Another year, another Madden. Madden NFL 18 is, undeniably, an evolutionary rather than revolutionary entry in the series: What we’re offered is a shinier version of 17 with a few new bells and whistles, rather than something that feels genuinely innovative. In a sense, this is no bad thing, Madden 17 was excellent – but whether or not you upgrade will depend on how much you care about the small details. It’s definitely a better game than last year, but exactly how much better is open to conjecture.
One of the big differences from last year is that, like FIFA, most of the Battlefield series, and the forthcoming Anthem, Madden is now being made in the versatile Frostbite engine developed by EA Dice. However, while Frostbite was the catalyst for FIFA’s visuals to take a Great Leap Forward last year, the same hasn’t happened for Madden. This is in large part because 17’s visuals were very impressive, it was already a great looking game while, prior to 17, FIFA’s graphics were lagging the likes of NBA 2K and Madden. Look closely though and it’s clear that Frostbite has brought visual improvements; shadows are infinitely better than they used to be, stadiums are vivid cauldrons of atmosphere in a way that they just weren’t last year, and the whole thing feels smoother thanks to better animations and a greater variety of animations. The end result is that the game looks incredible. There are occasional issues with collision detection, and the replay camera occasionally gets stuck behind objects, but there is generally an astonishing level of visual fidelity, and some of the lighting effects (like the sun coming through the windows of the Falcons’ new $1.5bn Mercedes Benz Stadium) are stunning. There are also new run-out animations that do a great job of conveying the glitz and spectacle of the NFL, as well as the personality of each team (the Texans, for example, have a fire-breathing bull, while the Vikings have some sort of metal bird to convey the Norse theme).
These animations are the highlight of what continues to be excellent presentation, with other improvements including superb replays that do a great job of showing off the game’s polished visuals. In the booth, it’s the second season for Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, and it’s easy to forget that they’re a relatively inexperienced duo. They offer great analysis and have genuine chemistry, with their friendly repartee really helping to bring the games alive. They will also once again be recording new lines every week to ensure the game tracks the real-life NFL season, and their dedication and professionalism should not be taken for granted.
This approach perfectly complements the new Play Live option on the start screen – essentially, this allows you to dive into the real NFL and play a real-life fixture from that week complete with commentary that gives the game context and makes it more than a random exhibition game. After that game, you’re given the option to seamlessly enter Franchise mode with that team, a nice touch that got me playing a season with the Houston Texans purely because of how much fun it was to sack quarterbacks with J.J. Watt and co.
The headline addition though is Longshot, Madden’s first ever story mode. Longshot charts the trials and tribulations of Devin Wade, a young quarterback hoping to resurrect a once promising career and get drafted by an NFL team. To say more would be to spoil things, but the plot is great, it’s full of interesting characters and goes places you wouldn’t expect. Fundamentally, Longshot works because it’s well written and well acted. Devin is played by a former college football player named JR Lemon, while his best friend, Colton Cruise, is played by Scott Porter, who’s most famous for being Jason Street in Friday Night Lights – the star quarterback who gets seriously injured in the first game of the season. Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali plays Devin’s father, while legendary quarterback Dan Marino also has a prominent role. The central relationship though is Devin and Colt, the tyro QB and the cocky wide receiver whose lifelong friendship is tested as they chase the elusive dream of the NFL. Against all the odds, this story is genuinely touching, their friendly banter is endearing rather than irritating, and the lead actors have genuine chemistry.
It’s in Longshot that the Frostbite engine shows its true power, there’s a beautifully cinematic feel to the whole thing, with facial motion capture and detailed character models capturing nuances of emotion and allowing the game to capture complete performances rather than just the actor’s voice. There are also some great examples of dynamic lighting, with shadows shifting as Devin leans forward in his chair and the sun shining through the windscreen of Colt’s dilapidated pickup truck. It’s a great example of Longshot’s attention to detail, it consistently does the small things well, and this really helps to get you sucked into Devin’s story.
Described as a “playable movie” by its writer/director EA veteran Mike Young, in practice Longshot often feels like an NFL Telltale game; the focus is on story rather than gameplay, and it features that trademark mix of branching narrative, dialogue trees and QTE sequences. There are some periods where you play normal Madden, but these are generally reserved for flashbacks to high school and college games, with the pivotal moments almost always revolving around QTEs. Anyone looking for a FIFA or NBA 2K-like career mode will no doubt be disappointed, but Longshot achieves its goal – it makes you think about what NFL players go through off the field and just what they have to give up in order to succeed. The problem is it ends just as it gets going, after about five hours, you reach the draft, hopefully get picked up by an NFL team and then it’s over. It’s hard to know where the cut-off point should be, but the draft feels like the end of the beginning rather than the end full stop. It’s testament to Longshot’s quality that it leaves you wanting more, but given the furore surrounding Madden’s first ever story mode, I was expecting something that went longer than 5-6 hours.
Overall, there’s nothing in Madden 18 that places it head and shoulders above 17 – Longshot is great but too short and, on the field, the gameplay is almost identical. However, refinements in key areas add up to a game that just feels better than its predecessor and does an excellent job of conveying the theatricality, strategy and physicality of the NFL. Ultimately, it’s an excellent game that never quite escapes 17’s shadow. If you love the NFL though, it’s an essential purchase.
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 25th August 2018