When I first started playing Madden NFL 18, I was pleasantly surprised. For the first time in several years, the legendary coach, commentator, and namesake for the franchise, John Madden, lent his voice back to the game. It was only the opening title screen animation, but he briefly waxes poetic—as much as anything John Madden says could be considered poetry—about the greatness of cover athlete Tom Brady, just like he was back in the broadcast booth.
Hearing his voice again brought back a lot of good memories for me, because when Madden was at his best, there were few better at conveying football to the masses. It also brought back some rough ones too, however, because when Madden was at his worst, he was a bit of a laughing stock that distracted from the games he broadcast. It’s somewhat apropos then that his voice is there at the start of this year’s Madden entry, because in many ways, this is a perfect symbol for Madden NFL 18. Some things about the game are very good; some just had me shaking my head.
Easily one of the brightest spots of the game was also the most surprising. Partially made possible by the Madden team switching to the Frostbite engine, and partially because FIFA’s “The Journey” mode was so well received and helped pave a path, Madden added its own story-driven mode this year called Longshot—and it’s one of the freshest and most enjoyable things the Madden series has ever done.
Longshot could best be described as one part Madden, one part Friday Night Lights, and maybe two parts Telltale storytelling. You play as Devin Wade, a one time blue-chip QB prospect who hung up his cleats shortly after beginning his college career and took a couple of years to find himself after personal tragedy left him shaken as a young man. Working through the regional combine and taking advantage of a unique opportunity that comes his way, Wade is the very definition of a longshot, with one last chance to make it in the NFL. Alongside his best buddy and number one wide receiver, Colt Cruise, Wade’s determination will be tested just as much as his athletic ability.
The story that Longshot tells could be placed alongside all the best football stories we’ve seen, from Rudy to Remember the Titans to the aforementioned Friday Night Lights. Not only do you see his story unfold, but often times you’ll be asked to step in and choose Devin’s words or actions in various situations that will guide him down dozens of different branching paths (a la a Telltale game). Depending on those choices—and how you perform on the football field—Devin could be drafted, Colt could be drafted, neither could be drafted, or both could be drafted.
Besides dialogue choices, Devin will also suit up. You’ll get to relive some of Devin’s glory days in high school, as well as be put to the test in combines and game scrimmages. Your performance here has a direct effect on what makes Longshot truly unique, and that’s Devin’s draft grade page. Every major event you partake in can affect Devin’s grade, football IQ, how his personality is perceived, and more. Even bigger, every NFL team is watching, and you can instantly see how every one of these events affects the score directly.
Longshot could truly change what draws people to Madden, and might even appeal to those not typically interested in a football sim. There are a couple of drawbacks to what should otherwise be a highly-celebrated new mode, though. It’s not bad that Longshot should only take you three to five hours to beat, and it’s damn impressive that there are no load times whatsoever once you jump in—you can play the entire thing straight through if you so choose. I just personally wished there was a better balance between those critical gameplay moments that affect your score, and the sometimes long cutscenes that take place in-between to drive the story forward. Also, it was jarring how the biggest moments of Devin’s on-field life at times get boiled down to quicktime events. It heightened the drama, but definitely not the gameplay.
Also, even if you should get your grade to be extremely high (I ended up with a 9.7/10 score), you won’t be drafted where you should be as a player of that caliber. I think a couple more endings would’ve been warranted, because even with all the drama surrounding Devin, if you score that highly, one NFL team would take a flyer on you early. Considering how often teams take risks—like the Bucs wasting a second-round draft pick on a kicker, or the Broncos when they took Tim Tebow of all people with a first-round pick—somebody should snatch up Devin if you end up turning him into a true superstar. Otherwise, I absolutely loved this mode, and hope to have more adventures with Devin next year.
As good as Longshot is, there are some misses on other fronts this year in Madden. The past several years saw major gameplay overhauls, focusing on offensive/defensive line play, the running game, and the passing game. Now that such major components of football have been looked at, EA Tiburon seemingly wanted to use this year to start focusing a bit more after such broad endeavors.
The first (and worst) of these new mechanics is something called Target Passing. It has to be said that Target Passing is completely optional, but after trying to use it several dozen times, I chose to never use it again, and hope it goes the way of QB Vision a decade ago—as in it never comes back. Target Passing borrows a little bit from some of the drills in Longshot, where you can bring up a targeting reticule on the field and move it into position. By pressing the corresponding button while holding the trigger, you can throw the ball not where the computer wants to throw it, but to where the reticule specifically is, and the receiver will break their route to best try to catch the ball.
The idea was to offer the kind of precision we see on any given Sunday in an NFL game—for example, aiming for a receiver’s outside shoulder to guard against a corner, or to aim for the corner of an endzone that only your tight end can get to. What it ends up doing is adding an overly complex layer to Madden’s passing game, and throws even more information at you to process in the brief amount of time you have to get rid of the ball. I’m sure there are some pro-Madden players out there who will jump for joy over this mechanic, and I admit the idea was a sound one, making perfect sense on paper. But QB Vision was also a sound idea that was poorly implemented, and I believe that’s the case here again. Target Passing’s not fun to use, and will take far longer to figure out than it is worth for most players.
Of course, no matter how you end up throwing the ball, you always need someone to throw to, and so wide receiver versus cornerback play has also fallen into EA Tiburon’s crosshairs this year. Here, however, I found the new controls to definitely add something to the experience. Now, it’s easier than ever to jam wide receivers if you play with corners by using the right joystick and simply pressing against the receiver, trying to guess correctly which way they’ll try to run. Conversely, receivers can also use the sticks and shoulder buttons to roll around from potential jamming, and can more easily break their routes off or make sharp cuts to get to the inside or outside of the numbers depending on what the situation may call for, adding a welcome layer of realism to one of the most important battles on a football field.
This new gameplay in particular comes in handy within a new wrinkle in one of Madden’s most popular modes, Madden Ultimate Team. Yes, the card collectible game that allows you to buy packs of players and create your own fantasy team is unsurprisingly back, but with it comes a lot of changes. For example, there are now special fantasy packs that allow you to see an entire selection of amazing players, and then choose the best one of that group (while forcing you to discard the rest of the pack). There is also the brand new MUT Squads, bringing big time online co-op to Madden.
MUT Squads allows for 3-on-3 online matchups to take place, with one player serving as the offensive coordinator and providing the offense, one player doing the same for the defense, and another acting as head coach, who basically controls the timeouts (a role potentially great for less-experienced Madden players). MUT Squads is a bit of a double-edged sword for Madden, however. It is great that Madden can support larger groups online, and that buddies who have always wanted to play together now can. One player can be the QB throwing to a receiver who, using the new controls to get away from receivers, is fighting to get open for his team.
The downside to MUT Squads is that it’s very hard to get on the same page in Madden. Much like real life football, it will require a lot of time to get in sync with someone, especially when most folks at this point are used to playing Madden alone, where the entire team works together as an extension of the player. Another disappointment is that the 3-on-3 co-op is only in MUT Squads, when I know there are many out there who would probably rather just play as their favorite team with their buddies without having to rely on the randomness of MUT to provide them with good players in order to be competitive.
And that’s the real rub of MUT and a lot of Madden NFL 18 in general: It feels like all of the game outside of Franchise is just trying to funnel players into MUT, where you either need to grind for the best players, or be forced to spend real world money on microtransactions. (Even Longshot will “reward” you with MUT items if you beat it.) The microtransactions are all optional, of course, but the more times you put temptation in front of someone, the more likely they are to bite.
Even Draft Champions—an inclusion we first got back in Madden NFL 16 that has been a tremendous addition to the series—is now locked behind a level wall in MUT, and you need MUT tickets to play against people online.
Admittedly, you only need to put around 20 to 30 minutes of time into MUT challenges to unlock access to MUT Draft (the new name for Draft Champions), but the fact that one of the most popular aspects of Madden has been absorbed under MUT and put behind a wall of any kind is frustrating. The worst of this is that the balance of the randomness from previous years feels lost, because not only are the players you can choose from in each round of MUT Draft random, but so are their overalls, since MUT can feature the same player with different stats each time. Frustratingly, it feels like EA Tiburon ruined Draft Champions by turning it into another way to try to keep you around longer in a mode that tempts you into spending more real money.
And of all the things that aren’t linked to MUT—Franchise mode—there’s a part of it which could be. In that mode, you can train with your team before each game as part of a scouting report against that week’s opponent. Meanwhile, there’s also the Skills Trainer option on the main menu, which is where all the scouting report drills are pulled from. Completing tasks in Skills Trailer rewards free MUT packs; completing those tasks in Franchise does nothing for MUT. Why those two things aren’t linked makes no sense, aside from the fact that Madden loves making you grind. It’s the digital equivalent of two-a-days.
While speaking of Franchise, there have at least been some minor improvements to it outside of the drills. The user interface was cleaned up some, particularly when it comes to scouting and drafting college players. As well, animations are better than ever now that they’re powered by Frostbite. Using the hit stick and making open-field tackles has never looked cleaner, and you can almost feel the impact in your favorite gaming chair. There’s still the occasional rag doll glitch, but the visuals at least seem to be the most polished Madden has had in a long time. That said, some member of the team must’ve had a brain fart, because they messed up the New York Giants’ and Los Angeles Chargers’ schedules, giving the Giants nine road games and only seven home games and the Chargers the inverse—in real life, the Chargers are going to Metlife, the Giants aren’t going to StubHub—and hopefully that is fixed immediately in an upcoming patch. These were the only two teams I saw with incorrect schedules, but the fact I even had to check this was irritating to say the least.
Unintentional errors bring me to my final point of Madden NFL 18: the online servers. I played several online games literally just a few hours before this review went live. Several thousand people were supposedly already online and finding a game wasn’t an issue. Neither, for the most part, was maintaining a connection. That said, there were a couple of random disconnects from the EA servers, which could be a sign of instability—and if that’s the case here in this limited pre-launch scenario, that worries me. Of course, the game doesn’t release worldwide for another week even though we were told the servers should be good to go, so there is always hope that this was simply a last second hiccup, rather than a portent for worse things to come. Considering how critical online play is to Madden, it’d be surprising to see any real long-term issues, but we’ll see when the servers ramp up to some real strain in the coming days.
This year, it seems Madden NFL 18 is all about taking the good with the bad. There is more good than bad for sure (highlighted by the new Longshot mode), but things like putting Draft Champions into MUT and the new Target Passing mechanics should make a lot of folks at least a little bit wary. We’re not quite back to the “annual roster update” days, but after the roll Madden has been on in recent years, if you’re looking to take a break, this might be the year to do so.
Although the new Longshot mode shines, Madden misses the mark with a few of its gameplay additions this year—so if you don’t immediately take a liking to them and choose to ignore them, the experience will feel a lot like last year’s. Meanwhile, the additions to MUT feel unnecessary, and like a desperate attempt to get more people playing—and potentially investing in microtransactions.
E - Everyone
|Madden NFL 18 is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Ray has extensive roots in geek culture, as he’s written about videogames, comics, and movies for such outlets as Newsday.com, ESPNNewYork.com, Classic Game Room on YouTube, Collider.com, and Comicvine.com before finally settling into his role as EGM’s reviews editor. His main goal in life? To become king of all geek media, of course!