and white.

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Gameplay-wise, coaches manage the roster and call plays; owners set merchandise prices and rebuild and relocate stadiums; and, obviously, players train and play. All character types can use the new Game Prep system, which lets you allocate time toward gaining experience points to permanently improve your players, or to give them confidence boosts for temporary performance increases.

Connected Franchise retains its immersive main menu, complete with news articles and a fake Twitter feed that reflects what the media says about you and your team. It's quite easy to get completely submerged in this rich mode, so remember to step outside for air every now and then.

Ultimate Team and online

Despite Connected Franchise's astounding depth, I found myself most addicted to Ultimate Team mode. Blending fantasy football with trading cards, this mode allows you to collect players and coaches from all over the NFL and team them up for your dream squad. You'll go from gathering bench warmers to snagging top talent such as Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt, and the game can automatically organize your roster based on your best players.

Ultimate Team is one of Madden's most popular modes, and EA didn't make any major alterations to it, aside from streamlining the main menu and making it easier to send new cards to your sets — essentially virtual binders that yield an award once you complete them. You can still earn coins for card packs by completing offline challenges, or test your team against the globe in online competitive seasons.

If you'd rather get straight to the action as any of the NFL's 32 teams, you can play quick exhibition matches against the CPU, a local friend or anyone in the world via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Playing online was a smooth experience in my testing, so I only had myself to blame when getting shut out by one player's vicious Ravens team. I played during a pre-release period with fewer than 700 players online, though, so Internet performance is subject to change once the larger Madden fanbase enters the fold.

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Graphics, audio and extras

On most fronts, Madden NFL 15 is a gorgeous game when played on new-gen hardware. Player jerseys crease realistically, and the game's lighting engine looks especially tasty when you see the sun set over a stadium or reflect off of a shiny helmet.

Character details are a mixed bag, however. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan looks strikingly like his real-life counterpart, but Giants coach Tom Coughlin looks like he was whipped up in a poor character-creation mode. Seeing digitized versions of veteran NFL announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms is a nice touch, but their character models straddle the line between creepy and cool.

On the audio front, however, Nantz and Simms deliver. The duo's commentary often sounds as natural in the game as it does on TV every week, and the commentators always provide some contextually aware tidbits. Whether you pit rival teams against one another or play as a recent Super Bowl champion, the two NFL gurus will have something unique to say about it.

As great as Madden NFL 15 looks and sounds, EA Tiburon might have to ditch the PS3 and Xbox 360 and focus fully on the new consoles in order to make next year's game rival what we see on TV every Sunday.

CoachGlass on Xbox One

If you've got the Xbox One version of the game and a smartphone or tablet, you can use the CoachGlass companion by firing up your Xbox SmartGlass app while playing. This app lets you call plays and timeouts from your mobile device (which is especially useful for keeping your pals thrown off when playing on the same couch), and gives you a thorough breakdown of your opponent's tendencies throughout the match.

Bottom line

If you're not among the Madden NFL faithful who buy every year's installment, the big question is, "Is this game really better than last year's?" Fortunately, thanks to new mechanics that make defense more satisfying than ever, the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes."

With tight gameplay, improved versions of the series' addicting game modes and a slick presentation, Madden NFL 15 enters this season in full stride.

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Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.