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Madden NFL 18 Longshot story mode - Devin & father
A high school-age Devin Wade chats with his father, Cutter Wade (Mahershala Ali).
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

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Madden NFL 18’s story mode is designed to be a ‘playable movie’

Welcome to Longshot

Dreams are powerful and delicate, tantalizing and tenuous. It’s easy enough to have one; everyone does, whether modest or grand. Daring to dream requires more imagination than effort, really. The audacity of any dream — the risk, the challenge and the hard work — lies in trying to realize it.

Devin Wade has a dream: He wants to play in the NFL. As a quarterback, to be precise. However, Devin’s not some Division I college football hotshot; he isn’t on any scout’s radar or ESPN analyst’s draft board. He’s been out of football for years — in fact, he has thought about quitting and moving on, about getting a quote-unquote real job.

But Devin’s not ready to let go of his dream just yet. As the star of Madden NFL 18’s Longshot — the first story mode in the series’ 29-year history — he’s going to give it one more chance. And it’s up to you to help him make it happen.

The road to the NFL

Mike Young is the creative director on Madden 18, and the co-lead writer on Longshot. Like millions of others, he grew up wanting to be a professional athlete, either in baseball or hockey. While those dreams fell by the wayside, he ended up in a career that allowed him to mingle with some sports legends — like John Madden himself, to whom Young and the team at developer EA Tiburon showed Longshot. (Madden was so impressed, according to Young, that he asked the developers if they’d run through the pitch again, this time with his grandchildren in the room.)

You, too, will encounter NFL athletes and media personalities in Longshot, but not because you’ll be playing in the league. Yes, you read that correctly.

Story modes are becoming more and more common in simulation sports games, and most of them — NBA 2K’s MyCareer, MLB The Show’s Road to the Show and even FIFA 17’s The Journey, to name some prominent examples — tread a similar path: You step into the shoes of a can’t-miss prospect who will inevitably blaze through the minor leagues, college ball and/or training camp before debuting at the pro level, where they will surely become a perennial all-star and future Hall of Famer.

Those experiences are largely built around playing through a particular sport’s regular season; games in the schedule are interspersed with cutscenes. That’s not how Madden 18’s story mode works. “All of the games within Longshot, none of them are the main character playing a 2017 NFL schedule,” Young explained in an interview with Polygon this week. “This is a story about getting to the NFL.”

The operative word there is “story.” Young and Longshot’s other lead writer, Adrian Todd Zuniga, wanted to tell a specific tale about a particular character — and do it in a way that was on par with a sports film. In fact, Young repeatedly returned to that description, promising “movie-quality” writing, acting, visuals and production values. “Our philosophy [with Longshot] was a playable movie, versus, like, a career mode with cutscenes,” he said.

Madden NFL 18 Longshot story mode - Mathis, Texas
Devin’s hometown of Mathis, Texas.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

A dream worth chasing

The story at the heart of Longshot is fundamentally about giving up on your dreams. Devin, played by J.R. Lemon — himself a former NFL prospect — is laying it all on the line for his last shot at making it to the NFL, which is a courageous act in and of itself.

“A lot of people would rather just not try, versus facing the embarrassment of not making it,” said Young. “A lot of inner conflict with the story is Devin trying not to give up on himself.”

We didn’t get a look at Longshot ourselves. But it sounds like Young and Zuniga worked hard to flesh out the character of Devin, to tell a story that — like the mode itself — is about more than football alone. Existing story modes in other sports games tend to limit their interactivity to simple binary decisions, reducing the player character’s path to one of two cliches: the me-first hothead, or the humble team player. Dialogue selections amount to “press A to placate your coach or B to be a demanding jerk.”

Those reductive options have “always felt like they weren’t real choices,” said Young. He said that Longshot will throw some tough decisions at you, like situations involving Devin and his best friend, Colt, whom Young described as “basically brothers.” Colt, who’s played by Friday Night Lights alum Scott Porter, is a wide receiver — the natural counterpart to a quarterback — and he’s trying to travel the same difficult path to the NFL as Devin. But you may have to prioritize Devin’s interests over those of his partner in crime.

Devin has a particularly tough road to success in the league, since he is black. Only five of the 32 NFL teams are projected to start a black quarterback this season, and considering the continuing outcry over the fact that Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned, this is an issue that Longshot will hopefully touch on.

In addition to doubts about whether he’s good enough to reach the NFL, Devin is carrying some emotional baggage. Young told Polygon that much of Longshot’s story focuses on Devin’s relationship with his father, Cutter Wade, played by Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. NFL Hall of Famer and former TV analyst Dan Marino, playing himself, also appears in Longshot; he serves as a big brother-esque mentor to Devin.

“There’s a human story here,” said Young. “It’s not just locker rooms and GM offices and sideline volatility — it is a lot about a person’s emotional journey away from the field.”

Learning with Devin

Longshot begins at the NFL Regional Combines, far from the glitz and glamor of the invite-only NFL Scouting Combine for college athletes. You might call the Regional Combines a side door into the league. At these small-time events around the country, desperate NFL hopefuls pay a $160 registration fee and try to catch the eye of a scout.

Devin and Colt both start at the Regional Combines, and they eventually get an opportunity to start on a path toward the NFL. Longshot runs from there up to the NFL Draft — no further. Although it’s arriving a year after the story mode in FIFA, Young said Longshot isn’t a response to The Journey; Tiburon finished creative work on the project before FIFA’s mode was announced.

Longshot brings in some features that longtime Madden fans will recall, like training minigames, as well as elements that are entirely new. Young said Tiburon was inspired by Naughty Dog’s action setpieces and Telltale Games’ adventure games to include quick-time events and branching dialogue choices — varied mechanics that core gamers will be familiar with, and casual players will be able to grasp quickly. There’s also something of an educational element to Longshot: The quarterback position is incredibly complicated, and you’ll learn along with Devin. “We’ve tried to make things like classroom drills” feel exciting, said Young.

Madden NFL 18 Longshot story mode - Devin & Colt shake and bake
Devin and Colt (Scott Porter) have their own handshake.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Other segments in Longshot include seven-on-seven training drills without pads, and flashbacks to high school games. And there are plenty of off-the-field scenes, like a visit to the small town of Mathis, Texas — more than 40 different environments in all. That kind of variety, said Young, is why Longshot wasn’t possible until this year, with Madden 18 being developed in EA’s Frostbite engine for the first time.

“We rarely have gone off the field” before, Young noted. The players and stadiums were highly detailed in previous Madden titles, but little else was; just think of how weird coaches on the sideline looked, for instance.

Frostbite, which is the basis for EA games as varied as Battlefield 1, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Need for Speed Payback, is designed to handle all kinds of game worlds. Young mentioned seemingly simple things — indoor lighting; male and female characters of different races, heights and weights; unique outfits with various materials, like a suit and skintight athletic wear; cutscenes with moving cameras, not just two people in a hallway — that would’ve been difficult or impossible to do in the old EA Sports Ignite engine, but that Frostbite handles with aplomb.

In other words, Ignite was a sports engine; Frostbite is a story engine.

“To me the innovation is mixing a traditional sports game and story with things that just are really popular in gaming,” said Young. “We’re just going to tell a great story, and football just happens to be the action our hero is going through.”

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