American football is a curious sport. The players wear body armour, the rules are intricate, and nobody backwards-passes even though it’s allowed. Most idiosyncratically, the game stops frequently so players can hug out their frustrations and choose their next strategy. Accordingly, the pacing is slow and calculated - it’s the one-hour game that lasts for four.
With so much downtime, football is a sport that all but demands omnipresent commentary to keep the entertainment value up - hence the popularity of football on TV. Its stop-start nature is perfectly attuned to broadcasting, allowing breaks for pizza, beer, and advertising. Madden NFL 25, the self-congratulatory anniversary edition of the NFL-endorsed videogame series, does an admirable job of recreating the feeling of the big sports match game.
The simulation in Madden NFL 25 is impressive. Teams are drawn from the history of the sport and their stats are exhaustively detailed. Players are rendered with remarkable realism. The motion-captured animations are smooth and believable, and players feel like the heavily-armoured sports-tanks they are. The much-touted footstep tracking system increases gameplay fidelity, and also improves graphics - pitches are worn down with heavy use, with every step causing further wear.
Gamers often complain about overtutorialisation. Handholding through forced tutorials is patronising, they say, and delays the dive into the deeper game. Madden NFL 25, however, is like a late-model Harry Potter movie: providing no concessions for players new to the series, it assumes prior knowledge of not just football, but of Madden specifically. It’s made for the fans, and as such, threatens to shut newcomers out.
The closest Madden has to a tutorial is its Skills Trainer, but it only focuses on drilling specific moves. There’s an in-game manual, but again, it features no guide to playing the game. With no less than seven context-sensitive controller configurations, not to mention the new Precision Modifier moves, this is unacceptable.
Past the daunting learning curve, Madden’s gameplay is well-tuned for fans of football, and strange to those foreign to it. It revolves around the selection of plays - offensive and defensive team movement patterns - which are then executed, often taking mere seconds each. The offense is where the gameplay really sings, and when a tied game gets to its final moments, the excitement and pressure are infectious as every pass and run counts.
On defense, the AI virtually plays the game itself: the players are like chess pieces, moving according to your predetermined play. Control of individual defenders is possible, but even with ball-seeking player selection, it would take a Madden genius to play better than the computer.
Madden NFL 25 makes excellent use of the Xbox One’s peripheral features. Kinect is used to issue voice commands; shouting “set, hut” will be a rush for sports roleplaying enthusiasts. Smartglass is puts stats, plays and realtime game analysis on your phone or tablet. It’s of dubious gameplay value, but textbook use of a second screen.
In its presentation, this series simulates televised football, specifically - there’s even a spectator mode where you can simply watch two AI teams duke it out. Each match, playable or not, is heralded by a masculine intro narrated by creepily digital commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. They continue to keep players company, commenting on games with mixed relevancy and mostly berating players’ decisions. Unfortunately, the simulation of TV football includes broadcast sponsors. Get ready to hear Nantz and Simms shilling for Snickers, Verizon, Papa John’s Pizza and more with alarming regularity.
The other commentators, the crowd, are presented with authentic if repetitive crowd chants and an amusing graphical imbalance. Each spectator is rendered in full 3D glory, but they don’t all have unique animations. As each animation operates in lock-step with its other instances, large groups of spectators often appear like synchronised marionettes. Unfortunate, but hilarious.
The labyrinthine menu system in Madden NFL 25 hosts a bewildering array of options, few of which are immediately comprehensible. There's a wide array of customisation and game options, but the menu really steers players towards the online features, operated through EA’s ever-popular Origin service. Online matches are de rigeur nowadays, but Madden places most of its stock in its Ultimate Team and Connected Franchise modes.
Connected Franchise is a fiddly mode in which you take on the role of a player, coach or franchise owner. The focus is on management over gameplay, more akin to fantasy football than actual football. Stats that must be maintained in various modes include fan happiness, media coverage, stadium management, player ratings, and contracts. That’s right: all the excitement of salary negotiations is at your fingertips in Madden NFL 25.
In Ultimate Team, you pick a captain and team chemistry, then build a team from famous players using a trading card metaphor. It’s a digital version of NFL’s lucrative trading-card business where microtransactions inevitably appear: you can buy packs of cards to add to your roster, then trade and even auction them to other players. In a full-priced game, this addition feels more like milking fans’ money than meaningful gameplay.
The biggest fan complaint with any new Madden title is its similarity to the previous version. But in its own right, enjoyment of Madden NFL 25 will probably be proportional to the NFL fandom of the player. The fantasy football aspects will appeal to die-hards, yet the moment-to-moment gameplay can be as grinding as watching a real game inch towards its climax. In many respects it’d be more fun and intuitive to just play the sport itself.