With EA Play happening this past weekend in Hollywood, it was time for the Madden team to show off what they have coming for their annual gridiron release. Gamers from all over the country showed up just for the chance to get an early look at Madden NFL 19, and I was fortunate enough to get a good amount of hands-on time with the game. Since the product shown was obviously a work in progress, this impression will focus mostly on gameplay and mechanics with a few notes on graphics, and also going into more detail on the new and/or important gameplay mechanics.
Real Player Motion Is Not Just A Buzzword
Player movement has seen a substantial improvement in regards to footwork. Running the ball between the tackles feels good and bursting through the hole is finally working as intended, and I didn’t see any hint of the dreaded trip animation when weaving through the line. On the contrary, when using Jay Ajayi, I saw him putting his hand on the lineman and brushing past him to get through, or he would stutter step in between the line to gain yards. Darren Sproles, on the other hand, would hide behind the lineman and then suddenly cut laterally when I moved the stick in that direction.
I was also able to use ball-carrier moves while making my move out from behind the blocker and chaining ball-carrier moves one after another was far more responsive than I expected. It all made running feel much more organic and more fun than it was last year, and the footwork looked natural. My one early gripe with RPM is the odd choice to include a very loud running sound effect that seems like it should be in a FPS or action game rather than for someone running on grass/field turf. It’s an odd choice, but overall RPM feels like one of the biggest improvements for Madden NFL 19.
Zone Defense Is Still Hit Or Miss
Right out of the gate, I want to say that the new Cover 4 Match and Cover 4 Palm plays actually are quite effective. Zone integrity is maintained, and especially on third and long choosing either of these plays helped me get the defensive stop I needed. Cover 3 Match plays were very similar to last season and I didn’t notice a bunch of changes to that coverage scheme. That being said, I was still able to carve up my opponent when Cover 2 was called, and while I’m sure it will be adjusted, it remains a coverage that can be exploited. While that may sound negative, it never felt like I was cheesing like I sometimes felt in Madden NFL 18. Instead, it was more in line with the actual weakness of the Cover 2 defense, namely intermediate plays over the middle. It just seemed like Cover 2 was especially vulnerable to some new wrinkles to defensive gameplay.
From what I saw, the biggest changes to coverage are twofold: Defensive players with their back turned to the play no longer have the psychic ability to break on a pass. They actually have to be facing the offense to make a play on the QB’s release. Personally, that is a welcome addition and alleviates one of the most annoying legacy issues. The second reason is that unlike in past Madden titles, linebackers can no longer single-handedly cover the middle third of the field all by themselves. Maintaining zone integrity is more important than ever this season and, at least in Sim game play style, eliminates some of the more ridiculous user defense that has been present in the past.
Catching And WR/DB Mid Air Reactions Are Going To Be Interesting
When it came to catching in Madden NFL 18, unintended animations happened far too often and much to the chagrin of the Madden community. At EA Play, those animations were gone and in their place was a much more refined and skill-based system. I had more time to choose which catch style I wanted to use for each situation, and the contextual animations that played out were much more natural and made sense. Sometimes it seemed as if usering a WR seemed very powerful, and it remains to be seen if it becomes a problem to the meta in the final release, but it was never something that seemed overtly unfair.
Mid-air collisions are also a welcome addition and are a refinement of the WR/DB interaction system that was introduced in Madden NFL 18. I saw multiple instances where an actual battle for the ball took place in the air at the catch point. In particular, Alshon Jeffrey went up and high-pointed a pass, and the DB tried to knock the ball out on the way down as they were colliding body to body. It looked more fluid than any interaction that happened last season. Also new is the ability to hit stick a WR as they go to catch the ball. I was actually able to draw a defensive PI because I got there too early. It just further refines the interactions and has the potential to fix the previous lack of PI calls in the game.
Tackling Has Been Improved
Tackling has seen an animation upgrade, and because all players are affected by RPM they look better in terms of player momentum and weight. There were really nice two-man tackles that made sense in the context of the play and added to the overall realism of the game. Hit stick tackles take more timing and skill to pull off and have been animated differently than before so that they look a lot better. There was a clear difference between a hard-hitting linebacker and a finesse CB in terms of how each tackle looked. I had a specific instance where I was able to truck a CB with Ajayi, and he didn’t really lose any momentum like he would have in the past. He blew right through the CB without stumbling and was able to keep running.
The other aspect of tackling is being able to explode out of a strafe on defense. Instead of feeling like the offense always had the advantage, being able to burst out of a defensive strafe made me feel like I was able to meaningfully attack the offensive player and make solid contact. It took me some time to commit to muscle memory, but it helped my defensive game in the long run. One of the things that happens if you don’t strafe burst is that the runner will fall forward on the tackle. It became especially important near the sticks, and was often the difference between a first down and a change of possession. Overall, the changes to tackling feel like they are geared towards adding more agency to the user, and good users will definitely be able to create a skill gap once they’ve mastered the new tackling mechanics.
- I still saw too many block-shed animations for my liking, though the blockers did seem to hold blocks better overall and were better at blocking the right person in the open field.
- Quarterbacks have new hot route/audible animations that line up with how they are in real life. Sim players will probably enjoy the details but competitive players are going to hate how long the animations can take. The Madden devs are going to review this, and may or may not tweak them if not remove them outright.
- Speaking of QBs, the one new presentation aspect I saw was a cutaway during the QB introduction to a stat screen with an in-game model of the QB doing different poses and animations — small but cool change.
- The fumble recovery animations have been cleaned up and look a bit better than last year.
- Celebrations are a fun addition, and in particular the team celebrations are fun to see.
- Equipment looks really good. From elastic sleeves to more textured accessories — and down to the correct stitching on the Nike jerseys — Madden NFL 19’s equipment looks great.
- The PC version will be able to go beyond 60 frames per second and is graphically superior to the console versions. It will also support extra-wide monitors.
- Keyboard and mouse controls are a bit weird at first but very intuitive, especially mouse-driven directional movements.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Madden NFL 19. It’s not going to reinvent the wheel by any means, but it is definitely a bigger upgrade than I thought. Not every change will jump out at you, but there are enough under the hood adjustments to make Madden NFL 19 a much more enjoyable game so far. There will undoubtedly be some tuning done to the game before release, but they’re on the right track and hopefully it’s not like it was last year where too much was tuned. If the game stays similar to the form it had at EA Play, there will be a lot of happy players come August.