Madden 18 Review: A Worthy G.O.A.T. Contender That Falls Just Short of the Goal Line
Just like any real football dynasty, the Madden series has franchised only the very best additions to the team this offseason. With so many titles in its trophy case already, it's hard to believe the perennial sports game could accrue anymore -- but with Madden 18, EA's done just that.
Increasingly a football simulator over its past several iterations, Madden has a new playbook this year -- one that resolutely focuses on that realistic verve, taking on- and off-the-field immersion to new heights. In true wildcat style, it's full of flash, excitement, and most of all, interesting surprises. From its Longshot story mode to improvements to the Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) mode, Madden 18 isn't just a sports game -- it's a true NFL experience.
A Longshot That Ultimately Pays Off
It's fitting that quarterback legend Tom Brady graces the cover of Madden this year. Not because the 17-year veteran's won five Super Bowls. Not because he's been to 12 Pro Bowls. And not because he's won more playoff games than any other QB in NFL history. It's because like the Madden franchise itself, he's consistent, reliable, and tenacious.
With Madden 18, EA brings all of that to bear and more, reflecting in nearly every game mode Brady's inimitable competitiveness and panache. It's clear that like the New England signal caller, the studio's not afraid to take chances -- and like most of their gambles on the gridiron, those chances often turn into high-percentage plays.
This year's no different.
One of the biggest additions to Madden's playbook in 2017 is the game's Longshot story mode. I'll admit that when I first heard about it earlier this year, I wrote the mode off as a gimmick -- there's no real reason for Madden to have a story mode, especially when you've got such an in-depth and robust franchise experience. But surprisingly, it's a risk that pays off for EA.
Longshot puts you in the cleats of Devin Wade, a high school football star turned Collegiate bust, as he laces up for the Indianapolis Regional Combine -- his last chance at making it into the hallowed halls of football legend. Joining him for his journey of sacrifice and redemption is high-school teammate and wideout Colt Cruise. Together, they grind through the combine in search of glory and a coveted spot in the NFL Draft.
It's a story full of cliches, stereotypes, and mechanically unlosable situations, but the crazy thing is that almost in spite of itself, Longshot works. As someone who essentially grew up between the hedges, I felt as if I was suiting up for my very own Varsity Blues, Friday Night Lights, or Any Given Sunday every time I stepped into Wade's shoes -- which is exactly what writers Mike Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga were aiming for when penning Longshot's story.
So even though I quickly deduced Longshot's outcome before I'd even stepped foot on the field, it didn't make the narrative any less intriguing or the mode any less fun to play.
And that's a good thing, because it's been a long time since the series iterated this intelligently, crafting a mode that re-envisions Madden's strengths in inventive ways. From dialogue choices and moral decisions that affect the duo's draft stock to QTEs and situational exercises that teach you the underlying dynamics of Madden's gameplay, Longshot invites new players to learn Madden's minutia while also catering to longtime franchise fans. Some of its gimmicks are immersion-breaking -- such as steering a pigskin toward a target mid-flight -- but once you get on the field with the likable, well-written, and well-acted Wade, those little quirks are easily forgiven.
Longshot may have been a gamble for EA, and it may not exactly put you in the shoes of a G.O.A.T. like Tom Brady, but it brings a certain graceful elan to the otherwise fraternal atmosphere that's dominated Madden since its inception. It's a breath of fresh air that the series has sorely needed for a long time.
OTAs Have a New Name
Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) mode is still the fantasy football meta you've come to love, not changing all that much from last year's installment. You'll still grind through challenges to unlock new players and pay in-game or IRL money to get your team on the road to greatness faster. But a key improvement helps MUT 18 stand out from previous iterations -- and that's MUT Squads.
Taking teamwork to an entirely new level, MUT Squads sees players take each other on in electric three-on-three gridiron melees. Adding to the realism and immersion that exemplifies Madden 18, there are three positions to fill on each squad: Offensive Captain, Defensive Captain, and Headcoach. Unlike other restricted Madden co-op modes from years past, MUT Squads sees each player commanding a specific mechanic and controlling any position on the field not occupied by the other two players -- opening myriad on-the-field possibilities never before seen in a Madden game.
In my time with the mode, I mostly saw players taking control of skill positions, harkening back to when Madden only let players command certain roles, like wide receiver or quarterback. But in MUT Squads, it's possible to control an offensive lineman to pass-protect your QB or control a defensive end to wreak havoc in the backfield.
It's a freedom of choice that really sets online multiplayer apart from the game's other modes in a way that's been long overdue for the Madden franchise as a whole.
But not every new mechanic crosses the goal line.
With the development of MUT Squads and the ability to take on any position on the field, EA has also lifted the restrictions on player movement. That means players are able to streak across the field in any direction they choose in MUT Squads -- even deviating from predetermined routes and play selections, for example.
To balance this out, EA's developed what they call Targeted Passing, which affords QBs more "flexibility" during passing downs, letting them lead receivers into opens areas of the field.
In theory, the mechanism works wonders. In practice, it's much harder to pull off. The problem lies in one simple mandate: Targeted Passing immobilizes the quarterback. Dropping back to pass and evading the rush is hard enough on certain difficulties and exacerbated when playing against logically strategic human opponents.
As any fan or player knows, mobility in the pocket is paramount, even if you're not playing Cam Newton or RGIII. So when Targeted Passing arrests you to a certain position in the pocket, it's almost impossible to accurately use the mechanic in the four to five seconds it takes to execute even a rudimentary passing play. It's a mechanic that's worth trying out --because on the rare occasion it does work, Targeted Passing makes you feel like a Montana-sized mountain in the pocket. But overall, it's a mechanic I'd contend most Madden players won't use due to its overall difficulty.
Even with all its additions, Madden 18 is still a Madden game at its core. Like any great NFL team, it's got its studs and it's got its duds.
Because of the Frostbite engine, the overall experience is more engrossing than it has been in a very long time. The game is utterly gorgeous and player models are rendered in uncanny detail from the first snap to the final second. And overall, passing feels crisper this time around, while the running game feels smoother and more organic.
But the switch to the new engine doesn't eliminate some of Madden's peskier hobgoblins. Character models still flop around like catatonic fish in a majority of pile-ups and the framerate occasionally stutters when big nasties tangle up with DTs on ISO or off-tackle plays. Incompletions also occur a lot more frequently, even when a wide receiver smokes the defender in the open field.
New playstyles such as Arcade, Simulation, and Competitive deftly augment Madden's standard Rookie to All-Madden difficulty settings, allowing for more explosive plays, more realistic physics, and more big hits, respectively. But on the other hand, 18's A.I. is as belligerent and curmudgeonly as ever, making sometimes impossible plays even on the easiest of settings.
So no, Madden 18 isn't perfect -- not by a longshot. But by crafting an experience that caters to both the casual and hardcore Madden fan alike, adding tremendous replay value via new modes and playstyles, and taking chances on new mechanics such as Targeted Passing, EA has once again shown why it's the Tom Brady of the sports-game world -- and why Madden is here to stay.
[Note: EA provided a copy of Madden 18 for review.]