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I'm pretty sure we've all dreamt about a fully-realized Madden NFL story mode at some point. What fan wouldn't want to take part in an interactive sports movie?
NBA 2K and FIFA have forged ahead with their own story modes in recent years, but this is the first time that Madden has tried their hand at it. And their attempt is a little... different?
I have some thoughts on how Longshot ultimately turned out, but I'll say this much: It's indicative of a Madden that is the boldest and most confident it's been in a decade. We're a very long way from the rudderless, poorly conceived football sim of just a few years ago.
But of course, Madden means different things to different people. As always, I'll break down this review from two perspectives: the newcomer and the experienced fan. Here's what you need to know about this year's football sim.
For Those Who Are New to Madden
Madden NFL is as daunting as ever if you're a new fan. It is a great way to learn about football, but it has a rather thick layer of jargon to get through.
Longshot is meant to remedy that to some extent. Madden 18's new story mode is one seamless cutscene designed to slowly ease you into the core gameplay. In the early going, you're throwing passes with the help of quicktime events (QTEs). By the end, you're calling plays and directing your own game. It's an extended tutorial disguised as a three hour sports movie.
The story revolves around Devin Wade: a former five star QB recruit who is trying to breaking into the NFL after walking away from college. Joining him is his friend Colt Cruise (Friday Night Lights' Scott Porter)—a borderline receiving prospect who serves as his main target.
The story opens with them on a roadtrip to a regional combine to try out for the NFL, then morphs into a reality show named... you guessed it... "Longshot." The ensuing story plays out through a series of dialogue choices, minigames, and later on, actual football games, with familiar faces like Chad Johnson and Dan Marino popping in to serve as mentors.
The final product vacillates between intensely cheesy (Colt singing, anything to do with Longshot's coked up executive producer, Dan Marino's acting) and actually kind of neat. By far the most enjoyable segments are Devin's high school football flashbacks, which recall the old NCAA Football games with their prep atmosphere and unique commentary (two Texas stereotypes who honestly call a hilarious game). They're quite forgiving—throw deep to Colt and you'll be in good shape—but that doesn't dampen the fun of trying to make a pair of huge comebacks.
Other segments are somewhat less successful. Throwing passes at crates and targets feels awkward and unsatisfying. Quicktime events are a little too prevalent in the early going. The intercutting of the rendered models of Devin Wade with real-life images of Josh Norman and Jim Miller is straight-up weird. And there's some serious mood whiplash as Longshot goes from silly montages to Deep and Serious Conversations at the drop of a hat.
But the element that's missed the most, I think, is the actual NFL. Longshot includes elements of the NFL, but it more or less ends on a cliffhanger. Instead, you spend a lot of time reflecting back on high school, kicking around the set of Longshot, and learning the ropes on the practice field. The actual NFL, it seems, is going to have to wait until Madden 19. It's an interesting idea, but it has the effect of making Longshot feel a little too disconnected from the core gameplay.
As for whether it's successful in its goal of drawing in fresh blood, I guess the jury is still out. I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few players jumped into Longshot and said, "This is cheesy as hell," and jumped right back out. I guess the only thing I'll say is that it starts off a little wobbly, but ultimately finishes pretty strong, with the grand finale being one of the best parts. And yes, I felt some actual tension as I waited to see whether I would be drafted. I don't think the mode is a home run (or a touchdown?), but at least it's willing to try something different. It takes risks, it tries to be ambitious, and I appreciate that.
From the standpoint of a new player, Longshot makes Madden 18 one of the best entry points for the series since the beginning of the generation. It's also quite attractive thanks to its transition to the Frostbite Engine, which in my view is largely successful. One thing I really like: Every stadium now has its own unique presentation elements. So when the Vikings come running out of the tunnel, for instance, you'll see the big dragon head blowing fire. It looks great, and it really gets you into the moment.
Sadly, it does suffer in a few areas. Madden 18 is one of the only sports sims to not just let you play a regular season without having to worry about player transactions and the salary cap. It boasts a career mode in which you can take on the role of a player, a coach, or an owner, but only the coach mode is any fun to play. Owner mode is a straight-up broken relic from the bad old days of 2013's Madden 25, its only redeeming quality being that it lets you move teams. Connected Franchise Mode (CFM) does a good enough job of capturing the basics of player movement, drafting, and managing the salary cap, but it definitely has a lot of room for improvement. New players are apt to find it dry and a bit boring, even if it is kind of cool that you can now jump into any point of the season.
As usual, Madden is at its strongest in Madden Ultimate Team (MUT)—a card collecting mode in which you try to build the best team possible. If you have a couple friends willing to dive in, you can play 3-on-3 co-op with MUT Squads—a new addition that requires you to work together to move the ball and defend the field. It definitely skews more hardcore, but it's a hell of a thing when you manage to throw the ball to your friend and they take it all the way down the field for a touchdown.
Ultimate Team, as always, is the subject of some controversy among the core fans. It's by far the most popular mode, and the appeal of collecting high-quality versions of your favorite players is undeniable. But it is microtransaction heavy, and there is real pressure to spend money and buy packs. One way or another, though, you're probably going to wind up playing MUT. The bulk of the multiplayer community can be found there, and it's the one mode that is constantly updated throughout the year. If nothing else, it offers a ton of content, and it's not too hard to build a solid team without spending money. Just be ready to grind a lot of solo challenges.
At the end of the day, Madden 18 definitely skews more hardcore than even the average sports sim. Its multiplayer community is infamously cheesy, and the core fans speak a language that is scarcely understandable for even the average football fan. The gulf between an average player and a good player is huge.
But with Longshot, Madden 18 at least takes some steps toward offering something for ordinary football fans who aren't steeped in its peculiar culture. It still has a ways to go, but between the story mode, skills games, and the simple appeal of guiding your team to the Super Bowl, this is probably the most accessible Madden has been in a long time.