Sports games are currently undergoing a bit of a sea change. At the beginning of this console generation, the NBA 2K series reinvented the way we interact with career and story modes. Since then, we’ve seen both Sony’s MLB the Show and EA’s own FIFA series take notes from 2K’s formula, and have in the process changed the way we’re beginning to view what a story mode should be about. These developments are what brings us to Madden NFL 18. Developed by EA Tiburon, the team have made this year’s mission to put their own spin on a sports game’s story mode. While it’s certainly a benefit when a company shows the initiative to add something new to their long running franchise, Madden NFL 18 doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park on its first outing.
Longshots (the title given to the game’s campaign), takes you through the journey of high school superstar turned college bust Devin Wade, and his pursuit of NFL glory. Unlike a stereotypical sports game narrative of slowly becoming the best, Longshots is much more about the journey to the league, and the ins and outs of getting drafted and trying to make your dreams come true.
The crux of the story sees Wade, along with his partner-in-crime Colt Cruise, competing in various drills and scrimmages in order to impress scouts before draft day. However, it’s the off the field relationships with coaches, teammates and other non-playable characters that make up the vast majority of the action in Longshots. While this might seem like Madden venturing a bit too much into a “playable movie” (a criticism that is often lobbed at these types of stories), its focus on character development adds to the experience far more than dozens of hours of empty gameplay segments ever could.
Much in the way of a Telltale adventure game, the plot of Longshots is developed through a combination of player choices, along with your performance in various mini-games, with EA’s emphasis being primarily focused on telling a B-level sports movie. Featuring actors such as Friday Night Lights’ Scott Porter, and the award winning Mahershala Ali, the performances and moments are more than adequate to tell the rather stereotypical small-town Texas football story. With a runtime of just a little over four hours, Longshots never outstays its welcome, and although it isn’t going to be winning any storytelling awards for its compelling writing, it’s a fantastic addition to the Madden franchise, which will hopefully serve as the groundwork for the series going forward.
On the gameplay side of things, Madden NFL 18 hasn’t revolutionized the art of virtual football by any means, but this year’s game has made a few tweaks which diminish some lingering complaints from last year’s entry.The run game is still as workable as last year, and pass defense has been streamlined to help you more accurately choose between confidently swatting the ball away to bring up a third and long situation, or being aggressive and going for a pick six to change up the game. Passing has (without a doubt) become the most difficult aspect of the game. Receivers are closed down quicker than ever, while a pass rush can affect accuracy in ways that make completing passes harder than they’ve ever been; a far cry from the pass-happy iterations of Madden in previous years.
As far as gameplay options, Madden 18 has retained everything from last year’s outing, including the always helpful “Skills Trainer,” which help break down defenses and football terminology for first timers. Whether you already know the basics of football or if you’ve never played the game before in your life, Madden’s Skills Trainer does the best job of explaining the rules and nuances of the game than any sports title currently on the market. Combine these gameplay tweaks with the upgrade in presentation, and Madden 18 has noticeably improved its on-field look.
Tackling and catching animations are solid as ever, and although players and coaches do still have a slight ‘dead look’ in their eyes, facial animations are improving year-over-year, with rookies and veterans alike looking more and more recognizable. While football is a game with rosters of 52 unique players, major stars and coaches look passable enough to allow Madden to keep up with its contemporaries.
The broadcasting team, which consists of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, have only gotten better, with more voice lines and anecdotes being added from last year’s game. That being said, with EA’s commitment to constantly adding new elements and layers to the dialogue throughout the season, I hope they don’t shy away from addressing more taboo issues facing the league, such as the Colin Kaepernick and Ezekiel Elliott situations, which were a topic of conversation in Madden 17’s in-game commentary.
When it comes to online modes, head-to-head competition is present, but this year more so than in the past, EA has pushed it’s incredibly popular and lucrative “Ultimate Team” to the forefront of what Madden 18 offers in terms of online play. While the same pay-to-win criticisms still apply to this year’s installment, Madden 18 does offer a number of offline and reasonable ways to earn in-game currency then a lot of other comparable modes out there. However, this shouldn’t let EA off the hook for the fact that, time and time again, they have soured an incredibly robust (and continuously updated) mode with exploitive micro-transactions (which are separate from the game’s $60 retail price).
While there are plenty of new additions to Madden NFL 18, the best inclusion is its Longshots career mode, and it’s evident why. EA Tiburon has put a great amount of work and resources into building a story mode that can compete with the like of 2K and The Show. While it’s not your typical RPG/stat-driven create-a-player story, they are raising the level to which a sports game can explore and execute a well-written story.
Madden is one of the premier titles in the sports genre, and this year’s outing is no exception. It’s been around the longest, and although it has dipped a little in popularity in comparison to NBA 2K in recent years, the series is still a leader and trendsetter in terms of what the genre can do. While Longshots isn’t the pinnacle of what a sports story can be, it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction in bringing Madden into the same league as other modern sports titles. Much like Longshots itself, Madden NFL 18 isn’t the cream of the crop of what a sports title has to offer, but it has once again brought enough to the table to allow it go toe-to-toe with the competition.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with. Part of this review is based on time spent with the game at an EA-hosted preview event, for which lodging and travel was provided by Electronic Arts.
Madden NFL 18 doesn't reinvent the sports game narrative, but it does enough to move the chains and inch a little closer toward the end zone.