Review: ‘Madden NFL 20’ is like a team playing not to lose instead trying to win

"Madden NFL 20" adds special abilities for star players, such as Bears linebacker Khalil Mack.
"Madden NFL 20" adds special abilities for star players, such as Bears linebacker Khalil Mack. Photo Credit: Jefferson Siegel

Without a doubt, EA Sports’ "Madden NFL" franchise is among the true titans of video games. Yearly North American sales tracked by The NPD Group place the annual pro football release in the top five in each of the last nine years. 

"Madden NFL 20" undoubtedly will run that streak to a full decade of excellence, but it won’t be because this year’s game was particularly special.

That’s not to say the longtime developers at EA Tiburon simply slapped a roster update on last year’s game and called it a day. The most noteworthy on-field updates to the formula, Superstar X-Factors and Zone Abilities, are not subtle. X-Factor abilities attached to specific star players allow for them to earn buffs when certain conditions are met, turning them into game-changing studs we know from fall Sundays. The Zone Abilities are more passive enhancements for star players.

Both elements combine to make the sport’s top players stand out appropriately but not disproportionately, walking the line between simulation- and arcade-style without crossing it. These enhancements aren’t game-changers to the "Madden" series in the same way the hit/truck stick were more than a decade ago, but they’re likely to stick around longer than the infamous quarterback vision cone.

Little else stands out distinctly from what already is a pretty well-tuned gameplay experience. Run pass option (RPO) plays are sprinkled into the playbooks, if you’re into that. Certain stars have signature animations to up the realism, particularly throwing styles for quarterbacks such as cover athlete Patrick Mahomes. Keen-eyed players will note new pump fakes and some player models, but that’s hardly the majority of the player base. None of these elements are going to sway potential customers one way or the other, but they’re there.

Also back  is a new set of unintended visual glitches, which remains a hindrance to the otherwise impressively immersive virtual football games. Expecting perfection out of the gate from a sports game with myriad animations isn’t fair, but is it too much to watch the players celebrate a touchdown without routinely and awkwardly walking into the goalpost or another player? No way this was missed over months of playtesting.

Perhaps the top intended selling point is the new story-driven career mode dubbed Face of the Franchise: QB1. Replacing the two-year Longshot story that put gamers in the cleats of fictional aspiring NFL passer Devin Wade, QB1 affords gamers the opportunity to create their own player to guide from the college signing day through their rookie NFL season.

After selecting one of 12 top NCAA programs on signing day, the story quickly fast-forwards to the College Football Playoff as a college senior. See, you were initially recruited to be the program’s QB of the future, but then that other elite prospect changed his mind and also chose to play at your school. Your avatar was too stubborn to transfer and rotted on the bench until the final two games of his collegiate career. Paths can branch from here, and will vary at the NFL level as well.

Throughout the rookie season, a new in-game Scenario Engine will generate challenges from opposing players, coaches, and even a tween girl battling illness who thinks you’re just the best. It’s all a little silly, but it’s an effective way to create goals for each game and make things interesting. These scenarios will also generate in franchise mode, which otherwise appears unchanged from last year.

Whether QB1 is considered an improvement over Longshot is debatable. It’s a little different, but it’s hardly something I would say all gamers must experience. The sports game genre’s quest for a transcendent story mode continues.

Ultimate Team, EA Sports’ signature card-collecting, microtransaction-filled mode has been streamlined. It’s worth noting that this mode is easy to enjoy without spending beyond the base game, but dedicated players may not notice much has changed. 

Perhaps the "Madden" franchise is simply too well-oiled at this point in the ways that matter to make new iterations stand out. There’s no question about the quality of this year’s experience. It’s just not different enough from what came before. That is to say, a lapsed "Madden" fan who hasn’t purchased in years likely won’t be disappointed if they scratch an itch and buy "Madden NFL 20." Clearly, plenty of people will blindly buy the new game regardless.

But for those owners of last year’s entry who need a push to get them to part with $60 in exchange for "Madden NFL 20," you might be better off hanging onto your cash.


“Madden NFL 20,” published by EA Sports and developed by EA Tiburon, is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC, $59.99