"It's just a roster update" is the common refrain that seems to surround every single annual sports sim.
Few would accuse Madden 18 of being a mere roster update in light of the transition to Frostbite and the introduction of Longshot, but that doesn't change the fact that plenty of small but meaningful changes get lost amid the hype around big ticket items like MUT Squads.
These are the under-the-radar improvements that will impact Madden 18 over the next year or so. They might not make it to the back of the box, but together they add up to a new and interesting experience for long-time Madden players.
1. Coaching Adjustments
The Madden team has been touting this as a key feature, but you'd be forgiven if you might have missed it. Accessing Coaching Adjustments requires backing out to the top menu of the playcalling screen, where it sits somewhat anonymously under "Personnel."
But for all of its obscurity, it's quite powerful. Coaching Adjustments lets you choose how you want to set your coverage; how aggressive your pass rush should be, and whether your receivers should cover up the ball or try to run after the catch, among other things. Used properly, it can be extremely useful.
Word of advice, though: don't set everything to aggressive. You'll pretty quickly find yourself in the hole with neutral zone infractions, fumbles, and holding penalties. Save it for when it truly matters.
2. Madden Weekend League
This is a good one for the Madden Ultimate Team fans of the world, as it puts more emphasis on competition than collecting cards. The new MUT Champions mode will feature two tournaments per week, with three wins in a row earning qualification for a weekend tournament. From there you will have 72 hours to play 25 games, with more wins equaling higher rewards. It's a great addition, not the least because it gives skilled players a path to earning cards that does not involving ripping packs or grinding solo challenges.
3. No More Unranked Draft Champions
This can actually be taken as a negative. With Draft Champions getting rebranded as "MUT Drafts," the mode first introduced in Madden 16 will no longer have a free version to play online. Instead, you'll have to settle for playing against a friend or the CPU for no tangible benefits outside of fun. It's a little bit of a drag for those who genuinely enjoy Draft Champions and don't want to have to pay money to access it for multiplayer; but for those looking for MUT rewards, Ranked MUT Drafts and MUT Champions are the more economical options regardless. It's funny: I totally thought Draft Champions would be my preferred mode, but once the novelty wore off, I more or less stopped playing it. It just didn't have the staying power that I was expecting. I guess I wasn't alone.
4. Coverage Indicators When Usering a Zone
This is for all the people who are terrified of getting off the line and actually usering a linebacker or a safety. Learning to user is a key step in becoming better at Madden, but it's easy to get lost and feel like you're blowing a coverage. The zone indicators help that by sticking to the player that you're supposed to be covering, serving as a useful visual aid in the middle of the chaos of a play. If you're still nervous about screwing up an assignment, you can hold R1 and your player will automatically play their position until you're ready to take over. It may not get nervous defenders to abandon the low risk pass rushing slot, but it's a start.
5. The Return of the Hit Stick
Okay, true, the hit stick as we know it never really went away. It was perfectly possible to light up attackers with the flick of the right analog stick in Madden 17. But most players preferred to simply hit Square/X to get the same effect, myself included. It wasn't as satisfying, but it was a lot easier to pull off.
Madden 18 is quite a bit stricter with its hit stick. Not only do you have to use the actual stick, you have to flick it up rather than down. This isn't particularly intuitive, but if you manage to pull it off, the resulting hit is often to jar the ball loose. It feels great, and it requires more skill, too. This is a great example of addition by subtraction.
6. Target Passing
I still don't get this feature, to be honest. In fact, I keep forgetting it even exists. The way it works is that you hit a trigger to freeze in place and activate a cursor, which you can then aim anywhere on the field. It's ostensibly meant to give high-level players more control over where they place the ball; but in my experience, the process of setting, aiming, and throwing is too time consuming to be of any real use. Most of the time, by the time I'm ready to wind up and throw, I'm already getting sacked.
At the highest level of Madden, pass rushes are ferocious and coverage is tight, forcing you to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. In such an environment—where Target Passing is supposed to thrive—it's hard to imagine this feature being of much use. There's just too much risk and not enough reward. But hey, if pro players can prove me wrong, then this has the chance to be a game changer.
7. "Getting Skinny" as a Running Back
I haven't quite managed to work this into my repertoire of running moves yet, but it has the potential to be extremely handy. Basically, if you hit a really small hole in the offensive line, you can hold R1/RB to sort of slide through the hole for a few extra yards. As a side note, Madden 18 has some of the smoothest offensive line play I've ever seen in the series. It's really a thing of beauty to watch all of the blocks line up so you can break through for a long run. Consider me impressed.
8. Start at any Point in the Season in CFM
Madden 18 has been justifiably knocked of its relative lack of new additions to Connected Franchise Mode, but what's there is meaningful. In addition to the Draft Board—a boon for Online CFM players who don't want to have to micromanage every aspect of their draft—Madden 18 now allows you to pick up your franchise from any point in the real NFL season. So if you're, say, a Vikings fan, and you want to keep your season from melting down after starting 6-0, you can totally do that.
These are the features we've highlighted for this year, but there's plenty more in this year's edition for Madden, which launches August 25 on PS4 and Xbox One. Want to know more? Check our guides for a Longshot walkthrough, money plays, and more!