Incremental change is the name of the game when it comes to Madden NFL. Year after year, it's tough to get through those massive, sweeping changes that can help define new entries in franchises that get more than 12 months between releases. In spite of that challenge, EA Sports' Tiburon office has managed to constantly improve on the foundation that has so defined Madden NFL over the past few years. Now in the third year of the newest console generation, Madden NFL 17 finds itself served well by the combined efforts of the past as well as a number of great small improvements. Alone they might not make much of an impact, but when building a larger whole, these updates make this one of the most complete Madden titles in the series' long history.

It's rare to come across a Madden NFL entry that's both easily accessible for newcomers and "hardcore" enough for fans who've been playing since the '90s. There's a delicate balance to strike with any simulation sports title, and for a long time the complexities of football made learning the ins and outs of Madden a chore. People who were immersed in the culture of the game (both real and virtual) had the distinct advantage of past experience, and making the game more accessible seemed like it may never happen in the current era. However, as part of the overhaul to Franchise Mode, Madden NFL 17 manages to bridge the gap between player types with its new Game Prep aspects.

Last year was the debut of Game Prep, which offered your team a way to earn experience by selecting some preset options to workout specific players ahead of a weekly bout with another team. It was fairly barebones, and often more tedious to deal with than it was worth. The experience payouts were minimal, and it merely asked you to check off some boxes to get credit for the work. This year, Game Prep actually wants you to play and learn more about what exactly you're preparing for, and it makes a huge difference both for old school vets and more casual players.

EA Sports

For the past few years, Madden has been absorbing all the playcalling knowledge imparted by actual players and the AI. Now, instead of those analytics being used for simple play selection, Madden NFL 17 has gone and used it to develop a deeper teaching system for players of all skill levels. With Game Prep, you can see the offensive and defensive tendencies of your opponent to a given point in the season, which you can then use to pick from dozens of different practice scenarios to better take advantage of how the other team plays. What's more, these practice situations actually break down what things like a Zone Blitz are and how to beat it with a certain play style.

You'll get a few reps to grasp the concept, then have to try it out in a game situation. The better you perform, the more experience your team gets. Additionally, when calling those plays during a game, your team will see added benefits in those situations because you took the time to plan for them. Throughout the season, you can learn more and more about how strategies actually matter and how to capitalize on them. Madden has never been great about informing players about the ins and outs of play design, but this additional aspect of Franchise mode is a huge step in the right direction.

The other major feature you'll find this year is Play the Moments. Rather than having to play through an entire game --- which can easily take up an hour of your time --- you can choose instead to play just the biggest moments from a given week. The game will simulate a large majority of the events, asking you to step in on offense or defense when the time is right. You might be asked to stop the opposing team from getting a big third down or preventing them from scoring before half ends. You could alternatively be asked to put points on the board to close out a tight game or even get the momentum started by scoring on the opening drive. Week to week the moments change, and the game can fly by in as fast as 20 minutes. It cuts down on your investment significantly, and makes getting further into franchises more realistic for players not devoted to spending hours at a time honing their Madden franchise to elite levels.

EA Sports

While those aspects of Madden might be limited to the Franchise mode --- which has seen other small improvements to roster building and other player management aspects --- the introduction of new on-screen prompts give less savvy players an idea of what buttons to press in a given situation. To this point in Madden's lineage, controller management is almost as complex as running a franchise from top to bottom. At any given moment, there are a handful of button combinations you'll have to recall to pull off exactly what you want to do. Now however, you get a bit of a gameplay assist with a little icon popping up over your player's head.

These might seem familiar to anyone that played last year's Madden, with the defensive line and wide receivers having these elements incorporated for various off-the-ball moves. Running backs get the upgrade this year, and it makes a world of difference in the rushing game having this little reminder available when you're in a scrum. Different running backs have different running styles, so depending on the situation, these prompts will be different, but they all over you the ability to get the most out your player during any single play.

Run Path Assist isn't quite as useful, as it merely shows a directional arrow on the ground in front of your player illuminating his path. You pretty much already know which way your player is running because you're in control, so its implementation seems less worthwhile than most of the other additions this year. It might have been better served to show players where to go instead of highlighting where they were already headed. Fortunately, you can just turn this off so it doesn't clutter the screen with relatively useless information.

EA Sports

Like Run Path Assist, not every new aspect included this year makes Madden better. Some of them do make it more interesting however. Blocking kicks and punts happens in the actual NFL all the time, but you'd be hard-pressed to recall any time you were able to do it or had it done to you in a Madden game. The development team incorporated a new kick blocking mechanic, as well as a new kick meter, to shake things up and try to make the special teams aspect of a game more engaging. In years past, field goal kicking and punting were fairly rudimentary and rather boring parts of the Madden experience. The new kick blocking keeps you on your toes, as at any moment the computer might be able to snatch a quick turnover from you in prime territory.

The same can't quite be said about the human element in kick blocking. Try as we might, we never were able to pull one off through about a dozen games, versus the computer getting at least one block off in several bouts. Even against other human opponents, kick blocking is still a difficult task to manage, despite EA's best efforts to make it a more regular occurrence. That said, you'll still have plenty of heart palpitations due to the three-click meter for kicks. Rather than the overly easy analog stick kicking of the past decade, this new meter has way less leeway and needs much more precise timing. Missed kicks will happen, which is true to life, but also frustrating at the same time. If it's in the game!

Though not quite as flashy an improvement as the mode overhauls and control revamping, this year's commentary has been redone completely from scratch with two new commentators. Gone are Phil Simms and Jim Nance, who were great at putting players to sleep with the same phrases and anecdotes they'd been shilling for the past few years, and in come Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis. Now, neither are quite the household names Simms and Nance were, they inject some life into arguably the stalest aspect of the Madden franchise. There's a lot of new commentary to dig through, which is great, but what's better is the idea that this commentary will continually be updated throughout the season.

EA Sports

It doesn't quite work in the fantasy modes like Ultimate Team and Draft Champions, but in the Play Now or online aspects, you'll hear variations and updated chatter all season long. It's supposed to be more relevant and contextual in the Franchise mode as well, but it was hard to discern and true changes with only one Franchise season under our belts. Still, we were witness to one update (which happens when you boot up like the weekly roster updates), and it offered some insight into the early pre-season hype and woes of several players. That's something we haven't seen in Madden before, and while other games have been at it for a while now, it's refreshing nonetheless.

That commentary is bolstered by the continually improving presentation of Madden NFL. With great power doesn't come great responsibility, but a game with more realistic graphics. Madden has been on the forefront of visuals for a long time, and Madden NFL 17 is no exception to that rule. Player models look more authentic, with more players getting the full facial treatment, stadiums getting tweaked a bit more, and camera angles showing even more broadcast-style views than ever before. The animations this year are just as spectacular, with loads of new branching paths to make nearly every play unique.

These improvements are most noticeable on the defensive side of the ball, where EA has once again upgraded the intelligence to keep players honest. If you haven't been playing Madden for the past three years, you won't have noticed that a number of similar plays have confused and obfuscated the computer intelligence to the point of being cheesed quite often year after year. Though you'll still get away with the occasional slant route or middle post, the success rate has diminished quite a bit from last year's game. The AI has much higher zone intelligence this year, and makes better reads on the ball than we've seen in some time. You'll see a lot more coverage sacks than last year, which is good because it's still a challenge to get any legitimate pressure on the quarterback without an elite defensive front.

EA Sports

Madden Ultimate Team and Draft Champions aren't without their own improvements, but the differences there are slight compared to the remainder of the game. The soundtrack also lacks any real prominence this year, as it appears EA has neglected to include Sam Spence's NFL Films scores. It's a shame because that has been a great way to enjoy the classic sounds of the game without being forced to endure whatever forgettable musical acts of the month have been offered year after year.

It always takes a few years for a sports franchises to settle into a good groove on the latest consoles, and it would appear that idea has held true for Madden NFL 17. This year's entry is among the best the franchise has seen in terms of accessibility, and all the new tweaks added should make it a strong favorite among loyal players, too. There likely will never be a perfect Madden NFL game, but this version comes very close to that ideal indeed.

This review is based on a digital copy of Madden NFL 17 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.