Madden NFL 18 is astonishingly the 29th entry in the Madden NFL series, which is something I wasn’t aware of until I sat down to write this review. Of course, as with all sports game franchises, the art form isn’t necessarily about huge leaps in gameplay innovation as it is about refining and tweaking individual elements of the game with each instalment. Madden 18 is no exception and continues to deliver a well-polished NFL experience that caters to both fans and first-time series players alike. Despite having been a long-time NFL fan, this was my first lengthy sit-down with a Madden title, and I’m thrilled to say it was an absolute treat. Not only is it easy to pick up, but it has also helped me to better understand some of the more confusing rules of American football which is a real credit to how accessible they’ve made the game to players of all varieties. In saying that, though, my focus for this review is going to be Madden’s first take at a story mode, cunningly titled “Longshot,” and whether it chalks up to what it promised to be.
The story of Longshot focuses on Devin Wade, a quarterback from the small town of Mathis, Texas who is attempting to reach the NFL via the NFL Scouting Combine. Joined by his friend Colt Cruise, Devin’s journey unwinds as you learn about what happened to one of the country’s most exciting high school prospects and why he walked away from the game. Despite being a little light on content with a story mode that only offers around 4-6 hours of gameplay, I enjoyed the Longshot format. After years of playing the NBA series, it’s refreshing to see that Madden decided to go with an alternative route and take a far more dramatic approach to their storytelling. I’m a sucker for a good story fuelled by themes of redemption, and Madden executes this beautifully in Longshot. It’s also further proof of how far sports games have managed to come since the early years and how they can incorporate excellent narrative into their games and make them far less one dimensional.
You could almost say Longshot plays like an RPG in that you’re given options throughout the story that will affect the narrative and the way your character develops. For example, a choice I made early on to shoot a video with Colt outside the NFL Scouting Combine negatively impacted my scouting report, and it was noted down that I was distracted with social media and friends. It’s an interesting idea on how to both progress the narrative as well as expand on the personal details about your Devin Wade and how scouts (people) perceive your actions as a talent and prospect. Having that type of visual feedback is a unique experience, and while perhaps not being subtle and woven into the storytelling, it still provides a nice snapshot of how your choices are affecting the game’s story.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with Longshot is the lack of gameplay. While you participate in drills, practice, and relive some high school and college games, the story ends in a rather abrupt fashion. To this end, it meant I failed many challenges along the way because I was completely unused to the playstyle as a newcomer. Previous EA games have done a great job of weaving tutorials into the gameplay, and I feel this was a bit of a road bump for the series’ first attempt at a story mode as it gives the impression they only expected hardcore enthusiasts would play the game. In a narrative where you’re striving to be the best, and your very soul is bared to the world, failing challenges is deflating and only serves to make you feel inadequate as a player. Sure, it’s understandable they wanted the story mode to speak for itself, but it felt like a very hit-and-miss situation which other franchises have been perfecting for awhile now.
On a more positive note, Madden 18 is the first entry in the series to run on Frostbite, and damn does it look amazing. The level of detail and texture on everything is an absolute visual feast, and playing it is just a real joy to sit back and take in. The menu soundtrack also employs some big names such as Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, Snoop Dogg, Steve Aoki and more to get you into the vibe that it’s “game day” and something you would expect from a regular NFL broadcast on TV. The biggest impression Longshot left me with, though, is the wealth of actors employed, with stars such as Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, Moonlight), Barry Corbin (One Tree Hill, No Country for Old Men) and Scott Porter (Hart of Dixie, Friday Night Lights) boosting the profile of talent featured.
Fundamentally, Madden NFL 18 is as polished and fantastic to play as ever. If you’re a big NFL fan and play every year, it’s a no brainer. What’s most interesting about this particular instalment, however, is Longshot – the series’ first ever story mode. While I don’t think Madden manages to fully realise this concept out of the gate, it’s still impressive for a first shot despite being a bit bare on content and with barriers to entry to overcome. I just hope that for Madden NFL 19 the story and development team take the core of this experience to the drawing board and expand on the great foundation they’ve laid. As these games also turn into more exceptional cinematic experiences, it’s important for them to be able to empower players to live out their fantasies through imagination and story. At their very best, sports are both realised and imagined as the peak of human physical achievement and prowess, and it’s important for these games to convey that feeling and emotion to its players and place them (however fantastical) in those positions.