Madden NFL 18 review code supplied by EA Sports
What makes this year so interesting is how Madden and its game modes seek to be accessible on all fronts. There’s Longshot connecting to the ultimate team (more on that later) and then Play Now Live connecting to both the NFL figures and stats as well as the in-game Franchise Mode. Play Now Live displays this year’s previous games and lets you relive them. From there, if you liked the outcome or felt connected to what you were doing, you can take your progress and immediately convert that game into the beginning of Franchise Mode. In doing this, Franchise Mode, a tired but reliable mode, is made more accessible by making itself available in more opportune scenarios rather than simply being a main menu option.
There really is something to this year’s gameplay that feels more organic, hiccups aside (more on that). Lineman interacting is dynamic and not so fixed, and somehow the field seems much easier to discern. It could be a camera tweak from last year or simply a benefit of the Frostbite Engine, I’m not sure, but it’s much easier to identify where players are and how they are moving. This means that it’s easier to make reads and make judgments on how those players will react. If a defender is angled to the inside and your player is going outside, it’s much easier to see the intricacies of this this year where players would have been more rigid and inanimate in years past. This makes it easier to exploit defenses, but this doesn’t mean that playing offense is easy either. Defenses are still stingy, and opportunity windows are much smaller. Coupling that with how much more detailed player movements are makes the game easier to interpret while still having the difficulty that comes with playing against eleven players.
With conversion to a new engine, any game falls under early scrutiny, and Madden is no different. While the players and stadiums look phenomenal, outside venues as part of televised presentation are bland and lack that extra something to make them feel real, even though they’re actual places. Players still stumble over each other after plays, resulting in similar peculiarities from previous games, but that’s forgivable, since they don’t affect the outcome. What particularly concerns me is how deeply embedded the game of Madden still is with animations. The game of football itself has changed, players doing more flashy and risky things when under duress, like throwing the ball when being sacked–this is a big one. Some animations make sense, like when a defender is hanging off the quarterback’s arm while trying to bring him down. Others, however, don’t hold as much merit.
For instance, I had one snap where the same guy tried to sack my quarterback three times in succession, each animation sending me closer to the sideline. It was an odd series of events, because there was no gap between the animations. Meanwhile, I had a running back sitting open to dump it off to not ten yards away, but because I was getting basically pushed my quarterback wasn’t able to throw the ball. My quarterback was Aaron Rodgers. Last year, he threw a 20-yard pass with a safety hanging off his shoulder. Instead, Mr. Rodgers got pushed out of bounds after being basically groped for 20 horizontal yards. This was an extreme circumstance, and I have yet to come across it again, but it occurred early and brought to the forefront the heavy presence of animations. When playing at faster game speeds, they feel less significant, but the defaulted normal speed doesn’t disguise anything. To its credit, much like years past, it’s about an even split in how these animations end up benefiting either side of the ball. Some move the ball forward, others backward, but both scenarios can make or break the game, and it’s this avid fan’s wish to see this given more attention now that the Frostbite Engine has been broken in.
Commentators are getting more and more organic each year, but some of the same mistakes are being made in how the commentators interpret complicated outcomes. Like going for it on fourth down in enemy territory, they sometimes assess it properly but not always. Another happened to me on fourth down when my right tackle instigated a holding penalty and I threw an incomplete pass. Obviously, the defense declined the penalty and took the ball over on downs, but the commentators went on for about ten seconds about why declining the penalty was a bad idea. Many players will simply mute the commentators before starting a single game, so this isn’t as big of a gripe as it could be. With the ramping focus on presentation, this side of the game needs some simple refinement; luckily, this would be a simple patch fix.
There are few game modes where change would be a disadvantage, but Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) honestly doesn’t require much change to be exactly what players need it to be–apart from faster and more stable servers, of course. That’s not to say that the online components aren’t reliable, mind, but it’s still not entirely snappy either. Coincidentally, time between menus and selections is about the same between both online and offline game modes, so EA is finding ways to decorate their loading times with more relevant content, and that’s a welcome asset. Other than that, though, the one significant addition is being able to play three-on-three with actual players in a way that makes sense to both the sport and the online environment. One player acts as the coach, one as the offensive captain, and the last as the defensive captain. Once, you played on the same side of the ball with everyone at the same time, and my experience with it required way too much synchronization with the other players to be a pick-up game mode. Here, though, roles are separated while still being interconnected, and that favors the game and the environment well, with the only drawback being dependent on each player’s ability to man their roles.
I’ve been playing Madden annually since 2008, and in that entire time I never thought that this franchise would have anything close to a story mode. Ten years later, under the Brady banner, the game mode Longshot arrives with a single player narrative that loosely builds into MUT. While this narrative offers mere starter cards for your MUT card decks, Longshot is a surprise in and of itself. It follows the touch-and-go story of Devin Wade, a top-rated draft pick that left the team when his father died in search of solitude. His friend, Colt Cruise, motivates Devin to pursue his dreams again and drives him to the NFL Combine to compete for a spot in the draft. It’s there where the sleazy TV Director, Ross Fountain, offers Devin a role in the new TV show, Longshot, created specifically for down-on-their-luck players to help give them more exposure. While the plot line of Long Shot follows a great deal of sports-related tropes, what it does well is convey a very human story about a man filled with both doubt and regret. Devin himself is rather inanimate in his expressions, and the same goes for most of the cast, featuring stiff and rigid facial renderings and animations, but the voice work makes up for it rather well. While each character is distinctive and generally memorable, I would like to tip my hat to Ricky Wayne and his work as Director Fountain, a real ass of a character that helps to generate the weight and atmosphere of Devin’s circumstances quite well; and to Mahershala Ali for the role of Devin’s father, Cutter Wade, in a touching performance that perpetuates the proud father trope past cliche and making it both heartfelt and honest. There are some silly points and some odd creative choices along the way, but the bumps feel more like endearment points rather than crucial mistakes.
All in all, Longshot is a significant success this year. Hell, I even learned some technical things about the actual game of football I never knew before, like tips on reading if defenses are in zone or man and how to read the safeties more accurately. This felt organic, and I love that on top of everything else Longshot has to offer. However, unless there is some means to mix things up and keep things fresh, I worry that this game mode would suffer horrendously with lackadaisical annualization. I say that not as criticism as the annualization formula but instead it’s a personal point of emphasis to help ensure that EA sees exactly how special this new feature is to the Madden namesake. Keep it fresh, and in the immortal words of the great RuPaul, “Don’t f*** it up.”
For the first time in a few years, I can say that this year’s Madden has what it takes to bring in players who have been on the fence for a while. With new, adaptive game modes, fresh visuals with more fluid gameplay, and a surprisingly entertaining single player mode, Madden 18 should garner a purchase for even the most curious consumer.