Madden NFL 18 Review

By Mark Delaney, 23 days ago
Annual sports games have never been without their critics who feel such a production schedule promotes stagnation and stifles innovation. Despite that, EA's NFL sim Madden has been on an upward trajectory for nearly a half-decade, tuning the on-field gameplay while adding more game modes and management options than ever before. Madden NFL 18 adds two big features, several small ones, and shifts it all over to the publisher's proprietary Frostbite engine, but much of what's new is only good and not great, leaving the whole less impressive than the sum of its parts.

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Madden 18 mostly ditches improving arguably the Madden purist's preferred mode, the Connected Franchise mode, in favor of more funneling into Ultimate Team (MUT) and, for the first time for the series, the story mode. Those who play primarily within Franchise mode will be let down significantly with this year's iteration. Outside of custom draft boards and smarter pre-season playing time distribution, nothing else of note was added to this year's suite. Franchise has had a number of solid additions to it during the series' strong run as of late, but this year's entry is not the cherry on top it could have been.

MUT has been given a share of the production time more and more since its inception seven years ago and it's no wonder why. The mode surely rakes in a bounty of add-on purchases as EA's go-to micro-transaction mode. Having said that, the mode isn't completely heartless. Plenty prefer this mode over any other, never pay a dime, and still find success and fun. As always, this year's MUT mode gives you plenty of reminders that shortcuts are just a few dollars away, but just as consistent is the inundating stream of proverbial ladders to climb and tournaments to play. It's a trail where it's nearly impossible to reach the end because it's always being updated with more content to keep players returning.

On top of that, the game's greatest achievement is found in the form of MUT Squads. 3-v-3 online gameplay returns to Madden this year but you'll have to build an Ultimate Team to participate. You and two others share the workload, taking the roles of different players and roles on the field. Which coaching role you assume (head coach, OC, DC) decides which of your MUT players make the superteam, and you'll want to communicate with your team play after play to form the cohesive and dominant team you may appear to be on paper. It's a fun twist on competitive co-op Madden and one that will hopefully stick around for years.

Devin Wade is easy to root for, but his supporting cast is full of stereotypes and lame jokes.Devin Wade is easy to root for, but his supporting cast is full of stereotypes and lame jokes.

Longshot, the game's story mode, is the first ever for the series. It's been requested for a long time, especially after competitors like 2K and even EA's FIFA series introduced narrative in recent years, but Longshot is unfortunately an up and down affair in seemingly every way. The protagonist, Devin Wade, is a had-it-and-lost-it hero worth rooting for. His personal journey from blue chip college prospect to distant memory of the football cognoscenti is pretty standard fare for the sports genre and the whole game plays off similarly familiar tropes. Narratively, the writing feels bipolar. Sometimes it is a heartfelt underdog story with a solemn star. Other times it's a goofy script with too many comic relief characters. The writing doesn't ever feel confident in picking a lane but it does much better with the former and the story as a whole would have been much better had it trusted itself to entertain players without relying so often on corny jokes and superfluous characters.

The gameplay portions of Longshot are just as inconsistent. Pure football gaming fans will most appreciate when the game gives you standard play-by-play moments to live out as Wade regularly revisits his high school and college highlights. Other mini-games are really special too, like when your coach demands you recall plays back to him verbatim. Those moments more than any other really put players in the shoes of the protagonist, living vicariously as an NFL hopeful quarterback. Other parts of the story present some awful gameplay moments like a mini-game that demands you direct the ball around obstacles in slow motion that is both physically impossible and poorly developed. Even worse are the target passing moments that feel equivalent to a carnival game and are just as rigged. By the end of Longshot the destination makes it feel worthwhile; the journey to set it all up, however, is too erratic to merit much praise of its own.

As seen in any mode, but especially Longshot, the new Frostbite engine makes for better textures and facial features than ever before, but many characters still can't shake the legacy issue of rough animations. On-field gameplay looks great but it's during the in-between — coaches on the sidelines, players interacting between plays — when their stiff bodies still haunt the overall presentation. Frostbite has made the players' and coaches' likenesses more accurate than ever, but they still have a way to go from the neck down.

Subtle but smart tweaks improve the on-field gameplay, like RBs getting skinny between their linemen.Subtle but smart tweaks improve the on-field gameplay, like RBs getting skinny between their linemen.

The on-field product has a bit more going for it thanks to some subtle but necessary tweaks. Running backs can now "get skinny" running through their blockers so as to avoid those moments where you charge into your offensive line and get stuck. Pre-snap you can also identify the Mike linebacker, which is a wrinkle fans of the sport will really appreciate, but you can guess wrong, leaving you vulnerable to a free rusher. A new target passing mode arrives as well but it seems to be more trouble than it's worth. One may liken it to the much maligned QB Vision mode that came and went abruptly over a decade ago. On the flipside of that, matchups feel like they matter more than ever and a good wideout will beat a mediocre defender regularly, or vice versa.

On the achievements side, it's mostly an easy list with a few very annoying Longshot unlocks. You can still sim your way through the legacy score achievements and unlock a great deal of the gamerscore on autopilot. There are other in-game specific things, like beating a wide receiver using press coverage three times in a game, and there are a few attached to MUT of course — EA would be remiss not to get you to at least peek into their potentially lucrative mode. A few Longshot achievements are missable; due to the mode offering no chapter select and having unskippable cutscenes, you'll want to follow a guide for some of them, particularly Steer Clear and Who's The Man. If you make it out of Longshot without needing to replay for any of the missables, Madden 18 is no harder than any other recent iteration.

Summary

The question at the heart of a new sports game in an annualized series is twofold: What does it do for yearly players and what does it do for those who may have been away for a while? If you haven't played in a few years, this year's Madden makes for a good time to jump in with the most diverse game modes ever on offer. The premiere of the series' story mode is inconsistent with regards to both narrative and gameplay, but it has enough highlights to merit playing through and hoping for an improved sequel. MUT Squads is also a refreshing way to play provided you find yourself attached to growing an Ultimate Team. For returning players, and those especially focused on Connected Franchise, there isn't enough here to welcome you back. Updated rosters and small on-field tweaks are the things we get every year but what really makes or breaks an installment of Madden are the big changes, which are up and down and ultimately make Madden 18 a solid starter but no Pro Bowler.
3.5 / 5
Positives
  • Frostbite engine makes players and coaches look better than ever...
  • MUT Squads adds a new element to online 3-v-3
  • Small but smart on-field tweaks reward players who really understand the game
Negatives
  • ...but they still move stiffly
  • Longshot is much better in theory than in practice
  • Franchise mode is almost completely ignored
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 31 hours on the field across all game modes. Go Titans. Along the way he unlocked 36 of 40 achievements for 855 gamerscore. An Xbox One copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.