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Madden NFL 18 Review: Madden Tries to Go Deep This Year With a New Story Mode

But is it successful?

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I'm pretty sure we've all dreamt about a fully-realized Madden NFL story mode at some point. What fan wouldn't want to take part in an interactive sports movie?

NBA 2K and FIFA have forged ahead with their own story modes in recent years, but this is the first time that Madden has tried their hand at it. And their attempt is a little... different?

I have some thoughts on how Longshot ultimately turned out, but I'll say this much: It's indicative of a Madden that is the boldest and most confident it's been in a decade. We're a very long way from the rudderless, poorly conceived football sim of just a few years ago.

But of course, Madden means different things to different people. As always, I'll break down this review from two perspectives: the newcomer and the experienced fan. Here's what you need to know about this year's football sim.

For Those Who Are New to Madden

Madden NFL is as daunting as ever if you're a new fan. It is a great way to learn about football, but it has a rather thick layer of jargon to get through.

Longshot is meant to remedy that to some extent. Madden 18's new story mode is one seamless cutscene designed to slowly ease you into the core gameplay. In the early going, you're throwing passes with the help of quicktime events (QTEs). By the end, you're calling plays and directing your own game. It's an extended tutorial disguised as a three hour sports movie.

The story revolves around Devin Wade: a former five star QB recruit who is trying to breaking into the NFL after walking away from college. Joining him is his friend Colt Cruise (Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter)—a borderline receiving prospect who serves as his main target.

Dan Marino shows Devin Wade the ropes in Longshot.

The story opens with them on a roadtrip to a regional combine to try out for the NFL, then morphs into a reality show named... you guessed it... "Longshot." The ensuing story plays out through a series of dialogue choices, minigames, and later on, actual football games, with familiar faces like Chad Johnson and Dan Marino popping in to serve as mentors.

The final product vacillates between intensely cheesy (Colt singing, anything to do with Longshot's coked up executive producer, Dan Marino's acting) and actually kind of neat. By far the most enjoyable segments are Devin's high school football flashbacks, which recall the old NCAA Football games with their prep atmosphere and unique commentary (two Texas stereotypes who honestly call a hilarious game). They're quite forgiving—throw deep to Colt and you'll be in good shape—but that doesn't dampen the fun of trying to make a pair of huge comebacks.

Other segments are somewhat less successful. Throwing passes at crates and targets feels awkward and unsatisfying. Quicktime events are a little too prevalent in the early going. The intercutting of the rendered models of Devin Wade with real-life images of Josh Norman and Jim Miller is straight-up weird. And there's some serious mood whiplash as Longshot goes from silly montages to Deep and Serious Conversations at the drop of a hat.

But the element that's missed the most, I think, is the actual NFL. Longshot includes elements of the NFL, but it more or less ends on a cliffhanger. Instead, you spend a lot of time reflecting back on high school, kicking around the set of Longshot, and learning the ropes on the practice field. The actual NFL, it seems, is going to have to wait until Madden 19. It's an interesting idea, but it has the effect of making Longshot feel a little too disconnected from the core gameplay.

As for whether it's successful in its goal of drawing in fresh blood, I guess the jury is still out. I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few players jumped into Longshot and said, "This is cheesy as hell," and jumped right back out. I guess the only thing I'll say is that it starts off a little wobbly, but ultimately finishes pretty strong, with the grand finale being one of the best parts. And yes, I felt some actual tension as I waited to see whether I would be drafted. I don't think the mode is a home run (or a touchdown?), but at least it's willing to try something different. It takes risks, it tries to be ambitious, and I appreciate that.

From the standpoint of a new player, Longshot makes Madden 18 one of the best entry points for the series since the beginning of the generation. It's also quite attractive thanks to its transition to the Frostbite Engine, which in my view is largely successful. One thing I really like: Every stadium now has its own unique presentation elements. So when the Vikings come running out of the tunnel, for instance, you'll see the big dragon head blowing fire. It looks great, and it really gets you into the moment.

Sadly, it does suffer in a few areas. Madden 18 is one of the only sports sims to not just let you play a regular season without having to worry about player transactions and the salary cap. It boasts a career mode in which you can take on the role of a player, a coach, or an owner, but only the coach mode is any fun to play. Owner mode is a straight-up broken relic from the bad old days of 2013's Madden 25, its only redeeming quality being that it lets you move teams. Connected Franchise Mode (CFM) does a good enough job of capturing the basics of player movement, drafting, and managing the salary cap, but it definitely has a lot of room for improvement. New players are apt to find it dry and a bit boring, even if it is kind of cool that you can now jump into any point of the season.

The new team-specific introductions are great.

As usual, Madden is at its strongest in Madden Ultimate Team (MUT)—a card collecting mode in which you try to build the best team possible. If you have a couple friends willing to dive in, you can play 3-on-3 co-op with MUT Squads—a new addition that requires you to work together to move the ball and defend the field. It definitely skews more hardcore, but it's a hell of a thing when you manage to throw the ball to your friend and they take it all the way down the field for a touchdown.

Ultimate Team, as always, is the subject of some controversy among the core fans. It's by far the most popular mode, and the appeal of collecting high-quality versions of your favorite players is undeniable. But it is microtransaction heavy, and there is real pressure to spend money and buy packs. One way or another, though, you're probably going to wind up playing MUT. The bulk of the multiplayer community can be found there, and it's the one mode that is constantly updated throughout the year. If nothing else, it offers a ton of content, and it's not too hard to build a solid team without spending money. Just be ready to grind a lot of solo challenges.

At the end of the day, Madden 18 definitely skews more hardcore than even the average sports sim. Its multiplayer community is infamously cheesy, and the core fans speak a language that is scarcely understandable for even the average football fan. The gulf between an average player and a good player is huge.

But with Longshot, Madden 18 at least takes some steps toward offering something for ordinary football fans who aren't steeped in its peculiar culture. It still has a ways to go, but between the story mode, skills games, and the simple appeal of guiding your team to the Super Bowl, this is probably the most accessible Madden has been in a long time.

For returning fans of Madden

So let's get this part out of the way first: Longshot is not really for you. It's for the people who feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the tactics, the culture, and the modes. It's a fun, light interactive sports movie that is meant to get some new blood into the game. And cheesiness aside, I think it does have its moments. I legitimately enjoyed the challenge of making it through the finale without failing.

But even if you're put off by its QTEs and how weirdly disconnected it feels from the rest of the game, I still recommend playing through it because it has some serious Ultimate Team hooks (it always comes back to Ultimate Team, doesn't it?) You get some pretty solid starting cards for completing it, including an 84 overall Dan Marino, and it opens up a whole bunch of solo challenges as well. So there are reasons to invest the three to four hours required to burn through the story mode.

Madden 18 looks and plays better than ever on the field.

Alright, with that out of the way, let's talk about gameplay. I've seen some people claim that it's not that different from Madden 17, but I personally have seen a bunch of improvements. To wit:

  • Ratings seems to make a much bigger difference this year, especially in coverage. You may actually be able to effectively run a man coverage press scheme if you have players like Chris Harris and Patrick Peterson—something that wasn't really the case last year.
  • The A.I. definitely seems smarter. They will actually disguise coverage now, and the zones are a lot tighter. You're fine if you can make your reads and attack the part of the field that's open, but there are fewer silver bullet money plays than ever. It's also harder to beat the CPU one-on-one. After routinely beating the CPU by multiple touchdowns in Madden 17, I found I had to really earn my victories in Madden 18. Credit the tighter coverage and the CPU's ability to make smarter plays (even if CPU QBs have a weird habit of just standing in the pocket when nothing is open).
  • Coaching Adjustments are really interesting. This feature might get lost because it's a little buried, but it's definitely worth looking into for the impact that it has on elements like the pass rush. I really love the risk-reward of turning on aggressive blocking and praying that you don't end up with a holding penalty.
  • Running feels good again. I don't know what happened last year, but at some point running became kind of a pain. The improved blocking A.I. in Madden 18 has made running fun again, but without feeling broken. We'll see how well it holds up, but so far I really like it. And hey, no more broken Jumbo sets!
  • There's a manual passing feature that lets you put the ball anywhere you want on the field. It's very much a high-level feature, but it makes for an interesting one. I'm betting the people who can actually make use of it will dominate. As for me, I mostly just get sacked when I try to make use of the feature.

On balance, the transition to Frostbite feels mostly painless. There are no noticeable framerate drops even when playing in 4K (HDR will not be available until a future patch), and both the graphics and animation look much-improved. This being Madden, of course, there will be glitches. There was one point where the game flat out crashed on me, and I've seen my share of awkward transitions and randomly disappearing characters. It's not gamebreaking, but I wouldn't be surprised if more problems emerge once the game is out in the wild.

The transition to Frostbite also doesn't do much to address some of the weirdness with the physics. Throwing the ball feels decent enough, and players no longer have eyes in the back of their head, but the way that it bounces when it hits the turf can be pretty weird and unnatural. This is one area where where Madden can definitely take a page from MLB The Show, which has some of the best ball physics around.

MUT Squads is an excellent co-op mode.

CFM, of course, is much the same as last year, which is something that already has the hardcore howling. I said my piece about it earlier this year. It does bring with it a couple additions that I do think are pretty meaningful: Draft Boards and the ability to pick up at any point in the NFL season. The former is for hardcore online CFM players who can't make it to the draft, while the latter lets you follow your real-life team and try to change its destiny if it's struggling.

These are not insignificant additions! Of course, the broader problem is that Madden's career mode still lags significantly behind the competition. It lacks the sheer breadth of options found in NBA 2K and the fun of being able to create custom leagues found in FIFA. It even lags behind NHL, which is introducing expansion this year. It's functional, but I can understand the frustration hardcore fans are feeling about the mode. I don't know that it needs a total teardown, but there is one question that the devs should be asking themselves: How can we get players to play for more than one year? That's the question that Madden still hasn't answered.

For all the sound and fury about CFM, though, MUT is still Madden's most meaningful mode, and it's looking as strong as ever in Madden 18. No Ultimate Team mode has quite the breadth of solo content as Madden, and it's pleasantly easy to rapidly acquire solid cards without having to rip packs. This year's version adds the Madden equivalent of FIFA's Weekend League—high-level competitions that yield great rewards if you can qualify for them.

There are also the aforementioned MUT Squads, which I expect to be a hit with the hardcore community... assuming the matchmaking pans out (we'll know soon enough). Online team play is tougher to implement in Madden than in, say, NHL, but EA appears to have found the right balance of teamwork and strategy. I really like the way that it seamlessly merges everyone's best players into a single pool, divvies up responsibilities, and puts everyone in a position to contribute. If you have a couple friends who are into MUT, then it's a great way to pass an evening.

As always, Madden 18 is focused on putting one foot in front of the other and making steady, unbroken progress. People say that it's virtually unchanged every year; but when I look back on even Madden 15, it's like night and day. We're a long, long way from the days when Madden would roll out ambitious but poorly conceived features, only to remove them a year or two later because they simply didn't work.

More than ever, Madden NFL is a demanding but fun simulator that accurately represents the real-life sport, and is capable of draining dozens if not hundreds of hours of your time. The jury is out on whether Longshot will be a long-term success; but with the transition to Frostbite and the rock-solid play on the field, Madden 18 has to be considered among the upper echeleon of sports sims.

InterfaceThe custom playbooks creator is a relic from Madden 12 that desperately needs a refresh. The same goes for many of the menus outside of the regular game. Coaching Adjustments feels buried despite being one of the game's most important new features.

SoundBrandon Gaudin and Charles Davis provide some of the best commentary you'll find in the sports genre. One wrinkle I really like this year: They will call out scores from other games in CFM. Crowd noise and stadium ambience is pretty good, but can die in unexpected moments.

VisualsEven without HDR, Madden 18 looks really, really good. The new presentation elements are excellent; the character models are on point, and the animation is smoother than ever. It doesn't quite hit the heights of MLB The Show or NBA 2K, but it comes very, very close.

ConclusionMadden 18 shines where it matters most: On the field. The transition to Frostbite is seamless, and the balance of the running, the pass rush, and coverage feels better than ever. By comparison, Longshot is a little rougher, but it's an interesting and ambitious first attempt. Between Longshot, the Frostbite transition, the more balanced gameplay, and MUT Squads, there's a lot to like about Madden 18. In a four year march that has seen steady progress with each iteration, this is the best upgrade yet.

4.5 / 5.0

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