Every year, Madden NFL seems to have a glaringly neglected mode. The great news — the best news — about Madden NFL 22: That mode is Madden Ultimate Team.
For once, MUT is the mode that goes begging. For once, Madden Ultimate Team is the mode that gets a maintenance-level update from last year. Good! Madden lifers have long resented MUT, for all its microtransactions and monetization, accusing it of sucking up what little oxygen a year’s development cycle leaves, while core features and gameplay are left gasping and semi-conscious. But for Madden NFL 22, EA Tiburon stood pat on MUT, and that alone is a message to the community, just as much as the Franchise mode’s overdue improvements and badly needed refreshening.
Temper your expectations, though; Madden NFL 22 does not immediately feel like a transformative work, even in the first slate of choices players can make with the reworked Franchise mode. (The main menu and hub are basically the same as last year’s game, for example.) In gameplay, particularly, I felt like I was picking up right where I left off in Madden 21. I even plugged in the same gameplay sliders and options I used last year and found pretty much everything behaving as I expected.
Madden NFL 22’s virtues are more of a slow burn. Take Gameday Momentum, the new boost-and-buff module affecting games in all modes. Gameday Momentum doesn’t seem like much, until it seems like a lot. Basically, it’s a meter at the top of the screen somewhat resembling that of a fighting game. Each team has two milestones on that meter — apparently chosen at random, game to game — where either good things happen for them, or bad things happen for the other team. The home team has a third buff, themed to the real-life atmosphere or advantage its stadium brings. The home team begins the game with this buff already lit. So, at Washington, opposing runners will have an increasingly difficult time juking and changing direction, right out of the box.
In Week 2 of my first playthrough, I went down two scores to the Washingtons, but come on, they’re the Washingtons, I’ll just grind out a long drive with Saquon Barkley and we’ll come back. Yeah, not with Barkley waddling like a kindergartener holding in a BM. His cuts and jukes were nerfed on his first carry, and the game told me this would only get worse. I may have restarted this game … just to play with a more conservative offense and less dependency on my star running back.
Another example of Gameday Momentum sneaking up on me in another early game: I wasn’t really paying attention to the fact the Giants were down early until I reflexively pulled the right trigger to see the play diagram and wondered what the hell I was looking at. That was not the play I called, right? But cognitive dissonance, and the diminishing play clock, fooled me into thinking I’d mistakenly called a slant route play.
No, I’d called an off-tackle run for Devontae Booker — but by falling behind I’d triggered a Gameday Momentum nerf that shows me the incorrect play art before the snap, simulating the confusion my team faced as it now came to the line of scrimmage. Booker took the handoff as planned, I was caught off-guard by that, and dragged down for a loss.
If the Superstar X-Factors that Madden introduced two years ago didn’t get your attention — I rarely cared, unless these power-ups involved a player I created — then Gameday Momentum will make you care now. One of the nerfs you may get, or go up against, keeps a superstar player from entering “the zone.” The zone is where the real good stuff happens for the best-of-the-best players, and in Franchise, you can change zone abilities for superstars on your team. Giving Barkley the Freight Train tackle-breaking perk makes him damn near unstoppable. But if I see this “Zoned Out” icon at the beginning of the game, that absolutely tightens up my playcalling. I do not want to get Saquon banished from said Zone.
In Franchise, I’m more observant of my players’ talents and limitations across the board, thanks to the biggest day-to-day change there: the weekly practice and progression loop. In past Maddens, practices ostensibly delivered an edge to certain plays in the next game — deep throws on offense, or zone blitzes on defense. But it was always hard to tell if I’d ever gained anything by sticking with this supposed game plan. In Madden NFL 22, practice is now a background sim rather than a minigame drill, but franchise players are tasked with monitoring their players’ fatigue and keeping their positional group out of full pads, for example, if they’re worn out. Players can also pick up practice-time injuries, as defensive back James Bradberry did in my first week of camp.
As for the game plan, I learned that you can’t really deviate from it, or you’ll get burned — even by the Jets, in the first week of preseason. Trying out this new practice and game plan focus, I wondered if I could go against the AI’s recommended defensive focus of stopping the outside run. My global instruction to the defense would be to focus on stuffing runs between the tackles; I would take care of the outside run myself, with user-controlled players and defensive audibles. Essentially, I was trying to have it both ways.
Nope. Told to focus on the middle, the Giants’ defense sure as hell focused on the middle, and the Jets’ Tevin Coleman went nuts in his lone quarter of duty, ripping off three huge sweeps for 41 yards. I may have restarted this game, too.
Franchise’s new perk tree for the coaching staff is another thing that seems like embroidery at first. This is mainly because the perk costs are so high and you accrue the Staff Points to buy them at a very slow rate. Meeting all of my gameday goals for my head coach, offensive, and defensive coordinators still returned 13 Staff Points, and the first available perk on my head coach’s tree costs 20. But this kind of slow growth is appropriate, remembering how overpowered my created players would get in a single season of last year’s Madden. And now I am motivated to pile up the perks and flesh out my created coach, to really put some long-haul thought into this Giants team, instead of being its caretaker for only a season or two.
There’s a perk well down the road for the head coach called “The Final Piece” that I’m worried about, though. With it, all players earn bonus XP as if their playing style matches my head coach’s playbook and scheme. I’ve rarely thought about developing my own scheme in past Maddens, instead playing the cards I’ve been dealt, working with that group’s strengths, and then spot-welding the roster with best-available draft picks and free agents. While “The Final Piece” may encourage scheme experimentation, it could also obviate the need to choose any offensive or defensive scheme, much less draft or sign players to fit it.
Franchise mode in Madden NFL 22 does show its newfound depth within the training camp and first few weeks of an NFL season, even if unlocking it and really seeing what it has to offer will take a little longer. Also, some even more sophisticated systems, such as scouting players for the upcoming NFL Draft, will be added as post-launch content. But there’s no question that Franchise is a loud-and-clear “message received” gesture from EA Tiburon, giving longtime players the switches they’ve always wanted to throw. (Like hiring and firing coordinators. It’s a way to bypass the slow accrual of Staff Points and get assistants with great perks out of the box.)
Still, Madden NFL 22’s Franchise is by far the most technocratic, and least personal, of all the licensed sports simulations’ career modes, and it gets in the way of making this a personal obsession. Other players may feel differently. But the game’s presentation and UI does little to soften that anodyne feeling. If anything, it makes it feel even more corporate and impersonal. This is probably because of the sport itself, as the team-control modes of NBA 2K and MLB The Show are both a distant second to their engrossing single-player career modes. But in Madden, much like real life, the team comes first, and players are more resources than characters.
Still, Madden NFL 22’s Franchise doesn’t give me as rich an emergent narrative, or the sense that I’m really molding the outcome of a team or a league. The coaching trees may be a role-playing game element, but there isn’t much actual role-playing in Franchise at all. Some of this disappointment comes from yet another woeful Face of the Franchise mode, which I’ll address in a future write-up. But Franchise does have two other roles to pursue with the team: solo player, and owner. And, yes — oh, it sounds so rote, but it’s still true — neither career path got any changes or improvements over last year’s game.
But, hey, at least I can’t blame Madden Ultimate Team for that.
Madden NFL 22 launched Aug. 20 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was played using Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 download codes provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.