Madden games have historically had many different difficulty settings and challenges, but Madden NFL 17 actually gives you the confidence and the desire to take them on. Between an improved running game and welcome changes to the defensive line, EA Sportsí latest iteration of its lauded football series not only provides more tools to become a well-rounded playmaker but also the means to execute more decisive plays. A significant launch-week bug and lack of online co-op are just two of the issues that prevent it from being a complete Madden experience, but that doesnít hold back Madden 17 from making you feel like a complete Madden player.

After two years of superb entries in the series, Madden 17 capitalizes on those most recent gamesí strengths. Last yearís passing improvements are now complemented by improved animations in an already solid running game. The juke, for example, looks and feels more like a highlight-ready move. Against teams with high defensive ratings, pulling off a tactful juke feels like a reward for adept spatial awareness. Madden 17 adds a number of different animations, with the most graceful jukes reserved for the most agile players. Even if the Jetsí Eric Decker has a plus-80 overall rating, his sub-80 juke stats makes him a slightly less graceful wide receiver than say, Odell Beckham Jr..
Itís fitting that Madden 17ís main menu gives equal real estate to its two marquee modes. Franchise has been a Madden institution since the late 1990s, and Ultimate Team (and, to an extent, Draft Champions) satisfies that card-collecting itch while allowing you to live out the fantasy of building a squad of promising rookies, Hall of Famers, and other talented players. Franchise remains the trusty single-player campaign that lets you show devotion to a team over multiple seasons. The roster UI has been improved over last yearís unremarkable interface, which now features prompts for roster cutdowns and recommendations on who to trade, cut, and sign. This saves considerable time while you make key week-to-week adjustments.

The main draw, whether youíre in this mode as a player or owner, is in seeing the impact of your decisions over the course of a season, whether itís key trades or changes to concession prices. Thereís a sense of responsibility with every choice, like how you address lingering injuries. If youíre an Andrew Luck devotee taking control of the Indianapolis Colts, would you start him even if heís not in peak condition? Would you risk a season-ending injury just because youíre not comfortable with the backup talents of Scott Tolzien?

Even though Ultimate Team hasnít been around as long as Franchise, it has a well-earned following, despite its microtransactions. Of course, you can have a completely satisfying experience grinding it out through the modeís solo challenges without spending a dime. Completing these tasks serves multiple purposes: You feel a sense of accomplishment in overcoming developer-curated obstacles, youíre strengthening your roster with newly acquired cards, and youíre getting practical training that carries over to all other modes.

A skilled defender knows how to read the subtle clues of an opponentís formation in order to get an edge on the offense. Unfortunately, a noteworthy bug (which originated in the pre-launch EA Access build) gives the defense too much information--specifically on whether or not they can expect a passing or running play. Itís simply a matter of whether you can see the receiverís names or not. If the names are visible while toggling the Play Art feature, itís a pass; if not, itís a running play. One hopes that developer EA Tiburon will have a patch to address this soon. While not as detrimental, long loading times hamper select areas, particularly the Ultimate Team solo challenges.

If thereís meaningful solace to be found, itís in the ability to (finally!) skip cinematics and other non-gameplay camera cutaways. Madden 17 greatly benefits from these little tweaks and touches. Thereís added realism in player locomotion, even for linemen who arenít handling the ball. Midair swatting by a defender is a fitting counter to an otherwise overpowering receiving game. And itís a challenge finding copy-and-pasted groups of fans in the crowd. One of the more obvious changes involves kickoffs and field goals. By employing a three-button input system used by most golf games, EA Tiburon shows its willingness to use tried-and-true mechanics that have been around since the 1980s.

This is a franchise that evolves over years--and, in recent entries, over days. Weekly roster updates have become a series standard, the kind of perk that fans look forward to regularly. Trades by the Week 8 deadline seldom ever change the overall strengths and weaknesses of a given roster, but itís always an engaging experiment to be on the opposing side and see how these new lineup changes can shape the playoff picture or even your weekly heated matches against friends. The Seattle Seahawks are a particularly intriguing team even before the regular season starts, given the retirement of likely Hall of Fame tailback Marshawn Lynch. Madden 17 impresses as an ever-evolving product, with sponsored updates and promotions and a non-intrusive ticker that shows recent scores, upcoming matchups, and news from around the league.

Even with speedy game flow and the lack of commercial breaks, a game in Madden can last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour if youíre a purist who plays 15 minute quarters. EA Tiburonís idea of an alternative play session for busy people is called Play the Moments. This mode significantly reduces play times by having the bulk of the game unfold via a simulation while letting you take control on crucial plays. It pits you against two opponents: the AI and the simulation itself. Itís a dicey proposition to leave the outcome of an entire drive in the hands of the CPU, but after several tests against unbalanced teams, itís comforting that even lowly teams like the Jets consistently have a chance at beating the Patriots at the half.
Beyond the highly accessible Rookie and Pro modes, Skills Trainer ensures that newcomers and novices receive a thorough understanding of the controls. Itís a lot to take in, which is why Madden 17 retains the seriesí context-sensitive button hints. The only missing feature is a submenu detailing the rules of football--the kind of details that would benefit a genuine newcomer. However, time and practice are your best tools in going up against players whoíve played Madden for decades. Itís not hard to put up a fight, even if you lose your first dozen online matches.

First-time Madden commentators Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis arenít household names, but their professional experience at Westwood One and Fox Sports respectively makes them qualified to fill in these coveted roles previously held by the likes of Jim Nantz and Cris Collinsworth. It only takes one quarter to get a feel for their talent and enthusiasm for the sport. Their contributions game after game are more than serviceable, though their accounts arenít any more remarkable than many of their more recognizable predecessors. They (and their commentary writers) frequently use football generalities to move the game along, while their player-specific insights rely heavily on reciting a starís resume. Itís not a significant change in Madden play-by-play, but Iím immensely grateful that the one-dimensional era of Phil Simms has come to a close. Unlike some prior Madden commentary pairings, itís easy to believe that Gaudin and Davis were often in the voice over booth at the same time. It shows in their rapport, despite the fact that theyíd never worked together before. Their inflections are well timed during and after plays, which goes a long way to show how engaged they are.

If EA Tiburon's goal with Madden 17 was to build upon the solid foundation set by the last two iterations, the studio mostly succeeded by fine tuning its production values on and off the field while also focusing on its strengths in its Ultimate Team and Franchise. Rather than deriding this latest Madden for featuring more of the same features from previous years, there's instead comfort in the familiarity of trusted and refined features like weekly updates and the comprehensive Skills Trainer. Save for the aforementioned play-calling bug and the loading times, this is the most accessible and welcoming Madden in this console generation, which is an accomplishment for a sport that can appear complicated at first glance.