It's that time of year: E3 buzz is quickly ramping up, and so is the annual Madden NFL hype train. Sports games always over-promise and under-deliver around this time around of year, but there's plenty of reason to believe that this year will be different for a game that tends to be regarded with a critical eye by most sports fans.
Because, believe it or not, Madden has actually been pretty solid of late. People love to say that NFL 2K5 is still the better game, and that might be true in terms of the presentation, but Madden has made huge strides of late. The A.I. has gotten smarter; nano blitzes have been drastically scaled back (save, perhaps, for Nickel Blitz 2), and features like Play the Moment have been warmly received fans and critics alike. It's still the sim with the best online franchise mode, and Madden Ultimate Team isn't too shabby either. Even the much derided commentary received a boost in last year's version.
When I spoke with creative director Rex Dickson last year, he called Madden 17 the capper to a trilogy of games designed to rebuild the action on the field from the ground up. With that task largely completed, Madden 18 is taking on an even bigger challenge: narrative.
If you watch the teaser trailer released earlier today, it's pretty obvious that EA is trying to replicate FIFA's The Journey—a sports movie like narrative mode that debuted last year.
"My father used to say, when the world knocks you down, you get back up again," a shadowy figure says as he rises from a bed in a hotel room and looks out over Lucas Oil Stadium, where the combine is held every year.
If it's anything like The Journey, it will be an 8 to 10 hour single-player mode that lets you take control of one player en route to NFL superstardom. Presumably, it will be an idealized version of life in the NFL—one in which head injuries and lifelong pain don't figure it in. But putting aside the inevitable sugarcoating of the story, if it's anything like FIFA, it will be slight but satisfying. Oh, and you'll get a free Ultimate Team card, because who doesn't love Ultimate Team? EA certainly loves Ultimate Team.
The other big change this year is going to be the introduction of Frostbite Engine, which is where Madden NFL 18 may find itself getting into some trouble. While FIFA's transition to the engine was reasonably well-received, it did hit some bumps along the way, most notably in the input lag department. Tiburon will have to be at pains to avoid the pitfalls that befell FIFA if they don't want fans complaining loud and long about getting sacked before they can get a pass away.
Absent that, though, it's exciting to see Tiburon taking the next step with the series. This is the culmination of a lot of work going back to the disaster that was Madden 25, which was one of the worst reviewed entries in the history of the series. Tiburon has been building up the foundation of the gameplay bit by bit since Madden 15, refining the AI, the line play, catching mechanics, and playcalling. More than ever it resembles, well, football.
Of all the sports games currently on the market, Madden 17 is the one I still find myself playing the most consistently. Some of it is due to the friends that I have in the community, but it's also just fun. Offense and defense have been balanced rather nicely (outside of the aftorementioned Nickel Blitz 2 spam), and there's a ton to do in both Ultimate Team and Franchise. It's been three months since the Super Bowl and I'm still enjoying my time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Madden 18's transition will be a tricky test for Tiburon, but three years of steady improvements tell me that they have what it takes to get it right. More importantly, Tiburon's enthusiasm for this project is real. I've been hearing about Madden 18's story mode from various sources since last year, and it's pretty obvious that they're legitimately excited to be showing their work off to the general public, which makes me excited in turn.
It's been fun to hate on Madden over the past ten years—to point out its weird foibles, grouse that it has a monopoly, and claim that decade old football sims are superior. But the past three years have altered that narrative, and Madden 18 should take it still further. Time to own up to it: Madden is good now. And Madden 18 is going to be that much better.