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The NFL season is nearly upon us, and that means Madden. And this year, Madden means BBQ, pickup trucks, and dusty country roads.
Thanks to its new story mode, Madden 18 has a distinctly Friday Night Lights bent. And that's not all it brings to the table, either.
But before we get to Madden 18, let's expand our focus a little bit and take a broader look at the series. Where does Madden NFL stand now? Where is it going? And is the world ready for a Madden sidekick named Colt Cruise? Let's find out.
What Madden NFL Does Well
Madden tends to get a lot of criticism from sports fans, but the series is a long way from the nadir of the Xbox 360 years—a period so bad that at least one person associated with the studio once referred to it as "the lost generation."
The series suffered numerous setbacks in the eight years between Madden 06 and Madden 25, leading many fans to derisively remark that the PS2's NFL 2K5 was better than anything Tiburon put out (some fans still believe that to this day). Things have turned around since Madden 15, but the damage done to Madden's reputation has proven hard to shake. A few solid entries aren't going to undo a decade of malaise overnight.
But neither should Madden's progress be discounted. The defense is sharper now; the passing game is more nuanced, and the offensive line is better about following their assignments. It's fun, which was not the case even just a few years ago. And the presentation is more polished as well, which can be attributed in part to the work of the solid if unglamorous announcing duo of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin.
It continues to be one of the few sports games to wholeheartedly support online franchise mode; and while the career mode as a whole is a bit staid, it's fun to draft and develop young studs en route to multiple Super Bowls. It's thanks in large part to online CFM that I'm still playing Madden while FIFA and NHL have fallen to the wayside.
Over the past few years, Madden has gone from one of the worst sports sims on the market to arguably the best sports game in EA's stable. It continues to boast one of the deepest and best-supported Ultimate Team modes, which regularly brings with it reams of free solo content. It also lacks some of the glaring flaws of competitors like NBA 2K, even if it's not quite as ambitious as its peers.
While it's hard to point one thing it does better than any other sports game—outside of maybe Ultimate Team—it does a lot of little things well, from Play the Moments to the balanced way in which corners and receivers battle for the ball. That's not something that I could have said even a couple years ago.
Suffice it to say, this series has come a long, long way.
Where Madden NFL Struggles
There will eventually be a year in which Madden manages to get both zone coverage and man coverage right. Unfortunately, we still haven't seen it.
One-dimensional defenses have hamstrung Madden for years now, removing one of the best parts of the strategy: the need to read coverage before hiking the ball. Hardly anyone uses man coverage, so that's half of the defenses that no longer need to be accounted for.
Madden also has a problem with update fatigue. After multiple patches, the balance of the gameplay is arguably in a worse place than it was at launch. The passing game is slightly more balanced, but the running game feels out of whack. It's far too easy to shed a block and hit stick a runner before they even make it to the gap right now. At various points, Madden has also struggled with overpowered zone blitzes that are impossible to stop even with the help of slide protection and other tricks.
This is the unfortunate side effect of the well-intentioned effort to tweak Madden on the fly. It's nice to see Tiburon giving Madden so much support after launch, but they seem to be stuck in a game of whack-a-mole as they try to address one problem only to have several more pop up in its place. Hopefully they will find the balance in this year's version.
Beyond these admittedly esoteric problems, my biggest issue with Madden right now is that owner mode is still broken. Unfortunately, it looks to be much the same in Madden 18.
As always, though, Madden will keep putting one foot in front of the other and improving by degrees. It still has plenty to criticize, but's been a while since it's taken a big step backward ala Madden 12. In my view, that's the most progress Madden has made in a decade.
The Outlook for Madden 18
Tiburon is going all out with Madden 18. This year's marquee addition is Longshot—a Telltale-like single-player story that charts one player's path to the NFL Draft, its main goal being to attract player who feel alienated by Madden's complex mechanics. It's an ambitious and risky move for Madden, one that has the potential to raise the bar for sports games as a whole.
Longshot is interesting because it eschews the usual "play a game, practice, watch a cutscene" format of NBA 2K and FIFA. Indeed, it doesn't include so much as a single snap of NFL football, focusing instead on seamless storytelling interspersed with minigames and the odd high school football game. This decision has provoked a minor backlash among the hardcore fans, but EA knows that they have their money in any case. Right now they're trying to grow their audience; and unless it's a total disaster (we'll see), it's probably going to work.
Madden 18's other big addition is the Frostbite Engine, which could prove as risky as Longshot. FIFA's transition proved fraught with input delays and other problems, and Tiburon will have to take care to avoid similar issues. Madden also has some of the most complex player interactions of any sports game, which could prove tricky. My initial impression of the transition from E3 was positive, but who knows how it will play out over a long period of time.
Rounding out the package is MUT Squads, which turns Madden's most popular mode into a co-op game. Building on the progress made by last generation's Online Team Play mode, MUT Squads splits up duties like offensive and defensive playcalling—as well as actually playing the various positions—between three players. The MUT tie-in comes into play with the position players, with the top cards from each player's collection being used to fill out the team.
It feels like a bit of a gimmick, to be honest, but OTP was quite popular in its day, and EA seems keen to position MUT Squads as a competitive mode. I've gotta say: contributing to the team is immensely satisfying. But much will depend on how many people actually play the mode, and whether or not matchmaking works. I'm guessing that it will have an easier time finding an audience than NHL Threes, if only because of the MUT component.
With the addition of Frostbite, Longshot, MUT Squads, and smaller but no less significant additions like Weekend League, Madden 18 figures to be a pretty hefty package. These bold, sweeping additions also make it riskier than in years past, as they take the series past the more incremental changes that have defined recent versions.
I'm okay with Madden taking some risks, though. Tiburon has been building to this entry since the beginning of the generation; and with the big moment upon us, now is the time to be ambitious. I can't wait to see what they've come up with.