Ahh, the crowd. Perhaps more than any sport, the crowd matters in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks’ 12th Man can rock the entire stadium. In Green Bay, they welcome players into the stands after touchdowns via the Lambeau Leap. In Philly, the crowd is just loud and boisterous.
And in all these locations, that crowd legitimately affects the game. Quarterbacks can’t hear receivers, linemen are goaded into false starts and offsides penalties, and chaos ensues in a game that requires 11 players to execute flawlessly for victory.
Yet for decades, the crowd has been nothing more than window-dressing in video games. And this year, "Madden NFL 22" changes that. For the first time in sports gaming, the crowd actually matters, shifting the tone of games and the way players react in a satisfying and addictive way. It’s an element that completes a stellar on-field package from EA Sports, although the overall "Madden NFL 22" package leaves plenty to be desired.
The latest football video game in this long-running franchise is best described as a wildly mixed bag — and a sometimes-frustrating one at that. In so many ways, "Madden NFL 22" is brilliant, starting with the new Momentum meter that tops the screen during every game.
It’s a meter that, quite fairly, doesn’t start at nowhere: The home team very often begins the game with an advantage. If they make a few plays, or the away team squanders key opportunities, things can shift quickly. Tangible advantages are attributed to these shifts too: Receivers can get catching boosts, quarterbacks can become immune to being rattled, and defenses can know the QBs favorite target. It all makes homefield advantage a very real video game thing for the first time, and it feels organic. Big plays spark the Momentum meter more. If you’re working things downfield with 4-yard runs, it’ll take more for you to see payoff. Even better, different stadiums have different characteristics: In Arrowhead, for example, you’ll struggle to get off audibles.
This couples nicely with the additions made over the last few years to make gameplay feel distinct. Superstar X-factors return, making top players feel distinct, and giving them boosts when they make certain big plays. And newly honed artificial intelligence pushes to make individual teams react differently in key situations. Some QBs force more throws on third-and-long. Others throw it away.
Suddenly, each game feels new and distinct. If you’ve ever played Madden’s long-running Franchise mode, you know that, at some point, it feels like you’ve seen it all, and you’re just executing against A.I. In "Madden 22," that’s less of a problem. Defenses are more likely to adjust, blitzing more frequently to counter repetitive run plays, or rolling coverage to top receivers. And even when the Momentum meter doesn’t swing games, it’s a factor. Even if you’re up 45, when you throw a pick-six, the crowd gets hushed, and you know you squandered some slice of dominance.
It’s a shame that the rest of the title doesn’t match that gameplay. For all that on-field excellence, glitches and speed bumps abound throughout "Madden 22," continually wrecking your gameplay experience and keeping you from truly loving the title. The game randomly crashes on Xbox Series X. In a show of sloppiness, Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, a noted left-hander, warms up as a right-hander in pregame cut scenes. And in the Franchise mode, simulated stats are often broken: Ten games into my most recent franchise, every player on a team other than mine had the same longest reception, of just 25 yards.
Franchise mode remains Madden’s greatest weakness, even after they’ve tried to make “upgrades.” This year, Madden tries to make your coaching staff matter, and, to its credit, it does a decent job. Coaches can now essentially “level up,” earning points if you accomplish certain tasks, points that can then be applied to attributes that raise your player attributes. A coach or offensive coordinator may give all receivers a catch rating boost, or give all defenders a tackle boost. It’s a fun addition that makes an oft-underestimated part of the team matter.
But even this is imperfect: You’ll level your coaches up in a season. And the entire league has a host of fake coaches and scouts; unlike the excellent "NBA 2K," which lets retired players become coaches, "Madden 22" never makes you care about any coach at all. They’re all just stats.
The rest of the Franchise mode remains woefully unchanged too — and with each passing year that Madden does nothing to upgrade the mode, it starts to show more and more. "MLB The Show" and "NBA 2K" deliver trade finders that help you make moves; Madden doesn’t. Even worse, Madden’s trade logic is easier than ever to fleece: I somehow landed Khalil Mack for some New England Patriot leftovers. And no, I didn’t tweak settings to make trade logic gentler; there are still too few settings that let you adjust your franchise experience in Madden.
Franchise mode isn’t the only lackluster mode, either. Face of the Franchise lacks energy, and none of the other modes captivate you as much as the core game does, both online and against the A.I. The end result is an uneven, middle-of-the-pack effort from "Madden 22." But give the game credit for one thing: It got the crowd right.
Hopefully next year, it builds on that.
'MADDEN NFL 22'
3 out of 5 stars
Available on Xbox platforms, PlayStation platforms, PC, Google Stadia
Reviewed on Xbox Series X