Madden 24 review: Still waiting for the great leap forwards


British political rocker Billy Bragg released his hit song “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” in 1988. While the song certainly has nothing to do with football and video games, I found it popping into my head as I sat down to write this review of Madden 24.

In the fourth verse, Bragg sings about being questioned by a music journalist who wants to know why he tries to mix activism with his pop music.

"Mixing pop and politics, he asks me, what the use is?I offer him embarrassment and my usual excusesWhile looking down the corridor out to where the van is waitingI’m looking for the Great Leap Forwards"

Excuses are what fans of the Madden franchise have been dealing with for years now. Embarrassment is what I am sure the folks at EA Sports have been dealing with each release…so much so that it was widely reported that Madden 24 was considered “make or break” internally at EA.

Earlier this month, IGN ran an article in which senior producer Clint Oldenburg acknowledged that EA had been working hard to not just collect the feedback it was receiving from its customers but also to decode it.

"“As a game developer, especially on a yearly sports title, it’s not as much having thick skin as much as [needing] to have a great filter, because there’s a reason that these players are going to say whatever they’re going to say about the game, and you’ve got to figure out why,” senior producer Clint Oldenburg tells IGN. “And even if there’s a hundred words in there that don’t tell you why, there might be one or two that will tell you why, and that’s what you got to focus on so that you make sure you’re delivering the experience at its core, what those players are asking for.”"

I have no doubt that the team working on Madden cares very deeply about the product that they put out and so it is great that they are taking the criticism the game has been receiving seriously.

After playing a lot of Madden 24 over the course of the last week, I think EA has done some nice work here. Rather than focusing on flashy, half-baked new modes or other gimmicks, the team seems to have focused on improving the core gameplay. Despite some bugs and the prevalence of “money plays” that once you learned them were hard not to call, the on-field experience in Madden has always been a lot of fun, just imperfect.

This year’s version, so far, seems to be a significant step in the right direction. In fact, it is the imperfection of the gameplay that stands out to me. Madden 24 feels more like a real football game than ever before. Receivers seem to drop more passes. QBs, even highly rated ones like Patrick Mahomes, occasionally just miss the mark, overthrowing a guy. I’m a Chiefs fan and play with Mahomes a lot and in the past few years, nearly every pass I threw, no matter the situation, was right on target. The real Mahomes is one of the best we’ve ever seen but even he makes mistakes and now he makes them in Madden.

While some players might get frustrated by these developments, for me it makes the game feel more lifelike. How many times have we seen our favorite team be forced to punt because of a tipped pass, dropped pass, or inaccurate throw?

It isn’t just all mistakes, though. The AI players seem much smarter. Blocking on offense, in particular, stands out. Linemen no longer seem to be locked in place once they engage a defender. I frequently see guys chipping and moving to the second level while run-blocking. This has made running the football a lot more fun. I feel like I can actually be patient behind the line of scrimmage to allow the blocks in front of me to develop before making my move. The backs also do a much better job of bouncing off their lineman and sliding to the hole whereas in previous years, the ball carrier would instantly fall down. The same can be said for running too close to an engaged defender. It is no longer an instant tackle. In fact, the new physics that takes into account a player’s weight often leads to cool animations where the defender reaches out briefly turning the ball carrier and slowing him down but not stopping him.

If I had a criticism I would say the run blocking is almost too good and needs some tuning. I’m a fairly average Madden player and I can routinely slice up defenses on the ground with even the most pedestrian running backs.

A few more of the foundational changes from EA include:

"Blocking: The Tactical Blocking System allows for improved movement through traffic and targeting of defenders at the second level, and blockers are better, more physical in the running game and are differentiated from each other. FieldSENSE animation branching technology expands to blocking for the first time, allowing for dynamic chip-blocking, double teams, and pushing of the pile.Quarterbacks: AI Quarterbacks intelligently utilize Skill Based Passing, hot routes, and audibles to test defenses and play more like their real-life counterparts.Defenders: Run defenders play smarter, picking up on repeated use of the same play from the same formation, in which case they will hit their gaps quicker. Defensive backs now utilize read steps, which are shorter backpedal steps that allow them to analyze and attack the short passing game such as slants and short crossers.Running Backs: AI running backs use Frostbite Navigation Grid capabilities for the first time, allowing them to make better decisions including finding cutback lanes, utilize 360-degree Cuts, and navigating traffic to find space.Ball Physics: Fumbles are improved through new animations and a new type of onside kick takes advantage of improved bouncing ball physics.Playbooks: 500 new plays and over 70 new offensive formations. Madden 24 also includes more team-specific pass concepts and formations that take into account real-life personnel alignments."

All of the bullets above are very noticeable improvements during gameplay. The team at EA also added 1,700 new tackling animations which really make the experience, combined with the other improvements, feel fresh and more realistic.

If better gameplay is what you are after when considering buying Madden 24, you should be pleased. If hearing that this year’s game was “make or break” for EA had you thinking Madden 24 was going to feel like an entirely new game, you’re going to be disappointed.

The improvements to Franchise continue and they are welcome but at the same time, it is silly that it has taken this long to get these improvements in the first place. The way people play this mode is very personal so I understand some folks may love the addition of minigames and training camp. The mini-games are fun (some of them very much so) but after playing them a few times, most folks are likely to get bored pretty quickly. I’m personally never going to invest time every week to play multiple minigames to snag some extra XP for focus players. Players gain XP at a fine rate for me just simulating and getting to the actual gameplay but some folks may like the extra immersion opportunity.

Other improvements have been made, like extra trade slots, draft improvement, and the ability to restructure contracts. Despite the inclusion of some of these long-asked for features, Franchise mode still feels like the same mode we’ve been playing for years. The same can be said for the rest of the modes in this game.

I feel like I say this every year but the Madden franchise desperately needs some new life breathed into it. This is the series that once revolutionized what a football video game can be. EA clearly has the talent in-house to do that again but it is never going to happen as long as that team is kept on the yearly treadmill of just trying to keep their heads above water so they can turn out another game and generate those sweet, sweet yearly profits.

Making games is an art and as with all art, as soon as the process becomes about making as much money as possible, the art suffers.

I feel like we are all going to continue to be underwhelmed by Madden until we stop getting incremental improvements and finally get the game we’ve all been waiting for.

Until then, like Mr. Bragg, we’ll keep waiting for the great leap forwards.

Madden 24 (Xbox Series X) Score: 6.5/10

Madden 24 features some excellent on-field improvements and the gameplay is fun but the rest of the game is the same tired experience we’ve been playing for years.