E3 2019: Madden NFL 20 feels like it might have the X-factor

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With Madden NFL 20, EA Tiburon seems to be catering to both enthusiasts and casual fans in equal measure. I often found it hard to distinguish the moment-to-moment gameplay from Madden NFL 19, so if you played last year, you’ll feel right at home.

Still, a few new on-the-field features, if well-utilized by skilled players, could prove to be game changers. The new Superstar X-Factor mechanic can turn stars into superstars through good play, and new Run-Pass Option plays gives adept players more ways to let their skills shine.

Select players are dubbed Superstars, and 50 of those Superstars also have the X-Factor. Superstar players have innate abilities and unique animations. For instance, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has a wicked fast release. His throwing animation compared to last year is noticeably different and looks more authentic as a result. X-Factor players, like cover star Patrick Mahomes II, have both Superstar traits and special abilities, the “X-Factor,” that can be unlocked during a game.

Madden at the arcade

Mahomes’ X-Factor is called Bazooka. If you complete four passes for more than 30 yards with the Kansas City Chiefs star QB, his maximum air distance balloons by about 15 yards. I was able to unlock Mahomes’ X-Factor during our session. My jaw dropped when he lobbed a pass to wide receiver Sammy Watkins that bolted about 75 yards through the air (sadly, Watson didn’t haul it in).

There’s an inherent risk to the X-Factor, however. The feats needed to unlock the superhuman powers can easily lead to erratic play if you aren’t careful. I imagine it’s best to work towards X-Factor organically, rather than tailoring your play around targeting bonuses. It will be interesting to see how X-Factor impacts both casual and competitive play in the Madden community. It doesn’t quite feel like being “on fire” in NBA Jam, but it’s certainly more arcade-y than recent Madden games.

RPOs are a go-go

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The addition of Run-Pass Options marks the first time in series history that this dynamic play type is available. While skilled players frequently audible at the line of scrimmage after analyzing the defensive coverage, RPOs force you to examine the defense directly after the snap. On a basic level, you choose to either hand the ball off to your running back or pass downfield.

When running my first RPO, I successfully read the coverage and hit an open receiver for a huge gain. But timing is key with RPOs, and it’s quite easy for things to go awry if you don’t make a smart, quick choice. On my second attempt, I was dropped for a big loss because I made the wrong read. Since they require a level of active awareness not typically seen in average play, RPOs might be daunting for new players. Skilled players will undoubtedly use them to great effect.

Though Madden NFL 20 looks and feels a lot like its predecessor, I was happy to see none of the animation inconsistencies that could appear in Madden NFL 19. I didn’t notice any clipping during tackles, or strange catch animations. Nor did I feel like my running back collided with a brick wall when getting tackled. In fact, I had far more success running the ball in general. Madden’s running game has long felt disproportionately challenging compared to passing, but I’m hopeful the scales have balanced a bit with Madden NFL 20.

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I didn’t have a chance to check out franchise mode. However, the tweaks to the formula sound like they inject some new life into the great, but familiar, Madden staple. Throughout franchise mode, EA’s new Scenario Engine will create unique storylines and goals to work towards. How in-depth the feature goes remains to be seen, but it could very well liven up the week-to-week grind of an NFL season.

I’m most excited about Face of the Franchise: QB1. That’s the new story mode, comparble to MLB The Show‘s Road to the Show and NBA 2K‘s MyCareer mode.

In Face of the Franchise you create a quarterback, complete with an archetype, and head to the College Football Playoff leading a national powerhouse. It’s not exactly a return of NCAA Football, as you only play a maximum of two games and there are only ten teams to pick from. Still, it’s a cool concept. After the College Football Playoff, you participate in scouting exercises and NFL Draft day festivities before joining an NFL team. A cinematic opening fades away to reveal a choice-driven career mode similar to other sports game campaigns. It sounds like a neat way to work through franchise mode.

Madden NFL 20 arrives August 2 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. A closed beta runs June 14-16. While access is mostly reserved to press and fans who attended EA Play, some codes will be handed out on Madden social media channels.

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