The most harrowing moment of Madden NFL 18 is not a third-down conversion. It’s not coming to scrimmage at the opponent’s 40, time running out, with no good options and the season on the line.
It’s being asked to repeat a play back to your coach in practice.
Somehow, EA Sports made such a rote expectation of the quarterback into a new and frightening experience for the player. It comes about a third of the way into Longshot, the inaugural story mode of Madden NFL 18, and the centerfold of sports video gaming’s most glamorous annual franchise.
“Strong I twins,” said the voice in the headset. “Flex dagger. X Dig. Y Shallow. Z Go.” And when I got it out of order, Devin Wade, the hero of Longshot, mumbled it back tentatively. Jack Ford (brilliantly acted by Rus Blackwell), the dead-end ex-NFL coach babysitting Wade (J.R. Lemon, a former Stanford running back) in a reality TV show that represents the only shot at making the league for both, spat out another play. Devin and I flubbed that one, too.
In the story’s most critical hour, Ford realizes Wade doesn’t know how to call plays because Wade was never taught that. He quit college football in an emotional tailspin before he learned to read a defense. Ford, whipsawed by both the realities of the NFL and his obligations as a contracted TV performer, almost gives up on Wade. But the two pull together, and deliver a conclusion that is part Horatio Alger and part Robby Benson, with just enough wiggle room for a sharp-eyed user to sweeten the outcome.
Longshot leans hard on all the archetypes of sports mythology, from beat-up pickup trucks and earnest sidekicks to twangy high school coaches and Hall of Fame cameos. But in its heart is a hero both supremely abled and uncertain of himself. And only Madden NFL, which for 30 years has done more than any other work of sports media to make the jargon-laced concepts of American football concrete and understandable, could make that conflict authentic for the user.
Written by Mike Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga, two childhood friends from St. Louis, Longshot is the biggest departure from Madden’s usual suite of career modes and online multiplayer in almost a decade. Narratively, Longshot is an uncomplicated tale of redemption, and structurally, it’s very easy to play, based on quick-time sequences and dialogue choices that are nearly impossible to fail. Longshot has three outcomes, possibly a fourth, that guarantee some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If ever there was a year that the NFL’s only video game needed a diversion like Longshot, though, this is it. In real life, two NFL franchises have packed up and moved to Los Angeles, and a third is bound for Las Vegas. Madden NFL 18’s career suite is the least changed since its Connected Franchise mode was introduced five years ago. That will disappoint a lot of die-hards. But, like its sibling FIFA 17 last year, Madden is placing its eggs in the story mode basket.
The sop to longtime players is that the Frostbite engine that makes Longshot possible delivers crisper visuals and more detail. It makes players in the open field more dangerous, but the pace of play takes longer to get them open. This will be frustrating for those who learned where to fling the ball the instant the defense showed its hand. The new engine seems to do little to assist the running game, whose success still depends on catching another team in an unsuitable defense or changing the play at the line of scrimmage. One could argue that’s how it works in real life, too. But running in American football often takes longer to pay off than the five-, six- or seven-minute quarters common to most Madden games.
With Franchise taking a back seat to Longshot, Madden NFL 18 drives users more to its Ultimate Team mode than ever. That gets a new mode, MUT Squads, which marks the return of cooperative online multiplayer (but only in Ultimate Team) for the first time in this series since 2013. MUT Squads can be a rollicking good time — but it depends on the users’ coordination and communication, which is not an unfair expectation. In MUT Squads, one user handles the offensive play calling (and performs as the quarterback), another handles the defensive play calling, and a third, the “head coach,” supplies the team’s uniform and stadium from their Ultimate Team collection, and they can choose any playing role not occupied by the other two.
Madden’s old online team play mode only gave users control of the offense’s so-called skill positions — quarterback, runner or receiver. MUT Squads lets any user take control of any player on the field. It’s a nice idea to take over an offensive guard and imagine pulling out like Jerry Kramer to de-cleat some poor bastard on the wrong end of a power sweep; there just aren’t enough instances where it’s really fun to take that role. I also couldn’t get a clear sense of who exactly was in charge of calling timeouts, given the change in responsibilities from offense and defense to special teams.
Receivers play the biggest role in MUT Squads because the user can run whatever pattern they please, irrespective of the play’s design. In the old co-op mode, a quarterback would throw to the route that the receiver was ordered to run, whether the user followed it or not. Madden NFL 18’s designers say MUT Squads’ quarterback AI will now throw to a receiver where he actually is, theoretically opening up multiplayer to all kinds of wacky, improvised receiving routes. That’s a nifty sell, but it didn’t have much practical application working with total strangers. Unless a user-controlled QB and receiver know what the other is doing, it’s best to run the play as it’s designed — and the user-controlled receiver should make their move a step or two earlier just to be on the safe side.
The accommodations in passing AI for MUT Squads seem to have inspired the newest gameplay gimmick, called “targeted passing.” It’s supposed to give the user the ability to throw the ball to any spot on the field and lead a receiver to it. Its implementation is so difficult to pull off in the four seconds a quarterback gets, maximum, that the user is just better off making traditional throws, and varying their trajectories and speed with the modifiers used in past Maddens. L2 or the left trigger brings up the targeted passing mode, which then lets the user steer an icon to any part of the field rather than throwing it directly at a receiver. Because this requires the left stick, activating targeted passing immobilizes the quarterback in the pocket. I felt like Madden NFL 18 put a slight thumb on the scale to compensate for this, with an aging dropback statue like Philip Rivers shrugging off hits that would have ended the play immediately in the past. There’s still not enough time and not enough value in targeted passing to make the control system worthwhile.
Longshot tries to ingratiate the user to the control scheme of targeted passing with some of its developmental drills, but it’s not really the same. And if a user fails any critical exercise in Longshot, the game simply backs up and lets you repeat it. This can be annoying and immersion-breaking, particularly in the weird minigame that involves steering a pass midflight, back and forth against the laws of physics, into a receiver’s hands in slow motion. But at least I wasn’t flunked out for one inconsiderate choice.
Longshot’s most critical decisions are a little more subtle. Devin’s social interactions can affect his draft evaluation — and he can end up undrafted — as much as his performances. In an early scene, he can take a mobile phone picture of his pal Colt Cruise (played by Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights) pissing on the roadside, and post it to social media. Doing so will downgrade him. As the story wends its way to a conclusion, the player can make decisions that help his friend’s draft position — at a cost to Devin’s — or focus entirely on impressing the scouts.
Whatever ending the user achieves, it’s guaranteed to be bittersweet. Devin Wade does not magically raise himself from a nobody to a first-round draft-pick wonderboy. What limited suspense the mode holds rests on Colt’s professional fate and how Devin affects it. And the narrative highlight is Ford’s striking confession of destroying a young player’s career to save his own.
Madden NFL 18 places its bets on a tried-and-true tale more than changes to gameplay or new layers in the career suite, and Longshot may not impress more worldly people. Late in the story, Colt makes a dry mention of Tim Tebow, and I couldn’t help but think of how sports blogs today would shit all over Devin Wade if he existed in real life.
I also come from a small town of weather-beaten pickup trucks and country music, whose only son to make the NFL was a punter. He returned from his rookie season to a Main Street parade, showing everyone a Super Bowl ring. I know it is rare for fairy tale dreams of professional sports to come true.
But they do, and they make a lot of people very happy.
Madden NFL 18 was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.