Madden NFL 2017 (for PlayStation 4)

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EA Sports has a big problem: It's got a multi-year success story in Madden NFL, but the company needs to keep improving it or risk losing the loyal fan base. Every year, I eagerly rip open and fire up my review copy with trepidation in my heart. Fortunately, Madden NFL 17 ($59.99) does not disappoint. It boasts gameplay improvements that enhance the ball-carrier experience, excellent presentation, and realistic ball physics that makes play more realistic and exciting. In fact, balance is key to Madden NFL 17's success: Whether you're talking about balance between deep and top-level detail or between multiple move modifiers and simple assists. It makes the game accessible to the novice, yet satisfyingly complex for the veteran. Madden NFL 17 is a terrific game that's only marred by suspect collision detection. I played the game on PlayStation 4, but it's also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.

A Great Experience
One of the challenges in delivering a perennial favorite like Madden NFL 17 is to develop controls and systems that are novice-friendly, but that can still push veterans to new heights. While some previous Madden NFL titles sacrificed one for the other, Madden NFL 17 does an excellent job of providing assistance and guidance on easier levels (Rookie and Pro) and more detailed options and moves on harder levels (All-Pro and All-Madden). These systems work so well that when a newbie plays against a veteran, both can enjoy the game and be challenged to put forth their best effort.

On Rookie and Pro levels, the ball carrier automatically makes the best move in a given situation. Rookie gamers need not worry about whether to juke, truck, stiff-arm, or spin. The game turns you into a star, and even more importantly, shows you which move to do in a particular situation, based on the ball carrier's capabilities and the players around him. Run assist displays the direction of your ball carrier and projected path, so you can learn the intricacies of on-field controls.

Some controls will only appeal to the returning expert, including a dizzying array of offensive and defensive pre-play controls to call an audible, arrange players, and set hot routes, blocking schemes, or matchups on the fly. The system of pushing thumb sticks and pulling triggers is complicated, so it's very helpful that on-screen tips walk you through it until the whole procedure becomes second nature. Combine the pre-play controls with more and better organized plays, and Madden NFL 17 takes some pretty big steps towards becoming the coaching chess match that pro football is today. During play, catching modifiers (Aggressive or Run-After-Catch) can translate a single button push into a first down or, better yet, a touchdown. You can combine a passing modifier, such as a Bullet Pass, with a catching modifier, such as an Aggressive Catch, to become unstoppable.

Ball Carrier Mechanics
This year, there are a lot of upgrades to the ball carrier mechanics and special moves. I've always been about the run and the run-after-catch calls in my years of Madden NFL play. Nothing satisfies like stringing together a few spins and jukes to burst through the line and rip a 60-yard touchdown run. EA Sports made huge improvements to special moves and fake-outs, basing their success on player attributes, fatigue, and the location, speed, and direction of defenders.

There are four different tactics available to make each run (potentially) something special. Standard moves, effective against as many as two defenders, are executed with a single button press and include spin, stiff-arm, dive, hurdle, juke, back juke, and truck. You pull the R2 trigger to add a speed modifier to any standard move. I quickly learned to pull the R2 trigger intermittently to really throw off the defense.

You can transform a regular move into a precision move by tapping L2. The result? The ball carrier slows down to make a more deliberate move that can fake out multiple defenders. There's definitely a risk-reward with the modifiers, as a precision spin can leave four defenders behind if well timed or result in a ball-loosening tackle if it misses. And finally, hold down both L2 and R2 and push a special move button to execute a steerable move and make the defender choose a poor pursuit angle.

Furthering the accessibility, on Rookie and Pro levels, gamers see special move prompts above the ball carrier that recommend the best move and the best execution moment. After a move, feedback text appears on screen to tell you if your timing was early, late, or perfect. These are great ways to learn which special move to use, when to use it, and how to use it. Special moves themselves can be set to execute manually, automatically, or as an assist (you push the button, but the game decides which modifier to apply).

Tackle battles are like a little mini-game based on big guys slamming into one another. Whenever a defender and ball carrier get locked up in a standing tackle, a random button icon will appear on screen. The first player to hit that button wins the tackle battle.

Ball Physics
When you've been reviewing iterations of the same game for more than 15 years, you begin to realize that it's the little things that matter. This year, the EA Sports team spent a lot of time developing more-realistic ball physics, which not only kept me on my toes, but also showed off the computational power of the PlayStation 4. Ball physics are calculated and applied in real time, so no two kicks, tips, or fumbles are the same. This is really noticeable on sacks, where the ball reacts realistically based on the velocity and direction of the QB's arm at the time of contact, and it really affects the gameplay because you can put backspin on a punt to keep it from rolling into the end zone for a touchback.

Oddly, while ball physics have improved, player physics have taken a step backward, particularly post play. It's comical and unnerving to see players walk through each other to get to the line of scrimmage.

Fantastic Franchise
I have always loved a good Madden NFL Franchise. What could be more rewarding than building a team and guiding it through multiple seasons to win the Super Bowl? This year's Franchise Mode is both more-detailed and streamlined, so I found plenty to enjoy.

First, Play the Moments, which can be interrupted at any time, removes the potential tedium of playing years of full games by skipping directly to the key parts of each game, such as the opening offensive drive, and the offensive and defensive red-zone situations. The Big Decisions screen streamlines personnel management chores, such as the depth chart and negotiating salaries. Franchise Leagues are enhanced with a new in-game ticker, so you know in real time what's going on with your league.

Profoundly Improved Commentary
Something incredible happened the first time I played a Madden NFL 17 game: The commentary didn't suck! Mind you, this year's play-by-play and color work isn't great, but it's much better than in past games. The team of Brandon Gaudin (Big Ten Network) and Charles Davis (Fox) actually provides contextual commentary that's reasonably accurate. Moreover, EA Sports promises to keep it fresh by adding new commentary throughout the season. Pretty cool.

Madden NFL 17 Is Accessible Fun
Just as EA Sports pushes out the same game every year with some tweaks, so do I come to the same, but slightly modified, conclusion every year. Madden NFL is an excellent game that keeps getting a little better with each iteration. The focus on making the game accessible and challenging for multiple skill levels contributes a great deal towards making Madden NFL 17 fresh and exciting. And then the little things, like more relevant commentary and better ball physics, keep a veteran baller like me happy.

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