One of my fondest memories as a football fan is Chris Johnson’s 2,000-yard season in 2009. As arguably the fastest player the league has ever seen, the running back forever known as CJ2K was a one-man highlight reel, turning would-be six-yard gains into 50+ yard touchdowns all season long. But if you watch those highlights, you’ll find a common theme: Titans wideout Kenny Britt was so often downfield blocking, creating vital running lanes through which CJ would weave with his unrivaled quickness. Britt is an unsung hero of CJ’s historic season. In Madden 24, it’s been great to find players can now enjoy similarly helpful downfield blocking like never before. This fix to the running game is precisely the sort of tangible improvement I hope for with every new Madden game. But examples such as this are overshadowed by a lack of major additions to Madden’s suite of features and modes.

That improvement to blocking has been a minor bullet point of EA’s marketing in the run-up to release and is known as the Tactical Blocking System, essentially referring to an overhaul of how the AI linemen and other blockers target which defenders to remove from the play. This is easily my favorite new toy in Madden as its changes are apparent and make the ground game, or running after the catch, much more lifelike than before. But the publisher didn’t hype up this change as much as others. Instead, EA buried this highlight behind two returning features: minigames and Superstar mode.

In neither case is their return nearly as helpful or interesting as some of the on-field tweaks. In the case of minigames, I find their return to be uneven at best. On one hand, a full Training Camp simulation that gives Franchise players a faster track to player improvements is at least rewarding, but the minigames themselves range from fun and clever to boring and simple. With bronze, silver, and gold medals correlating to XP earned for the player, it’s worth playing for the XP attached to those awards, but some of the minigames are much better or worse than others.

Fixes to blocking, particularly in the running game, amount to my favorite change found within Madden 24.
Fixes to blocking, particularly in the running game, amount to my favorite change found within Madden 24.

The rushing attack minigame, for example, is an easy gold medal every single time. In about 15 or 20 rushing attempts I’m able to perform within the time limit, I’ve scored touchdowns on almost every single one, every single time. This makes the minigame a mindless but necessary timesink, as skipping these practice sessions automatically awards players with a bronze medal and much less XP.

Still, I enjoy Training Camp overall as it becomes a new part of the team-building process every offseason. I had a legitimate camp battle for the starting QB job, which I decided thanks to not just preseason games, but Training Camp too. The bigger issue is how these minigames now pop up every week in practice sessions. Setting aside an hour or two for Training Camp before each season is enjoyable enough. Going back to manually performing weekly practice drills after years of the game automating them is a slog due to the aforementioned issue of how much the quality varies in these minigames. I can stomach doing the mindless rushing attack minigame once a season, but to do it every single week gets old fast. I was hardly out of the preseason of my first year in Franchise when I decided I’d take the hit on XP gains and just started simulating these drills.

Another oddity of Franchise mode is sweeping changes to team relocation and renaming. More cities have been added, including several new international cities, and the longtime fake teams seen in-game, like the Huskies and the Dragons, have been given aesthetic makeovers. In most cases, these new jerseys look better than they did for the past several years, but in practice, the focus on tuning these elements so much feels out of place. Like last year’s Madden memorial game, most players will only participate in team relocation once or never. It feels like a lot of time and effort spent on something so unrelated to the actual league.

This dissonance only widens when you consider that the visual overhauls were treated with only a half-measure. I moved my team to Portland and dressed them in the midnight blue and gold jerseys of the fictional Night Hawks, but player gear such as gloves, arm sleeves, and wristbands, was still displaying the Night Hawks’ purple and orange jersey colors of older Maddens, from before the makeover. This made my players look like mismatched kids who dressed themselves for school. Even if I removed those optional cosmetic features from every player on my team so as not to disrupt the color scheme, everyone necessarily wears cleats, and these too are colored wrongly.

Fake teams got uniform overhauls, but player gear still sports the past color schemes.
Fake teams got uniform overhauls, but player gear still sports the past color schemes.

It’s also weird that the game displays all sorts of business-related numbers to a team considering a move–how much fan demand there is in a different city, how much the stadium will cost, how much the state will help pay for it–when none of these factors matter unless someone is playing Franchise in owner mode, something very few do relative to just playing as a coach or player.

Like minigames, Superstar mode is back. It never exactly left the game–the team tried a more authored story called Longshot a half-decade ago, but when that didn’t work, it introduced Face of the Franchise, a Superstar-light mode. Now, Superstar returns in name with some welcome, NBA 2K-style overhauls. A better rewards track and real-time player grading system are nice additions, even as they’re not novel to the sports sim world, but the recurring issue of bland story content is present, as it virtually always has been. In Madden 24’s Superstar mode, the narrative is little more than a live-action video podcast hosted by former players who perform bad line reads as they lightly touch on your created athlete’s career goings-on every few in-game weeks, such as when you’re drafted, win the starting job, or move to a new team.

The centerpiece of this mode should be improving your player from a 70-something overall backup to a 99 Club Super Bowl MVP. And though playing games and working toward that long-term goal is enjoyable on a basic level, too much happens in the menus between games, like electing to make a viral video to enhance your status as a celebrity athlete, or work out on your day off for a bonus to one attribute or another come gameday. But these “events” are simply text-based options in a menu, all while your athlete is shown in the background endlessly gaming on his TV in a small bedroom. It very much feels like a mode that could grow over the years to come, and may eventually give EA its rival to NBA 2K’s The City, a busy social space full of different game modes–and, of course, microtransaction offers. But today, it’s not nearly that involved.

Superstar Showdown cosmetics are as desperate to stick out as a car plastered in bumper stickers.
Superstar Showdown cosmetics are as desperate to stick out as a car plastered in bumper stickers.

Like in past years with Face of the Franchise and The Yard working in tandem as the custom-player modes, Superstar also shares the stage with Superstar Showdown, a flashier version of The Yard’s 3v3 game mode that is meant to play more like a pick-up game at the park than an actual NFL sim. But all that’s new here is the field moving indoors to an eyesore of a warehouse full of enough strobe lights to merit an impromptu rave. It’s so colorful and busily lit that it actually distracts from the simplistic 3v3 football taking place.

Superstar Showdown, like Superstar itself, feels like a sliver of a future mode that may justify its existence. Today, it does not nearly do that. Its only saving grace is that it can level the same created athlete that you are using in Superstar mode proper, but that does require playing Superstar Showdown, which I cannot recommend. Played as first-to-21 backyard-style games, the 3v3 mode is most often a shootout, where both teams score nearly at will.

Touches like behind-the-back passes and a bevy of emotes for sale give the game its intended youthful vibe, but it feels like every game unfolds predictably and there’s no strategy built into it: Throw it deep, make a guy miss, do a dance, repeat. This mode also allows for the sale of uniform cosmetics, but those in the shop out of the gate are wildly unappealing, going so overboard in an effort to be eye-popping that they come off looking quite like bad Tron fanfic.

Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) returns in such a state that I can hardly point to anything that’s new about it. In terms of the overall game, I find that to be an addition by way of stagnation, though, as for too long it’s seemed, from the outside looking in, like MUT has swallowed up too many resources from other aspects of the game. Still, for players who genuinely enjoy this mode, they’ll find nothing here that wasn’t before. New cards replace old cards, but the pull of paying for a team rather than building a team is as strong as ever, with no apparent money-saving techniques newly unveiled.

Madden 24 does not make major improvements, but rather subtle ones that I appreciate as a football fan.

The team promises more seasons than before–seven versus five–but this just makes the game more of a mad dash to the meta-dominant cards, thereby further vying to become the only game that one may have time for if they commit to staying competitive. This is expressed worst of all by there being some rewards in the Field Pass only awarded to the first 1,000 players to earn them.

Solo Battles remain limited to just four per day, while the best cards take an exorbitant amount of time to unlock, thereby purposely enticing in-game purchases to cut the line. Given the incredible amount of money coming into this mode, it feels like the team could be more generous and likely lose nothing while gaining some goodwill. But that’s just not in the cards, apparently.

These issues I’ve detailed here are major and wide-ranging but related mostly to the game’s breadth of modes, which is too bad since the on-field product continues to improve. I feel Madden 23’s gameplay was the best in years, and Madden 24 is noticeably better than that, thanks not just to the blocking enhancements I mentioned, but also to other aspects of the game. Pass catchers, for example, now catch the ball in stride better than before, which results in long streaks going for touchdowns in ways they should’ve last year. Delivering a Hit Stick tackle is slightly less sticky, which helps defenders not deliver them as often, especially in PvP where it was once an overly reliable way to force fumbles.

In these small but appreciable ways, it feels like the team’s foundational overhaul last year, Fieldsense, has been refined in its second season, though Madden 24 lacks a major enhancement on the level of last year’s Skill-Based Passing. To be fair, I’d say that’s probably the game’s best new addition since 2005, though, so it was a high bar to clear.

Still, Madden 24 does not make major improvements, but rather subtle ones that I appreciate as a football fan. The series isn’t taking the same-sized leaps forward of other games in this genre. It’s the only NFL sim on the market, but all major sports games share a key detail in common: the annual release cycle. It can’t be easy, but non-football games are making greater strides in mimicking their respective sports than Madden is at mimicking football. Graded against itself, Madden 24 is best-in-class on the field. But when stacked up against other sports sims, Madden is clearly lagging behind.

Another legacy issue of this series is presentation. Sports gamers want their games to look and sound like the real thing. To my memory, Madden has never really come close to achieving this, and though recent efforts have inched toward that thanks to a solid booth featuring Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin, improvements have stagnated in recent years. The aesthetic of the scoreboard gets redone every year, but commentary remains stale and often gets things wrong or says inane things, like a team having qualified for the playoffs after having won a playoff game, or Gaudin saying a team “is 7-2 on the season and has won seven of its last nine games.”

Player introductions, camera work, and the general atmosphere of a Madden game don’t resemble what spectators see on autumn Sundays, and while so much else about making this particular game is obviously difficult, it’s easy to compare a Madden game’s presentation to that on CBS or Fox and plainly see they are not similar enough for the former to be immersive.

Despite a range of issues elsewhere in Madden, the actual football gameplay continues to trend upward.
Despite a range of issues elsewhere in Madden, the actual football gameplay continues to trend upward.

If a football fan only wants to know whether this year’s game plays better than last year’s on the field, it surely does. But the problems Madden 24 faces are emblematic of its legacy: a long history of backtracking to old features. This is far from the first time that features were introduced, removed, and later revived. But few years of Madden in recent memory have felt as hamstrung by its unforgiving development cycle as this one. It makes me wonder if we’re still seeing the effects of delays and disruptment from the pandemic.

Madden 24 is a paradox. I would not want to revert to a previous year’s game simply because the on-field gameplay is clearly better, while virtually everything surrounding its best attribute feels incomplete or undesirable. It feels as though Madden is now like a team with a star quarterback surrounded by a bad offensive line, unreliable wideouts, and a porous defense. There is greatness to appreciate here, but in the prime of its career, Madden 24 is being held back by a roster not able to compete at a high level.

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