Madden 20's career mode starts strong but ultimately disappoints

(Image credit: EA)

Last year, we welcomed Madden's long-awaited return to the PC with Madden 19. It was a pretty good game! Madden has been climbing in quality for a couple of years now, so much so that we're almost willing to forgive it for grinding E3 press conferences to a halt every year. 

Madden 20 also released on PC, and I've been messing around with the game over the weekend. Here are my impressions of the new features, if you decide to get in on some good old-fashioned Windows gridiron action yourself.

The career mode could be much better

QB1: Face of the Franchise is the major addition to Madden 20. Over the past couple of years, the games have leaned heavier into some honest-to-goodness storytelling. QB1 isn't a direct follow-up to the Longshot chapters we saw in the last two games, improving on them in some ways with a new rise to fame.

Essentially, you create a quarterback and commit to one of 10 major Universities in the NCAA system. After riding the pine for a bit, your character is forced to step up big in the College Football Playoff, where your performance dictates your draft stock.

From there, you'll experience the ups and downs of an NFL career. Your player will run drills at the Combine, you'll fight to make the 53-man roster in the preseason, and hopefully, you'll win Super Bowls and make the Hall of Fame.

(Image credit: EA)

Once I was in the league, QB1 turns into a dry, boring football sim.

The mode starts really strong. It's genuinely pretty cool that Madden is interested in bringing a kinder, more personable experience, rather than a whole bunch of faceless football. For instance, after I won the first game in college, I had a brief interaction with a sick fan outside the tunnel. (She wanted me to score four touchdowns next game. I guaranteed that I would, obviously.) Later, I was confronted by an agent who was extremely thirsty to sign me, and went through a series of genuinely-pretty-funny pre-draft meetings, where they asked me some bizarre questions that apparently mirror the ersatz process that pro football prospects go through in real life. All of this was fully voiced and performed, and the dialogue trees reminded me a bit of what NBA 2K has been doing for years in its MyPlayer Mode. I was pretty excited to bring that experience to the NFL.

Unfortunately, after the intro, all of that stuff goes out the window. Once in the league, QB1 turns into a dry football sim. I run a practice with the team, play a matchup, and dump my experience points into my character. The vibrancy that colors the first hour of the game mode is conspicuously missing. I haven't had a single interaction with my agent or my coach, save for the occasional text alert informing me what I should focus on to beat the Broncos or whatever. It honestly feels like QB1 was meant to be a much larger, more holistic product, but given Madden's yearly schedule, it couldn't be fully fleshed out. 

Superstar X-Factors are a lot of fun

Professional football teams can build an entire gameplan around one singular talent, and Madden 20 sets out to emphasize that reality as much as possible with the introduction of Superstar X-Factors. 

50 players are each outfitted with a specific, highly specialized ability that sets them apart from everyone else on the squad. So, that means if you're playing as Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, you'll have access to the Unstoppable Force X-Factor, allowing you to carve up defensive lines like Swiss cheese. It's an effort to give the true stars of the game a distinguishing element beyond a rote raw numbers advantage, which is a smart change as far as I'm concerned. 

Some of the X-Factors need to be activated by meeting certain requirements. So for my custom quarterback, after I complete a few passes in a row, I turn on my "Pro Reads" ability which highlights the first receiver that becomes open while I'm standing in the pocket. That's a cool idea! It adds a metatextual minigame to the football, and I'm having a good time taking advantage of each of the loadouts.

Signature animations make superstars look like superstars

Madden 20 adds extra emphasis on nailing the idiosyncrasies of some of the more notable players in the league. That means that Patrick Mahomes' bizarre throwing motion is immortalized in his animation. Of course, you won't see that polish if you go down the depth chart. (Sorry Joe Flacco, nobody is motion-capturing you.) Still, it's a smart allocation of resources. If you're going to have Aaron Rodgers in your videogame, you might as well make him into the best Aaron Rodgers you can make, right?

(Image credit: EA)

Run pass options are fun, but kind of hard to use

After the Eagles' Super Bowl victory in 2018, the term on the tip of the tongue of the entire football intelligentsia was "run pass option." It's essentially a schematic archetype in which the quarterback has the option to hand the ball off or throw a quick pass on the same play, thanks to some clever work on the offensive line. It completely flabbergasted the New England defense in 2018, leading to one of the most memorable NFL games of my lifetime. Madden 20 will be the first game in the series to let you orchestrate run pass options yourself, which means that you're officially best friends with Doug Pederson. 

So far, I've struggled to really take advantage of the RPOs. As a quarterback, you need to make a split-second decision during the course of play if you're going to hand the ball off or dump it out for a wide receiver screen or something, and that kind of heat overloads my basic football brain. I am excited to see how Madden experts take advantage of the flexibility though.

The status quo is maintained

Franchise mode, and the dreaded Madden Ultimate Team, look to be mirror images of what was offered in Madden 19. That's good, because Madden has always been a lowkey football nerd mecca, if you really wanted to get into the nuts-and-bolts of running a franchise. Madden Ultimate Team is definitively Not My Thing, but it's also wicked popular, so have fun bankrupting yourself as you try to track down a digital JuJu Smith-Schuster card. Thanks, EA!