For better or for worse.
The greatest football video game character of all time is unquestionably Michael Vick in Madden NFL 2004. The future Ron Mexico was already in the process of turning the NFL into a video game IRL, so when virtual Vick dropped in the fall of '03 with a 95 speed rating and a 98 in throwing power, he was unstoppable. Not only could he zip ropes to Peerless Price and Alge Crumpler, but no defender could catch him, either. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Falcons, I will admit that the video game Vick wasn't the most faithful rendition—he finished the real NFL season with 12 INTs and got sacked 46 times. But to play as Madden's virtual Vick was thrilling and ridiculous and, most of all, just a lot of fun.
The 2004 Michael Vick was probably one of the last times the Madden football video game series felt like a video game, like you were doing something that wasn't supposed to be doable. This week saw the release of Madden 17, the 28th installment in the series, and if you're a hardcore football head, you will probably appreciate Madden 17 keeping it trill. If you just want to have some fun and knock some heads? Hey, Madden 2004 is just $9.99 on eBay.
But Madden 17 is more like the NFL than ever before—which means Madden 17 is less like a videogame than ever before. If you're a sports fan who plays video games, Madden still retains its must-buy status, but I have spent the last week playing it and wanting to throw my controller through my television screen. If 2004 Madden Mike Vick was a Greek God, 2017 Madden Matt Ryan is post-flight Icarus, and I fear the interior of my XBox One is now filled with melted wax and feathers.
If you haven't played a lot of Madden or even watched much football, Madden 17 might seem impenetrable. I've played Madden basically my entire life, but when the pocket is collapsing around me, it's difficult to keep track of which receiver is running which route and which guy is assigned to which button. This means a lot of passes at the last minute, which means a lot of incompletes and interceptions and sacks. While I understand these failings are entirely my fault, I still usually assign the criticism to my virtual players. To me, blame is transferable: I have never disliked the actual Matt Ryan as much as I do right now, and that is entirely because of how much trouble I had using the virtual version of him in Madden 17.
Madden still retains its must-buy status, but I've spent the last week wanting to throw my controller through my TV screen.
I've often wondered if the HBO show Hard Knocks, which serves to promote a different NFL team each year, causes an uptick in the fantasy-draft popularity of that team's players. This year, for instance, I would absolutely use a late-round pick on Rams lineman Will Hayes, who believes mermaids exist but dinosaurs are a hoax. Are there players who may be better at football out there? Sure, but I'd rather align myself with someone as enjoyable as Hayes. Conversely, I wonder if Madden can have an opposite effect. There is no way, for instance, I'm drafting Matt Ryan this season, even if a mermaid told me to do it. For something entirely fictional and completely within my control, Madden has the very real ability to alter my feelings about human beings.
Each iteration of Madden has a new focus, and Madden 17 emphasizes the running game, which may be a bit too easy—when Devonta Freeman cracked a rib, I signed Bishop Sankey off the free-agent scrap heap and racked up 176 rushing yards and 2 TDs against Green Bay in his debut. Another new feature is a game mode called "Play the Moments," which allows you mix playing and simulation to finish (or in my case, lose) a game in about 20 minutes. The graphics in Madden remain superb and are nearly indistinguishable from actual football, at least to my three-year-old, who watched me play for a few minutes without realizing it was a video game.
Madden 17 is at some level a nearly guilt-free NFL experience. The version of the NFL that we voraciously consume today—showcasing pocket quarterbacks and an emphasis on safety above all—is clearly the wise evolution of a sport pivoting away from brutality and toward player longevity. Long gone are the days of the on-field ambulance or knocking off people's helmets, but it's still fun to load up and stick Cam Newton as he scrambles out of the pocket knowing that you aren't going to cause a lasting brain injury.
For the most part, Madden 17 is a cerebral affair. There are endless tutorials and drills and tips built into Madden 17, teaching things like defensive gap responsibility or how to read Seattle's Cover 3 defense or noting New Orleans' favored play calls on second and short. In the franchise mode, your duties include the mundane, like scouting college players and juggling roster spots on your practice squad—just one more way the latest Madden feels like the real, tedious-as-hell league.As I negotiated a new deal with my backup left tackle and weighed the long-term salary cap ramifications, it made me appreciate why the job of coach and general manager are usually filled by two different people. It made me wish, in other words, that I were just playing some football.