After almost 30 years, the Madden NFL series is rarely surprising. Fans think they know what to expect each year: a handful of small but meaningful mechanical tweaks, roster updates, and slight graphical bumps. Madden NFL 18, however, is highlighted by one of the most significant additions in series history--a full story mode--and a new, much more graphically capable engine. And due in large part to the Longshot story, it is a marked improvement over the last several entries in the series.
Madden has rarely tackled the personal side of football, choosing instead to present it as a chess-like competition: you are the coach and master, the players are your instruments to score. Of course, that's not how football is treated in the real world, so to see that change in Madden is intriguing in theory, and gratifying in practice. For the first time in Madden, Longshot actually references how much so many people invest in the sport, and how high the stakes are for them. For instance, main character Devin Wade, the star football player from his small Texas town, quit his college team after a family tragedy. You navigate through Wade's attempt to return to football, traveling to the NFL Combine in order to impress scouts.
Longshot is unexpectedly deep--it's a fully fledged, Telltale-style adventure game with multiple endings, broken up by short moments of playing football. It presents you with decisions that affect both the people around you and the scouts' perception of you. As with Telltale games, there's an illusion of greater choice that isn't necessarily there, but Longshot succeeds because it makes minor choices feel important. Do you reach for celebrity at the expense of Wade's best friend, Colt Cruise? Or do you carry him along at the risk of running afoul of your coach and scouts who think Wade depends on him too much?
For every moment that conveys Wade's commitment, his inner demons, and his friendship with Cruise, there are corresponding moments of absurd spectacle. Wade's journey from obscurity to superstardom unfortunately doesn't take place entirely in intimate, personal story beats a la Friday Night Lights, but rather in the spotlights of a ridiculously excessive reality show. During these sequences and the challenges it presents him with, Wade evokes annoyance, confusion, and anger at the gaminess of the reality show. The executive producer hits every trope of an over-the-top, ratings-obsessed showrunner, and Wade grows disillusioned with the entire process. He was thrust into an absurd situation that was built to manufacture drama, so it makes sense that he would be upset.
These story sequences and their associated mini-games and challenges don't fit well with the core narrative of two small-town football players trying to break into the NFL. Wade and Cruise don't need extra drama to make them care about the sport, so why does the story give us a reality show, as if to suggest that the stakes aren't high enough already?
Longshot is saved, however, by the quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie. It soars when its characters speak honestly about their love of the sport, and it nails the sense that football offers something bigger--a connection to a community, and a way to achieve greatness. Longshot's numerous flashbacks to Wade's time in high school and college show a relatable and deeply troubled character; the commentators for Wade's high school games banter about the players that they, of course, know personally; and Wade, Cruise, and the whole state championship-winning team are treated as heroes in their town for years afterwards.
In spite of its issues, this first attempt at a story mode creates an excellent foundation for future iterations. Further, when you've finished Longshot, you can dive into Madden Ultimate Team to play through some of Devin Wade's most memorable football scenarios.
Madden Ultimate Team is undoubtedly Madden's deepest mode, which has received a suite of updates to make it even more appealing to players. MUT tasks you with building a fantasy team from player cards (and yes, you can still buy packs of more powerful cards for real money). In Madden 18, you'll get player cards representing Devin Wade, Colt Cruise, and other characters from Longshot, and forming a Longshot-focused MUT team will let you participate in around 30 challenges. Although these challenges are generally not much more than normal Madden scenarios with Longshot player models, they're still entertaining enough to be worth playing.
But the main draw of MUT is multiplayer--and this year, you can team up with friends to take on others. Since Madden 25 launched in 2013, the series has conspicuously lacked any online cooperative team play. Madden 18's MUT Squads finally reintroduces it. In the mode, one person plays as the offensive captain, one plays as the defensive captain, and one plays as the coach. It's a welcome addition that gives players more options if they're not interested in the solo competitive MUT modes.
On the field, Madden 18 looks beautiful. The game is the first in the series to use EA's Frostbite engine, and as a result certain moments look nearly photorealistic. Stadiums feature minute details, while player models show everything from arm tattoos to jersey wrinkles. Stadium lighting is a particular high point; for example, afternoon sunlight--partly blocked by the stadium edges--filters down onto parts of the field and realistically illuminates players as they run into the light. The developer also comes closer than ever to finally eliminating the trademark dead eyes of Madden players. Eyes still look inhumanly glossy, but at least they move and are more detailed, and faces are more expressive.
The transition to Frostbite isn't perfect, though. Outside of stadiums, environments generally look bland and featureless, especially during certain segments of Longshot. Additionally, with more human-like player movement comes some bizarre graphical bugs, such as a player's leg clipping through his tackler's chest, or two players getting hung up on each other as they try to stand up.
As with past Maddens, EA is trying to make sure that the game reflects real NFL events as much as possible, which means weekly roster and player stat updates. If a player is traded in real life, you can expect that to be represented in the game quickly. This year, EA has also added the "Play Now Live" mode, which has quickly become my favorite new feature in the game. This allows you to jump quickly into any of the week's matchups, and both teams will reflect the actual lineups set to play. As a result, I was able to select last week's preseason game between the Jaguars and Patriots, and it had already been set up with the correct time of day, stadium, and rosters. EA Tiburon has also introduced the ability to turn any Play Now Live game into a franchise, letting you jump into a full season immediately after completing a game. I was able to build upon my performance in that Jaguars-Patriots game without having to set it up in the Franchise mode menus. Even though Franchise Mode hasn't received many updates from last year's version, these starting points make it a whole lot easier and more enticing to play through an entire season.
As I progressed through my season with the Patriots, accruing both successes and failures, I noticed that the commentators started referring to events that had happened in past games--more so than in previous installments in the series. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis debuted as Madden commentators last year, and their rapport was already great then. They have returned in Madden 18 with even more back-and-forth dialogue, covering an impressive range of situations. Most notably, though, their commentary is full of context for both the game and the season. So, when my Patriots met the Dolphins in the Wildcard round of the playoffs, both teams with a 9-7 record, Davis and Gaudin discussed how the AFC East was a particularly weak division. They referenced the other teams in the playoffs and how they got there, and they called out events from earlier in the game. Further, EA promises it will continually update the Play Now Live commentary so that Gaudin and Davis refer to what is happening in the NFL.
Overall, Madden 18 marks an unusually large shakeup in a series that, due to its annualized releases, rarely features much more than small, iterative changes. The Frostbite engine allows the game to reach new levels of realism in its visuals, and EA has put a lot of effort into constantly evolving the game to keep it in line with real-world events. But it is the Longshot story mode that defines Madden 18. Some of Longshot is unnecessary spectacle, but its lasting value comes from the humanity that it brings to the game. The moments of vulnerability and sincerity between Devin Wade and Colt Cruise during the story are worthy of celebration and give the overall game a weight that Madden hasn't had before. And if that's not enough to entice you, it's also simply a terrific football game.