Another year, another season of the NFL and while a lot of fans are busy with their fantasy leagues and checking the draft, I’m awaiting to see what kind of changes are being made for Madden. While there are some good tweaks to the core gameplay and finally the addition to play co-op in the Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), the real attraction this year was the inclusion of a long request story mode, Longshot. Not only was I excited to be able to experience a story mode that follows you through the steps of becoming pro, but this is the first Madden to use the very pretty Frostbite engine. So was it beneficial to focus on the story mode instead of making any meaningful upgrades to the core gameplay?
This is the point where I’d give a synopsis of what a game is all about, but I don’t think there is much I can say about Madden that you don’t already know: it’s football. So for this I’ll focus on the Longshot mode, but go more in depth on this later on. You play as Devin Wade, a quarterback with exceptional skill and personal problems. Wade’s story is a complicated one consisting of loss and grief while maintaining the performance pressures of a star high school quarterback transitioning into college and into the NFL. “Movie that you can play” as described by the EA Tiburon developers is a perfect way to explain this mode. Its a 100% cinematic experience consisting of real life actors captured perfectly in mo-cap.
While Madden 18 doesn’t offer up any big gameplay changes, there are a handful of smaller additions and tweaks that make the total package a lot better than last year’s installment. To start off, let’s talk about Play Now Live, a feature that lets you “play the best real world NFL match-ups each week”. Some how it took EA this long to finally implement this feature and while it’s not revolutionary since you could always play the current years match-ups in Franchise Mode, the bid draw here is having up to date roster stats and player injuries to fully simulate that match, and in my case, give my 49ers a chance to at least win one game this season.
Franchise Mode and MUT are largely unchanged for this installment, but they do both offer some slight changes that are welcome. MUT finally adds in co-op which was a feature my brother and I have wanted for a long time. We can now play together and build our ultimate team and take it online to challenge other teams. Franchise is more just a cosmetic change which is a shame because there is still a lot of room for improvement here. Online Mode gets an upgrade to allow for 3-on-3 and while it seems like we will never see an 11-on-11 mode, 3-on-3 is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, it seems the typical EA server issues are still on display here with lag and network drops which kills any excitement of continuing your online career.
The gameplay additions are few and there is a good chance the majority of casual players won’t even bother using them, but they are worth mentioning for the players who like a more simulated experience. Target Passing makes its debut and while last year we had the good additions of being able to decide how you pass and catch the ball, Target Passing gives you full control of where you throw it. Pick your receiver and control a cursor to where you want to throw. This is actually extremely difficult to pull off in real time, but once you get the hang of it you will be leading receivers and putting the ball exactly where you want. The only draw back to this is that it seems to negate passer ratings and accuracy because you always deliver it where you aim so its sort of a double edged sword for the simulator players.
When you first start Madden 18, you’re greeted with the option to play Arcade, Simulation, and Competitive. Arcade is for your casual player who just wants to play an action packed high scoring game with limited penalties Simulation offers true to player stats and team ratings with authentic rules and gameplay. Competitive is the heavy focus on online with H2H ranked online and tournaments as a default. Coverage Assignment finally allows to let you assign your best corner to their best receiver, another addition that seemed like a no-brainer at the start, but finally just made it in. Coaching Adjustments is a feature that probably won’t be used as much outside of the hardcore players, but it allows you to customize the AI to fit your game plan and make situational changes to your strategy on the fly as the game demands it.
Graphics and animations have received a nice upgrade with the inclusion of the Frostbite engine. The colors are more vibrant, the animations and tackles look smoother, and the stadiums and crowds are a lot better quality. While the animations have been improved and do look a lot smoother, it certainly isn’t perfect. You’ll still get the awkward rag doll flop or the stiff bowling pin look during a hit. They are a lot less frequent than previous entries and more often than not you’ll think it’s an unrealistic collision, only to then look back on a replay and notice it’s a realistic reaction to a random foot or leg trip while running through the front line gap. Sound design is as good as ever with tough collision sound effects from the player grunts to the pads that make the big hits that much better. The stadium sounds, crowd cheers, and the announcers are all well done and while the announcers will still repeat some lines, it is a vast improvement from the past installments.
Now onto the bid draw of Madden 18; the Longshot story mode. I’d like to first say that I had the wrong impression of what this mode was going to be. I thought it was going to be something similar to EA’s Fifa or 2k’s NBA 2k story modes where you play as a character going through his story, but you actually played the games and got points to improve your stats as you go through high school, college and then the NFL draft. Oh, how I was wrong. Like I mentioned in the synopsis this is very much a movie that you just play, the first half of the game you don’t even get full control of your character. All the action is through QTE’s and dialogue boxes until the end, but then you don’t even get to pick your plays and you get cornered into making the throws they want you to make. None of this felt like real football at all and none of the story sequences have enough draw to really make it worth it. Sure there are some decent acting performances and some good side characters, but they could have still done all of this and still allowed you to have control and play some actual games.
One of the biggest draws for me was to take this character through the Combine, but that was quickly glossed over for a cheap way out by joining a TV series called “Longshot” that will pit you against other quarterbacks and put you against a massive challenge to get you on the NFL draft. This all sounds great until you’re actually “playing” it. Most of this training and the contests consist of circus games of moving a courser to a spot and pressing “A” to throw the ball at a target to get points or answering football trivia. Once you get to the big finale, you’re put through some challenges that look like it’s going to give you some full control. While a couple of the challenges finally allow you to play some ball, it is still very limited and even glossed over to include situational QTE’s and decisions on who to throw it to that will affect relationships or your career.
The story is touching and there are some decent performances as well as some pretty bad ones, mainly from your emotionless main character, but I just don’t know how you make a story mode for a sports game and not let you even play one full game. Yes, you read that right. You play little parts here and there or just a couple pass plays in flashbacks that again are just QTE’s where you guide the ball to the receiver to make the catch. This entire 5 hour experience was a massive let down and not at all what I wanted from a Madden story mode.
Madden 18 took a longshot in focusing on a story mode instead of creating bigger upgrades to the base game that their fans sink the most time into and it was ultimately a massive dud. While I respect them taking the chance to do something different, all they needed to do was replicate what they have already done in Fifa‘s story mode. Outside of the story mode, it is the same ‘ol Madden with a couple new noteworthy tweaks and additions that are welcome, but not at all enough to warrant a full price admission.
Madden 18 is available now on Xbox One and PS4.