Video Games Review: Madden NFL 18 (PS4, 2017) is somehow both the same game and a very different one

As of this filing, I will have now reviewed fully three instalments of the Madden NFL series for this website. Reviewing sports titles, as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, is one of the easier aspects of the gig as a games critic — the games don’t change much year-to-year and they are, by and large, quite enjoyable. This is why, when Madden NFL 18 decided to alter the thrust of its entire experience this year, it came as a bit of a surprise.

Madden NFL 18 is still, at its core, a game that seeks to recreate the sport of American football in as realistic a manner as possible. It does this as much to appease die hards as much as it strives to remain accessible to newcomers.

I’ve always marvelled at the quality of Madden‘s tutorials, examples of how to build a tutorial that is valuable for newbies and old hands alike, and they return in full measure here. They’ve helped a relative novice like myself to feel as though they knew enough about this crazy sport to get points on the board. NFL is a surprisingly complicated, strategic game but Madden‘s neatest trick by far was that it never made me feel like I was out of my depth.

This was the year, however, that that sense of security finally changed. This year, Madden 18 gave me an overwhelming sense of being caught out in an incredible lie, and it came from the part of the game where I was least expecting it, the new single player story mode, cribbed from last year’s The Journey in FIFA 17, called Longshot.

A bold departure from the sort of single player options Madden is known for, Longshot is a full blown, motion captured story mode in the vein of most sports movies you’ve ever seen. The cleanest way to describe Longshot I’ve been able to come up with is “the kind of sports game Naughty Dog might make” (though if you go in expecting Naughty Dog quality, you may be disappointed). It’s filled with cutscenes, quick time events, and numerous challenges that can’t actually be failed because its about the cinematic beat and nothing at all to do with your skill level. I timed it out — Longshot presented me with a full forty five minutes of set up before I actually played any football whatsoever.

The story follows Devin Wade (played by JR Lemon), a high school football quarterback with dreams of going pro. When his father Cutter (played by Mahershala Ali, whose appearance must have cost EA a fortune) dies, Wade finds himself in an emotional spiral. He quits the team, a decision that leaves him reviled in his football-crazy hometown, and now, a few years on from his father’s loss, he is looking to pick up where he left off.

Wade finds himself wrapped up in a gaudy, The X Factor-esque reality TV show called Longshot, a platform for players like himself who think they have what it takes to step up to the big leagues but don’t believe they have another way of attracting the attention of the talent scouts on their own. He is paired with a disgraced former NFL coach Jack Ford (played by Rus Blackwell, who turns in one of Longshot’s best and most believable performances) and the two embark on the long road to Draft Day. Wade has a problem, though — he quit his high school football team before he ever learned to properly call a play and it was here that Longshot began to leverage my impostor syndrome in interesting ways.

All Coach Ford wanted me to do was repeat a play back to him. “Strong I twins. Flex dagger. X dig. Y shallow. Z go.” I did my best, but ultimately gave him the wrong combination. Wade, a mirror of my own feelings in the moment, sheepishly attempted to repeat them. Coach snapped at me. Try another. Another. I kept getting them wrong. We moved onto reading the defence. “Look at this play. Tell me which one of these players is your wide receiver?” I had no idea, but took a punt and got it right. Wade looked as relieved as I felt. Another one: “Look at the defensive line here — should you run the ball?” I had no idea. Once more, I took a stab in the dark. Wrong again.

These sequences where far higher pressure than anything I’d felt in the game proper. With every wrong answer, Coach seemed to become more and more defeated, and Wade himself more and more despondent about his chances. It was an interesting set up to allow the player to better identify with Wade as a character — his skill set directly reflected my own. I had an elementary understanding of how the game worked in practice but my knowledge of football theory was negligible. In this sense, Longshot is a great success.

It falls down a bit in a few other areas — despite tracking your performance with little green and red arrows that evaluate you decision-to-decision (and later providing you with one of four story endings based on your final score), there are frequent challenges that simply can’t be failed, only reattempted, for no other reason than because the narrative demands it. Indeed, Longshot’s weakest point may be its uneven writing. The script features occasionally cringe-worthy Good Ol’ Boy dialogue, paper thin characters and the sort of syrupy rags-to-riches plot that has been mined by the sports movie genre for decades, but it also boasts some genuinely interesting back-and-forth with Coach Ford. Wade’s own arc is a good one and Lemon puts in a solid performance, communicating Wade’s confusion and inner turmoil with only his facial expressions.

Expressiveness is another area where Longshot struggles though. Built as though it needs to run on current gen platforms as well as the now-ancient Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware (it doesn’t), and switching the entire game over to EA’s beloved do-it-all Frostbite 3 engine, Madden NFL 18 and Longshot by extension, simply doesn’t feel like they look as nice as they could. Don’t get me wrong, it’s as visually accurate and striking as a sports simulator has ever been but it feels like they haven’t completely let the last generation hardware go just yet. As we prepare to step fully into a world of powerful, 4K HDR enabled consoles (and perhaps this is me simply expecting too much), again, I’ve come to expect prettier.

The reason for all of this focus on the single player mode seems to be that, with the NFL currently in a state of flux, with teams moving to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to stay afloat, there’s a need for a little hope in the league right now. Longshot’s inclusion represents the series’ first major innovation in almost five years, the first since the introduction of the Connected Franchise mode.

Interestingly, its the Franchise mode that gets shunted to the periphery this time with the game fervently driving players who are finished with Longshot directly into the Ultimate Team mode, now called MUT (or “Mutt”, based on FIFA‘s identical FUT mode). MUT is the game’s fully realised version of fantasy football, allowing the player build a dream team of current players, up-and-comers and Hall of Famers alike and then put them on the field to see how they perform.

MUT is also bringing back the co-operative online multiplayer mode that was last seen in Madden NFL 14. This mode, as much fun as it is, requires a more rounded knowledge of what makes the game work. Co-ordination and communication are the key to making the big plays. One player calls offensive plays, another the defensive plays while a third will supply your team’s jerseys and home stadium from their own MUT library. They can also jump into any playing role not taken by the other two players.

Madden NFL 18 very much places all of its football-shaped eggs in Longshot’s narrative basket rather than making any sweeping alterations to the now very familiar gameplay and modes. More experienced players, used to a certain level of narrative quality from other games, may turn their nose up at it but for those who really only play Madden, it will be a nice change of pace.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Longshot is an interesting experiment; Still has strategic and enjoyable as ever
Lowlights: Little innovation over last year beyond Longshot and the new engine
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.