Prior to the release of the disappointing Madden NFL 21, publisher EA Sports made a promise to series stalwarts that it would improve Franchise in future entries. The lack of improvements to the popular campaign mode in last year’s entry was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many fans, and it triggered a series of aggressive social media campaigns that prompted the team at Tiburon to comment. A year later, has the developer delivered – or is this yet another fumble from the American football sim?

Look, there’s no doubt about it: Franchise is a big W this year. EA Sports has completely refreshed the mode, making smart interface improvements and integrating some enjoyable new systems. You can now scheme each game week based on your opponent, allowing you to make adjustments based on data like a real NFL team. For example, if you come up against the Kansas City Chiefs then you know you’re going to have to contend with deep passes, and you can buff your defence to help you to deal with that. It adds a lot of variety and tactical depth.

Offensive and defensive coordinators have also been added, and while this does feel a little bit lightweight right now – it’s something we suspect EA Sports will build on in future years – it adds an entire new Talent Tree system, allowing you to buff your team depending on what you’re trying to achieve. In truth, it transforms Franchise into an RPG: you need to think about how you want to play and how the personnel you have available are going to complement that.

While we need to wait until next month for the college scouting changes that the developer has also promised, this is easily the best Franchise has been in years. There are still some drawbacks – scenarios which occur throughout the season and are supposed to add dynamic storylines to your experience don’t always make sense, and there’s clearly an opportunity to add more depth to the way you manage your players and staff – but it’s an exciting step forward for the series nonetheless.

The on-field action is also largely the best it’s been in a while, too. While we’re having serious issues with busted deep coverages – Safeties are basically braindead right now – we’re big fans of the new Gameday Momentum mechanic. This basically depicts the swings that occur during real-life NFL matches, and gives perks to the team in the lead. This can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, like wobbly play arts which depict the challenges of communicating against the backdrop of a raucous crowd.

The slower pace of the PS5 release feels great to us as well, although this is probably more subjective. EA Sports claims that it’s using the league’s Next-Gen Stats to ensure that the pace of players is true to real-life, and it just feels amazing when you hit the hole with a running back like Saquon Barkley and are able to power through pursuing linebackers. The running game as a whole has been excellent for a fair few years, but it really does feel great again in this entry. New animations help add variety to passing plays and catches, too, although it can still feel a little bit like the game code is taking over.

Unfortunately, the developer is still struggling with Face of the Franchise. This year’s version of the single player campaign dials the storyline right down, as you play a couple of college matches and declare for the NFL Draft. The plot is poor, but it’s paper-thin, and it serves as little more than window dressing for the matches you’ll go on to play for your designated NFL team. The problem is that progression is closely tied to The Yard, and it feels like there’s a truncated power curve as a result.

You can choose to play in a variety of positions, and we selected running back first time around in order to try something a little different. Unfortunately, once you make the NFL, you’ll be playing as the full team so it’s hard to develop an attachment to your avatar. We started over as a linebacker – a new addition this year – and while this fares a bit better as you’ll be locked to your character, we found it very difficult to get invested in our player’s career. NBA 2K, for all of its faults, still manages to capture what it’s like to be a professional athlete better than any other series.

The one advantage that Face of the Franchise does have this year is that, as mentioned, any progress you make can also be transferred to The Yard, which is Madden NFL 22’s street football mode. This feature is largely unchanged, although there are new locations like London and a more focused progression arc. One thing we enjoy about the game is how progression is unified across all modes, so you can earn Ultimate Team packs for succeeding in The Yard, for example. It just makes everything feel more connected, which is something MLB The Show 21 also does well.

With all of the improvements elsewhere, Ultimate Team is largely unchanged. The biggest alteration is to the way Chemistry works, with new Strategy cards allowing you to buff certain areas of your team depending on what you’re trying to achieve. The new user interface is cumbersome at first, but it does better surface your goals and objectives, and we reckon the addition of a starter Campaign sequence will do a good job of on boarding new players. Obviously, loot boxes rule supreme here, but the free rewards for playing – at least in the launch period – are pretty good.

The only other thing we’d add is that our experience hasn’t always been as smooth as we’d like it to be. We’ve had instances where our progress wasn’t saved, a handful of crashes, and even subtitles not displaying properly. Nothing is game-breaking – and the release is in a much, much better state than Madden NFL 21 was at launch – but it still can feel like it’s held together with pins and Pritt Stick, so it may be worth sitting tight until a few more patches have been applied.

Conclusion

Madden NFL 22 takes big strides forward from last year’s game, with the focus on Franchise being overdue but appreciated all the same. We like the direction EA Sports has taken this year, with even the new Gameday Momentum system adding immersion to every individual match. Face of the Franchise still falls flat, and patches will need to be applied to the way deep coverages work. But some irritating bugs and glitches aside, it feels like this series is at least on the right trajectory at last.