What makes an NFL superstar stand out? For the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback Cam Newton, it’s his ability to scramble out of the pocket, picking up essential yards for his team without needing to fling the pigskin or hand the ball off. Meanwhile, the New York Giants’ Rookie of the Year running back Saquon Barkley commands blistering speed and strength, enabling him to cut through defensive lines like they’re made of cream cheese.
It’s these unique attributes that Madden NFL 20 wants to emphasise, with its new X-Factor system separating the wheat from the chaff. It works like this: key players on both sides of the field can supercharge their game by completing specific on-field objectives. In the case of Kansas City Chiefs QB and cover star Patrick Mahomes, throwing a couple of 30-yard dimes will add 15-yards of range to his arm strength. It’ll only get taken away if he’s sacked, fumbles, or throws an interception.
Countering such devastating offensive perks are players like Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, who after registering a couple of sacks will be able to decimate offensive lines like they’re not there. Give up 10 yards to the opposition, though, and these deadly defensive mavericks will rekindle their mortality – temporarily, at least. The net result is that you’ll fear players marked by an ‘X’ symbol when they’re on the opposite end of the field – and revel in controlling them when they’re on yours.
The perks-based system plays into the new campaign mode QB1, which replaces the teen drama-inspired thrills and spills of Madden NFL 18 and Madden NFL 19’s Longshot plot. While this proved a guilty pleasure for many, the production values were clearly extraordinarily high, and the return probably didn’t justify the outlay for the notoriously cost conscious publisher. This year’s experience is much more streamlined, then, and segues seamlessly into a watered down Franchise mode.
The mode is perhaps most similar to NBA 2K’s various Prologue storylines, which serve up a couple hours of soupy story before letting you develop your character in the big leagues. In this instance, you start out as your selected college’s backup quarterback, and kick-start a narrative which will see you eventually entered into the NFL draft. While there are some amusing cutscenes, it’s over all too quickly, and despite there being dialogue decisions, it’s unclear what outcome they have on the plot.
Once you’ve made a team, though, you’ll just find yourself trying to earn a starting berth before going on to make the Hall of Fame. You’ll be assigned various objectives in each game, and completing these will increase your level, allowing you to upgrade your abilities and enhance the aforementioned X-Factor skills. The problem is that, outside of repetitive text message scenarios which are designed to add colour, the whole mode becomes very dry after a few hours and you’ll promptly abandon it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot that’s new to find in Franchise mode, though contract negotiations have been overhauled and players seem to be a bit more demanding. If you’ve got a wide receiver who’s disappointed with the number of times he’s being targeted, for example, he’ll make his feelings known. You can opt to act on this, or risk the morale complications that come with an unhappy player. These improvements do add dynamism to the experience, but they’re minor.
It’s a similar story on the field as well. The return of the run-pass option means that there’s added depth to each team’s playbook, but the defensive AI can still act bizarrely, while clipping and glitches detract from the presentation at times. The running game – which was drastically improved in last year’s game – feels even tighter, while the overall pace of matches is faster, keeping you in the action for longer spells at a time.
Which brings us to Ultimate Team, a mode which is quite literally designed to consume your social life. Building a custom roster using collectible cards is as addictive as ever, and EA Sports has attempted to up the replay value by removing the solo challenges of old and replacing them with Ultimate Challenges which come in smartphone-style star tiers. Effectively, upping the difficulty nets you greater rewards, and so there’s even more incentive to have the best players on your squad.
The dopamine drip-feed is undeniable, as missions and XP meters mean that you’re constantly unlocking something new. But unless you’re willing to invest hundreds of hours, filling out your team with upgraded X-Factor stars is going to require you to open your wallet, and with so many different currencies and card types, the mode can still feel headache inducing at the best of times. At least there are some quality of life improvements in the menus to expedite the process somewhat.
The greatest show on turf gets a bit more personality with Madden NFL 20’s new X-Factor abilities. While this headline addition only applies to the sport’s biggest superstars, it injects new life into the on-field action. The new QB1 campaign may have potential in the future, but in its current guise it’s a step back from the Longshot story explored in previous entries, while the fan-favourite Franchise mode continues to see neglect. Ultimate Team is unquestionably the series’ underlying bread-and-butter, and with tons of new challenges to complete, it’s sure to become your new obsession as American football’s 100th season gets underway – just be wary of investing too much money into the mode.