Video Games

Ambitious new story mode ultimately weighs down ‘Madden NFL 18’

Marshawn Lynch, fresh from retirement, stiff arms an opponent in “Madden NFL 18.”
Marshawn Lynch, fresh from retirement, stiff arms an opponent in “Madden NFL 18.” EA Sports

Football hasn’t changed much in the past year. The field is still 100 yards. Touchdowns are still six points. The Jets and 49ers are still awful – at least on paper.

Despite little change to its subject matter, however, “Madden NFL 18” is an ambitious attempt at innovation.

The oldest living franchise in sports gaming took a major plunge with Longshot, a dramatic, story-driven mode through which players control forgotten quarterback prospect Devin Wade as he attempts to make a National Football League roster. Wade was highly touted coming out of high school but left college in disgrace. With the help of his former teammate, Colt Cruise, you’ll navigate through 20 years or so of Wade’s life along the way.

Longshot is the marquee feature of “Madden NFL 18,” and the game’s worth is therefore tethered to it.

First off, I love this trend of trying to create deep narratives in sports gaming. The genre was at risk of going stale, with every year’s installments just bringing better graphics and updated rosters. Longshot follows in the vain of The Journey, a story mode introduced in Madden’s EA Sports cousin “FIFA 17,” as well as the narrative elements the NBA 2K franchise has been implementing into its career modes over the last few years. I enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, and I hope Madden continues down a path in search of great stories.

Longshot, however, doesn’t work.

It takes a fabulous concept executed by skilled actors – including Oscar winner Mahershala Ali – and torpedoes it by packing far too many sports movie/TV tropes into its six-hour storyline. Wade and Cruise enjoy a sort of “Friday Night Lights,” small-town Texas bromance in the beginning, which quickly becomes convoluted with reality TV, celebrity cameos and a military element that badly missed the mark.

The mode doesn’t flow properly. Its narrative can sometimes jerk between modern-day moments and flashbacks. At one point, a side character is talking to Wade about some construction work the two of them are working on, then it immediately pivots to an in-game moment from their high school days that the player must play through.

Quick-time events – those moments where a player must press buttons to advance the story – also sneak up on you a bit too much in Longshot. I liked the use of different gameplay styles in one mode, but developing quick-time events requires excellent timing. If you do too many too quickly, the player can’t get into the story. If you use too few, the player is in such a relaxed, watch-only state that the button prompts feel jarring. Longshot falls into the second category.

I also noticed a few bugs in the mode’s motion capture. The actors’ eyes get a little shaky and weird during random moments – something motion capture technology as a whole struggles with, given that you can’t put sensors in a person’s eyes. At least I hope you can’t.

Apart from Longshot, it’s mostly business as usual.

“Madden NFL 18” made a few meaningful changes to its Ultimate Team mode. Players can now participate in six-person games, with each controlling the offense, defense or coaching of either team. It’s sort of fun. The coach essential acts as a dungeon master in that they don’t actually play the down, but they do control other people’s choices, which is always fun.

The gameplay itself is pretty similar to last year’s Madden. I always feel for the football games because capturing the physics of five or six bodies clashing into each other seems a lot harder than presenting the realistic trajectory a baseball takes off of a bat. In the two decades I’ve spend playing Madden, the game nearly always has shown progress in adding more realism to tackles. And 2018 is no different.

The graphics seem a bit better, but comparing the two games on a regular PlayStation 4 doesn’t show a major difference. Perhaps there was a larger jump for PS4 Pro owners.

However, I really wanted to see a bit more from the “Madden NFL 2018” franchise mode. Other “create a player, take over the league” modes in the sports genre have a bit more spice in terms of off-the-field choices and actions. In Madden, you train your player and play the games. That’s basically it. I like doing those things, but I also like making endorsement calls, cultivating relationships with teammates and having cinematic cutscene interactions with my coaches.

“Madden NFL 18” also continues the franchise’s downward spiral in terms of its soundtrack. The games of old provided an eclectic mix of genres, while also introducing players to upcoming music. Green Day’s “American Idiot” – the song, not the album that has since become a musical – was featured on “Madden 2005” more than a month before the album actually came out. The FIFA franchise has remained consistent in this regard, but the Madden soundtrack just keep getting worse.

Although its ambitious new mode fell flat, this is still the Madden you know and love. If you enjoy football or the competitive elements of online play, you will like this version. The football itself is great, and that will always be the most important aspect of any Madden game. But I placed much of its value in whether it pulled off a great story mode or integrated more off-the-field elements into its franchise mode. And it didn’t.

Madden NFL 18

Video Game Review

▪ Rated everyone

▪ Developer: EA Tiburon

▪ Publisher: EA Sports

▪ Out Aug. 25 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One