‘Madden NFL 18’ review

‘Madden NFL 18’ features a phenomenal story and the best football game yet

‘Madden NFL 18’ is really two great games in one stellar package.
‘Madden NFL 18’ is really two great games in one stellar package.
‘Madden NFL 18’ is really two great games in one stellar package.

Highs

  • Realistic visuals
  • Gripping story mode
  • Frostbite enhances gameplay
  • Online team play returns

Lows

  • Franchise mode hasn’t changed much

Madden NFL 18 has two identities. There’s the refined football simulation that looks and plays better than ever, and there’s the cinematic narrative-driven game, telling a heartfelt sports tale that inspires and delights. As you’ll learn in our Madden NFL 18 review, both of these identities make the game stand out.

Annual sports franchises have to walk the tricky line of making incremental improvements to update a static game whose rules rarely change. Change nothing, and the game feels like a glorified patch. Change too much, and you risk alienating fans who came to play their favorite game. With a wealth of engaging gameplay, Madden NFL 18 strikes this balance, and makes a legitimate case for the title of best sports game of this generation — and arguably all-time.

Friday Night Lights: The Video Game

Devin Wade has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He lost his mother when he was young, but found solace in football under the guidance of his father, Cutter Wade. The young QB matured and led the Mathis Bullfrogs to the Texas State Championship alongside his best friend and favorite receiver target, Colt Cruise. The highest rated QB prospect in the country, Devin signed on to play for the Texas Longhorns, but tragedy stopped his collegiate journey almost as soon as it started. Now years removed from football, Devin goes on an improbable journey back to the field in hopes of hearing his name called at the upcoming NFL draft.

This is the set up for Longshot, a story about heartbreak, success, failure, redemption, resolve, family, brotherhood, and, of course, football. Following in the footsteps of EA’s Fight Night Champion story campaign and, more recently, FIFA 17’s ”The Journey” mode, the narrative-driven experience is a first for Madden, and it is the best of these interactive narratives, by far.

Designed as a playable movie, you spend much of the 3-4 hour experience watching TV-style cut scenes of Devin’s journey, and simply make choices on and off the field that determine what comes next. Your responses, in turn, can positively or negatively affect your scout grade, which directly influences Devin’s draft status. Your agency over Devin does not match what you’re given in other games with consequential dialogue trees, but it suits what Longshot strives to be — an emotional journey.

Longshot’s strongest elements are, unsurprisingly, its writing and performances.

When we describe these scenes as “TV quality,” we mean it literally. From the camera positions, to the poignant use of flashbacks, to photo-realistic lighting, to the intricate facial expressions, to the music, to the way scenes are cut, Longshot presents itself as well as any game we’ve played this year. Transitional shots fill the gaps between scenes, adding to its cinematic quality while eliminating those pesky load screens.

Longshot’s strongest elements are, unsurprisingly, its writing and performances. JR Lemon (The Night Shift) does an exceedingly stellar job at conveying the emotional depth of Devin’s journey, Oscar winner Mahershala Ali serves lovingly as Devin’s father. It’s only fitting that in an experience that reminds us so much of Friday Night Lights, Scott Porter — Jason Street from the television series — offers levity as Devin’s best friend. With additional performances by Barry Corbin (One Tree Hill’s Whitey Durham), cameos by NFL greats Dan Marino and Chad Johnson, and numerous other great contributors, Longshot endears itself to you in every moment.

You do get to play a little football in Longshot, too. Devin competes in drills and football scenarios, not unlike you would experience in Madden’s franchise mode. Devin has never worked in a pro style offense, so the game introduces concepts like play calling and reading an NFL defense are worked into the narrative to teach Devin and the player. The drills work well within the narrative, and can sharpen your understanding of the game, even if you’re a Madden vet. Even these more conventional challenges feature some extra hand-holding, including quick time events, to ramp up pivotal moments on the field.

Your choices and play lead to one of three different endings. To see all of them, you’ll have to replay the entire story. Though it could be hassle for completionists, we believe that tasking the player to go through the emotional journey again was the right call. We played through it twice, and were just as moved by our second ending as our first. We aren’t sure if we would’ve felt the same way had we been given the opportunity to load a file and jump to the story’s most important moments.

The School of Hard Knocks

Even with the addition of Longshot, the core Madden experience has been overhauled to bring the series ever so close to NFL realism. The switch to EA’s Frostbite engine — primarily used for action games such as Battlefield Hardline, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Star Wars Battlefront II — brings welcome presentational and technical changes to the field. As great as Madden has been in recent years, new, detailed animations bring players to life in ways that make the game look and feel more like the games we watch on Sundays.

When your team lines up on the field, you’ll notice that their proportions are more accurate. They fall into position less like chess pieces, and more like living, breathing human beings. Jerseys pop, sunlight beautifully reflects off glossy helmets —you can even see your QB’s hands fidgeting under center as he directs the snap count.

The most stark differences are seen after the play starts. Each player moves like a world-class athlete rather than a robotic approximation of one. Players are weightier than before: It takes time for a receiver to get into his stride. The more realistic mechanics make swarms around the ball feel like more of a battle. Running backs stumble when shaking off tacklers, and wide receivers can get tripped up making too quick of a move. Breaking tackles is more satisfying due to the need to focus on favorable matchups and well-timed maneuvers.

Madden 18 feels closer to true NFL play than any other video game.

At Quarterback, you cannot seamlessly transition from dropping back to squirming away from incoming pass rushers. A new throwing mechanic, dubbed Target passing, lets you highlight a receiver and then physically move a cursor across the field toward your intended target. When used properly, you can drop a pass into an exact spot where only your receiver can grab it, but it has a steeping learning curve.

These changes inherently demand more precision, and make running your offense more challenging as a result. Your position when throwing is far more important. In previous iterations, throwing across your body or off your back foot still often led to big plays, but ill-advised chucks lead to unfortunate results. Madden 18 forces you to use all five pass types — bullet, lob, touch, high, low — to find continued success, and it’s more engaging because of it.

Similarly, since Madden now acknowledges momentum, your moves on the field must be more deliberate. Receivers take longer to get into their routes as they actually have to struggle to get past the initial block from their defenders. Turning back and cutting in the opposite direction to find a new seam doesn’t happen instantly. Your spin moves, jukes, and hurdles must be timed better than ever before.

These same changes make it easier for defenders to keep up with receivers as they run routes, plug holes around the line of scrimmage, and break free from linemen to go in for the quarterback. Like Madden 17, you can push your way off the line by pressing a designated button at the right time. The increased stature of the players makes this a more tangible feat, especially when you have the positional advantage. Stick tackling remains the most effective way to take down a runner, and you can now see defenders actively struggling to pull down the ball carrier.

On special teams, the changes are less impactful. Last year, Madden introduced an easier way to block punts and field goals. That feature returns, but pulling it off is still rather rare in exhibition contests.

All told, the heightened realism takes some time to get used to (do the Skills Training exercises), but the experience is consistent, and excels at teaching you how and how not to play the game through trial and error. For players who want a less mechanically extensive experience, Madden 18 has a breezy, fast-paced arcade mode, which gives you the same beautiful visuals but with less of an emphasis on the logical restraints of even the most gifted of athletes. However, we recommend you stick with it and adapt to the new changes.

Once you get the hang of things, Madden 18 feels closer to true NFL play than any other video game. Weaving in and out of tacklers, and racing down the sideline for a touchdown has never been this exhilarating.

Live on a familiar Gridiron

Madden 18’s gameplay enhancements are consummately impressive, but the two game modes that will likely occupy most of your time — Ultimate Team and Franchise mode — don’t turn the wheel much.

Ultimate Team, the addicting card collecting sim, still tasks you with assembling and developing your own fantasy team through a series of both solo and competitive challenges. The mode’s biggest change tweaks how overall player rankings are counted, and gives them greater significance.

This year, players start off with lower overall ratings — to raise it, they must improve across a slew of individual categories. In other words, the difference between a player with “70” rating and a one with a “71” is much greater than before, and increasing the overall quality of your team will take longer. Ultimate Team has always been a grind, and the changes lean into that. If you were a fan last year, there’s a good chance you’re going to enjoy it even more now.

Madden 18 also brings back online cooperative play (last seen in 2013’s Madden 25). Madden Ultimate Team Squads (MUT Squads) let three friends play on the same team. One player commands the offense, another controls the defense, and the third plays the role of head coach, who plays any position on offense and defense not occupied by another player, handles the stadium selection, and calls timeouts.

While it’s fun, the mode is somewhat inaccessible. Since “Squads” players are pulled from the two captains’ Ultimate Team rosters, at least one player on your team has to be playing Ultimate Team to make co-op worthwhile. That said, those who haven’t been enthralled by Ultimate Team in the past might not be inclined to jump in just for the co-op.

Franchise mode, where many users will sink the majority of their hours into, has not changed much this year. You can either serve as the head coach and control the whole team, play as one specific NFL player (or create your own), or manage the financial inner workings of handling the team as the owner.

All of the trappings from recent years — player scouting, contract negotiations, practice, experience points — return. Overall, franchise mode is a polished, deep experience, but it hasn’t received any major updates in a few years. That said, the gameplay changes do make playing with a created player more rewarding than ever before.

Considering the significant gameplay upgrades and the addition of the truly superb story mode, it’s hard to complain too much that the already great Ultimate Team and Franchise modes didn’t do anything to wow us.

Our Take

Even without any changes to Franchise mode, Madden NFL 18 is the best entry in the series to date. Realistic visuals, overhauled mechanics, and Longshot mode create a more authentic NFL football experience.

Is there a better alternative?

No, the Madden franchise is the only licensed football sim on the market, and Madden NFL 18 is in a class all its own.

How long will it last?

There’s enough here to interest you until next year’s installment. The story mode lasts 3-4 hours but replaying it multiple times is encouraged. Franchise mode and Ultimate Team offer deeply rewarding experiences with near-infinite replay value. Plus, you can play online against friends or other fans throughout football season.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you even have a passing interest in football — or video game narratives — Madden NFL 18 is a must-buy.

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