There are few certainties in life, but besides the obvious unmentionables, there are EA’s yearly franchises. While FIFA is king in much of the world, it’s Madden that continues to sack the US sales charts with every edition. Madden 17 was the most refined outing ever, but it lacked the impact of 16, which really brought the franchise kicking and screaming into the current generation. Madden 18 then, takes everything good about the previous two entries and adds in some seismic changes for the series. It could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully this is yet another success for EA Tiburon.
It’s no surprise that it’s the brand new story mode, Longshot, that is the star of this year’s show. Following the tale of NFL hopeful Devon Wade from the American heartland of Mathis, Texas, you pick up with him as he attempts to take a run at the NFL after a three year lay-off from the game following the death of his father. It’s a fairly straightforward set-up, but the way it’s dealt with – with heart, keen storytelling and a welcome lack of schmaltz – make it a real joy to experience.
Featuring an array of actual acting talent, which includes Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and Friday Night Light’s Scott Porter, it’s clear that EA made a serious commitment to Longshot being a top-flight production and it shows in every moment of its runtime. It’s not all po-faced, emotionally wrought drama either, and the high-school game commentary you’ll hear during some of the flashback scenes is perfectly parochial.
At times the gameplay comes at the expense of the storytelling, so flashbacks of games that you won in your past ask you to perform or retry the same drive – or defence – until you get it right. It loses some of the magic when your own read of the situation, or reactions, aren’t up to scratch, but then without the possibility of failure, the whole thing could almost have become a Telltale game.
At times it still is, with speech and action options open to you at various points, some of which help or hinder your grading as you head towards the draft. There are also points where Longshot will actually test your American Football knowledge, so if you’re not that clear on where a particular position lines up in a formation it might be worth jumping into the mainline Madden tutorial to try and pick some of the specifics.
Longshot may well be the headline addition, but the rest of this year’s offering hasn’t stood still. Following in FIFA’s footsteps, there’s been the transition to EA’s Frostbite engine, and the result is that this is the best looking Madden yet. Helmets shine, character models are more realistic, player animation’s impress, and player interactions are closer to life than ever before. Some crazy hits and odd player behaviour still happen occasionally, but there’s been a clear effort to minimise it compared to previous years. More than in any previous outing, Madden can come close to looking like actual game footage, and at times it’s remarkable.
Out on the field, players of Madden 17 will feel immediately at home, and most of the fundamentals remain untouched in this year’s edition. Gameplay feels tight and cohesive, and largely it’s exactly as you’d hope. The major new addition is your ability to take slow motion manual control of your Quarterback’s throwing arm with Target Passing, leading your receiver with more control than ever before. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t work any better than what we’re used to already – if anything it’s a little worse – and you’ll soon be heading back to just choosing them with a button press.
Madden Ultimate Team also returns, with its innocuously expensive take on fantasy football just as compelling as in the last couple of years. It’s always where I end up spending the most time – and money – as the idea of building your own unique squad and then taking them out onto the field is just too good to pass up.
I made a promise to myself not to buy any card packs this time out, and yet once again my resolve crumbled after a few games. So, good job EA, I guess? The new inclusion here is MUT Squads, which adds three player online cooperative play to Ultimate Team, and really it’s just another way to keep you playing in the mode. It’s as fun as ever to play alongside real-life partners, but it ties each of you into playing a specific role – Offence or Defense Captain and Head Coach – which can become a bit tiresome. It’s probably worth thinking about just how much more it’ll feed your potential addiction, and any future problems it may cause with your partner/bank manager.
Madden 18 is yet another triumph for the series, and this year’s big success story is the game’s Longshot narrative. It seems incongruous to be talking about heartfelt, well-acted storytelling in a Madden game, yet it’s a perfect fit, hanging some drama off EA’s rock-solid mechanics and fantastic visuals.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro