Madden NFL 20 offers new gameplay modes and the ability to craft an ultimate team, but doesn't separate itself from the games that came before.
Fans of EA’s long-running Madden NFL series can be easily separated into casual and hardcore categories, and both sets of players will find things to love and hate about Madden 20. The 33rd game in EA’s mega popular franchise, Madden 20 fixes numerous issues that were present in former titles but hasn’t yet crossed the line into what sports enthusiasts refer to as a “perfect game.” While it’s just as possible to pick up the controller and enjoy playing as it was in previous installments, now more than ever good football strategy relies on in-depth team familiarity and a strong grasp of particular players strengths and weaknesses.
Madden 20 is divided into four distinct modes, each of which offer a variety of different experiences. Exhibition mode is classic Madden, allowing a quick game (either online or offline) of up to four separate players at the stadium and time of day of their choosing. Players can even set special exhibition circumstances, such as giving their one-off game the pomp and circumstance of the Super Bowl or the 2019 Pro Bowl without having to play through an entire season to get there. All the traditional Madden jersey, helmet, and sock customization options return, including multiple versions that showcase different outfits from throughout the years.
Face of the Franchise mode is Madden 20’s response to the previous two games’ Longshot story mode, and it sees the player customizing their own quarterback and following them from their post-high school college choice all the way to NFL glory. The story, at first, is presented with animated cutscenes and live action sequences of the real-life NFL show Good Morning Football, and (surprisingly) includes ten college teams to choose from and play for. After the college years, the Combine, and the draft (which is determined by how well a player does in the previous segments) the custcenes abruptly stop and are never revisited again, except for a brief return to Good Morning Football for a wrap-up segment after the first year is complete. It’s a shame, because the sub-plots introduced in the cutscenes were strangely unique for Madden, featuring intriguing characters like a hapless recruiting agent and a young girl with leukemia. Instead, all future story-related information is relegated to text messages that flash up on the between-game Franchise screen, which also has its own game mode accessible from the beginning.
Franchise mode sees a player picking a favorite team and taking them from preseason all the way to the Super Bowl in much the same manner as FotF, except without the customized character and small story beats between the games. Here a player can choose any position on the team, be it defensive line or running back, and then they will only play that one position throughout the duration of the season. This is not a new feature for Madden, added in an earlier installment in answer to criticism that the games were too QB-focused, but at times it can feel as if the game is simply playing itself and the player is only along for the ride. In Exhibition matches, as well as in Madden Ulitmate Team mode, a player experiences every position on the field and can switch between athletes at will with the press of a button, but in Franchise mode the player is relegated to their chosen position only and the AI takes care of everything else. This is unless the player chooses to play as the team’s coach, however, in which case they have the option of playing whenever they want. Team and player progression in these modes are controlled by a small RPG-like system in which all players on a team gain a certain amount of experience points after every play, allowing them to level up and perform better in future games.
Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) mode is where fans of fantasy football leagues will likely spend the majority of their time. In MUT players are encouraged to build their dream NFL teams by first picking a baseline team to start from and then buying and unlocking other NFL stars, stats, and moves through challenges and lootboxes. EA loves digital currency, and these lootboxes, here called MUT packs, can be purchased with in-game coins or real-world money and contain things like new uniforms, logo designs, and even some gold-ranked NFL players. MUT mode also features multiple NFL Legend missions, which are required if players want to add now-retired NFL greats like John Elway to their present-day lineup.
As far as the gameplay itself goes, little has changed in terms of moment-to-moment control. The R-analog still functions as both an offensive juke and a defensive hit stick, and once a passing play is hiked corresponding face buttons appear over teammates heads to direct the player how to throw the ball to who. Small changes, such as the NFL League’s new rules on facemask calls and the ability for defensive players to get injured, have also been implemented, and overall much more focus has been given to individual player stats. The biggest new addition from Madden 19 is the much-touted X-Factor system, which gives certain “Superstar” athletes near-superhuman abilities once a particular set of prerequisites have been met, such as completing two long drive passes in a row. Once these X-Factors trigger, an athlete becomes “In the Zone” and has access to special powers like the ability to see which linemen are about to blitz or guaranteed accuracy on certain types of passes. While in theory this has the potential to become overpowered, the fact that anyone can be knocked out of “the Zone” fairly easily by simply performing inadequately or getting tackled keeps things mostly fair.
Each and every game is narrated by Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, the tag team that took over Madden NFL announcing duties from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms back in 2016. The commentary shifts back and forth from meta to seemingly-oblivious, where sometimes the two announcers joke that they might be living in a video game and other times they outright say things like “Welcome to EA Sports’ Challenge Mode.” For the most part they add to the ambiance and enjoyment of the game experience, but sometimes the in-game algorithm gets confused and what’s described in the booth doesn’t really match up what’s happening on the screen. Also, especially if players have a tendency to run the same plays over and over, it can seem like there are only one or two lines recorded for any given situation and the announcers begin to feel slightly repetitive. This is most apparent in the Franchise modes, where players are increasingly likely to be playing with the same teams over and over.
Fortunately, Madden 20 offers a host of adjustable settings and sliders to make sure that each player has the football experience they would prefer. Setting the game from the normal “Simulation” mode to the more old-school “Arcade,” for instance, can see even first-time players catching Hail Mary passes and rushing for touchdowns at fifty yards. A host of other audio and visual options, including a colorblind mode and text-to-speech mode, ensures that as many people as possible are able to play the game at their own pace.
Madden 20 is very much the sum of the 32 games in the series that came before. While updates to story, Franchise, and MUT modes are enough to please returning fans, certain absences are still felt. A player cannot choose to play any position on Special Teams in Franchise mode, for instance, and the game still lacks a complete Create-A-Team from scratch function. The soundtrack boasts 22 full songs exclusive to the game, including a title track by Snoop Dogg, but it seems as if the same four or five songs repeat themselves over and over again, since you really only hear them in the menu screens. Also, once a game reaches the 4th quarter, echoes of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” echoes down throughout the stadium in the background. This happens in every game and, although certain stadiums do play specific sound effects related to their home team (horse neighs for the Broncos, for instance) it becomes repetitive coupled with the constant announcements from Gaudin and Davis. Story threads in FotF mode, such as the creepy bathroom stalker in the opening scene, are left hanging and never returned to. The grind in MUT mode for stars and coins seems intentionally designed to push players into purchasing MUT packs, and although the menus are far more intuitive than they were in Madden 19 they still need a lot of work.
Madden 20 tries hard to please both the casual and hardcore fans of its genre, and for the most part it succeeds. There are no glaring errors in the game, nothing as blatantly terrible as Madden 18’s minigame-laden Longshot mode, and the gameplay feels tight and fluid. Aside from a slight exuberance for facemask calls the referees feel more on-point than in previous installments, and a game rarely seems unfair even when the player’s team is on the losing side. While no great strides have been made to blow the minds of returning players, Madden 20 brings enough refinement to the table that it earns its place there, and will surely be an enjoyable experience for even the casual football fan. Just don't let cover athlete Patrick Mahomes get in the zone; he has an arm like a cannon.
Madden NFL 20 is out now on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. A PS4 code was provided to Screen Rant for the purposes of this review.