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There are only two options for NFL fans each year who want to play along with the season: get the new Madden NFL 17, or stick with last year's and download community roster updates.
Other options, like fantasy football or mobile games, aren't for me. Good, old-fashioned NFL video gaming has been my therapy for decades.
(Full disclosure: As those who follow me on Twitter -- @jetscott -- know all too well, I'm a rabid, albeit frequently frustrated, New York Jet fan.)
The football season's weird that way: a game, then a week to obsess over the next one. Plenty of time to read every article, study every stat, and run simulations. Madden may function as a competitive sport for some, but for me it's basically a Jets pregame statistical engine, and a post-game way to vent out and win in an alternate universe.
You probably know the drill about EA's Madden games. From year to year, it's hard to notice what's really changed. Madden 17 -- which I've played for the past five days or so -- feels similar in a lot of ways to Madden 16. But its most notable addition might help me analyze the present and future of my childhood-adopted team a lot more efficiently.
Madden's new Franchise mode is one of the main additions to this year's game. I played as -- of course -- the Jets. I remember playing as the Jets for 12 straight seasons years ago, every single game...which took me a long time. Franchise mode simulation now has a hybrid simulation/game mode that simulates most plays and then zaps you in to play the biggest moments, like NFL Red Zone. I played through four games this way, and lost every single one -- mainly because the Jets simply aren't rated very highly in my prerelease build, and their early opponents are all better. So, in simulated plays, I didn't have a chance. But it was fun to fast-forward a bit and still feel like I had a hand in the outcome.
The rest of Madden's main improvements come in actual gameplay. Madden promises a greater range of player-specific skills, and defenses with a smarter way of playing zones. The ball is also meant to have more realistic physics. So far, I've seen plays break in different ways than I've been used to in Madden 16.
EA is also trying to spice up the special teams game a bit with a new punt/kick control meter...which, to me, felt like older meters I've seen. But there's also a way to try to block kicks now, which offers a tiny bit of hope that it'll actually happen. I succeeded in practice, but never in any of the 12 or so games I played (again, as the New York Jets).
Fake punts and kicks, however, I had a lot more success with. There are more plays, and the execution of these moves feels more polished.
Madden has looked TV-perfect for several years now, with a presentation that from a distance can look like a real broadcast. This year's tweaks also include a whole new broadcast booth. I still remember Phil Simms and Jim Nantz going back and forth with phrases I started to memorize. The new crew of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis reminds me more of top-notch radio commentary...not a surprise, since Gaudin is an announcer for Westwood One. It sounds like audio commentators doing Madden...I hate to say it feels pretty similar, too, but there you have it. I'm sure I'll memorize everything they say in a hundred or so games, too.
I notice that Madden now seems to be a better educator of formations and NFL strategy. Called "concepts" in this year's version, I was advised and encouraged to practice for certain play types between games in the Franchise season, and it made me more aware of what was going on. I liked the Skills training mode that I played last year, which worked as a smart type of education-meets-practice mode. Madden 17 seems like it's better able to help advise. In-game, there are suggestions for running zones to hit, or play adjustments to make. I didn't always do such a good job understanding what was suggested. After years of being an NFL fan, the game still confuses me.
The real test for any football video game is how well it can ride alongside the actual season with updated rosters and enough season-relevant stuff to feel like a companion. I can't tell that part yet, but I hope Madden 17 ends up surprising. I prefer this version to last year's. I'd still buy it even if I didn't, though, because I consider it a yearly subscription to my NFL therapy.
I've tried replaying the Jets' first few games this season, and I keep losing every time.