It’s hard not to feel a pinch of sympathy for the Madden NFL 24 team. Despite what the most exasperated online pundits claim, you can tell EA Tiburon cares deeply about its officially licensed American football game. Unfortunately, a challenging annual release cadence – paired with an overreliance on the oft-criticised but always-popular Ultimate Team – means the developer’s unlikely to ever get out of its rut, even if this year’s release is rock-solid in most regards.
As there are less buzzwords to discuss this time around, there’s a real feeling that the developer has simply focused on the foundations of its NFL sim – and it shows. A colossal increase to the number of defensive animations means you’ll see more variety on the field than ever before, including wrap-up tackles, contested catches, and wince-inducing slams. The team claims almost 2,000 different animations have been added overall, and it’s immediately obvious.
These improvements don’t just expand to defensive manoeuvres either by the way: there are more catch animations than ever before, which imbues the release with a sense of fluidity seldom seen until this year’s game. Because there are more animation packages than past entries, you’ll see fewer instances of the game dithering over what to do, which will not only help keep you immersed but will also reduce the number of meme-worthy moments that emerge this year.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, as we’ve still seen our fair share of animation oddities, but these moments are few and far between – an undeniable win for the team. The artificial intelligence, specifically when it comes to quarterbacks, seems much improved to boot; depending on the player, they’ll act more organically according to their strengths, so you’ll have to prepare for Lamar Jackson running the ball or cover star Josh Allen doing a bit of everything.
And general improvements to the Frostbite Engine mean that player skeletons look more accurate, better capturing the framework of the league’s biggest stars. Again, there are thousands of players in the game and not everyone has been recreated with perfect photorealism, but the outing still delivers an impressive overall presentation package, which is further heightened by an insane number of new celebrations, dances, and transitions which help keep the action fresh over multiple hours.
The problem, then, is a recurring one: with just a year of development time, EA Tiburon simply hasn’t had the resources to go the extra mile – and it shows. This is particularly obvious in the returning Superstar mode, which replaces Face of the Franchise. Here you can create a quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, or corner back, and take them from the Combine to ultimate NFL stardom. Your main goal is to reach Madden’s coveted 99 OVR rating.
While it’s totally fine, it never really goes above and beyond standard sports game content padding. Minigames return to help you earn XP and Skill Points which you can spend on upgrading your player, but they’re not always entertaining, and do get repetitive. We liked the running back gauntlets, for example, but tired very quickly of the quarterback exercises, where you need to throw the ball through targets that are spatially difficult to judge.
Personally, we never really felt a particular connection with our character either, perhaps owing to the limited number of avatar customisation options overall. The game does attempt to try and build a story around your career with a fake social media feed and video packages featuring pundits like Ryan Clark, but it all feels a bit impersonal and generic. It’s never actively bad, though – it just feels like a box-checking exercise rather than something truly fresh or unique.
One neat touch is that you can take your character online in Superstar Showdown, which replaces the more arcade, street football side-mode The Yard. This is fun, and there’s quite a lot of flexibility in how you build out your character’s stats and attributes to help you suit a variety of different roles. Online net code is generally quite robust across the board, and the long-awaited addition of crossplay will come as a welcome albeit overdue addition for most long-time fans.
For as solid as the netcode may be, sluggish menus do make navigating any aspects of the game off the field a chore. The developer has attempted to streamline Ultimate Team, for example, and it does make a difference for newcomers – but you’ll find yourself stabbing at buttons waiting for things to happen a lot of the time, rather than getting that snappy responsiveness you’d generally associate with other games. These issues also extend to Franchise mode, making anything off-the-field feel like a chore.
Ultimate Team, to its credit, does feel better setup to be enjoyable without demanding expenditure – although obviously if you’re planning to stay competitive online, you’re going to need to keep up with the power curve. There is a lot to do in single player, however, with the promise of daily live service content to keep things feeling fresh, so it’s easy to see why it’s become such an overwhelming focus for the franchise. Just be aware that those microtransactions are still there.
Madden NFL 24 is a good sports game, a playoff contender even – but you just never really get a sense this game is going to win the Super Bowl. That’s the fundamental flaw here: it’s a good effort from EA Tiburon with a lot of strong under-the-hood gameplay and presentation improvements, but the annual development cycle is preventing this series from really taking meaningful strides forward. Superstar, the reskinned Face of the Franchise, is fine for a few hours – and even Ultimate Team has improved to be more accessible overall. But cumbersome menus and a general sense of familiarity drop the ball, and prevent the release from reaching its full potential.