A new “Madden” game from EA Sports is as annual a tradition as the start of the NFL season itself. It has become such an essential part of the sports and gaming landscape that it’s hard to imagine the end of summer without it. As consoles have topped out in terms of capabilities and the franchise itself has finetuned itself to the point of near-perfection, some have criticized the annual “Madden” releases as little more than roster updates in the past. They’re almost like annual releases for well-known automobile models. The look may change, and some of the special features, but the act of driving is essentially the same.
This year, the team behind “Madden NFL 18” took this criticism to heart and attempted something that’s been slowly seeping into sports games of late: the cinematic campaign. The “NBA 2K” franchise has developed stories in the past, including a story mode overseen by Spike Lee for “NBA 2K16” and a co-starring role by Michael B. Jordan in the My Career mode of “NBA 2K17.” Following the trend, EA Sports presents “Longshot” in this year’s “Madden,” an interactive film co-starring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Barry Corbin, and, well, Dan Marino, with a score by Jeff Russo (a TV-scoring machine behind the compositions that accompanied “Fargo,” “The Night of,” “Snowfall,” and many more).
It’s an ambitious effort that nonetheless stumbles from obvious developmental growing pains. However, I admire EA for trying something this unusual. The fact is they could basically just release the “roster update” year after year and “Madden” would still be a video game behemoth. They deserve credit for trying something as unexpected as “Longshot,” and there are building blocks here for something that could be rather special in the future.
Echoing “Friday Night Lights,” “Longshot” is about a young man named Devin Wade (played by J.R. Lemon in motion-capture) who was once one of the top young prospects in all of football but bottomed out after a game at the University of Texas went horribly wrong. Succumbing to the pressure of the game, he walked away from football, but he’s hoping to make a comeback now with his buddy Colt Cruise (Scott Porter), which may be one of the best “football story names” I’ve ever heard. He arrives at the NFL Combine eager to follow a relatively traditional path of a walk-on to the NFL, but his story is essentially hijacked by a reality TV show called “Longshot,” which turns his narrative into ratings fodder.
As you might imagine, “Longshot” is about way more than just completing passes. From the very beginning, it is a dialogue-heavy, decision-based game in which what happens off the field impacts the narrative as much, maybe more, than connecting on a short pass. A lot of the decisions come down to your relationship with Colt, who can be a little more rambunctious than modern scouts and coaches like. If you pause before the combine to shoot a video with him, you risk scouts seeing that you care more about social media than football. And as Devin’s star rises, you’ll have to choose if you want to try and bring Colt with you or leave him behind. The idea that sports stories are increasingly about what happens off the field as much as they are what happens on it is an ambitious element to weave into a sports game, although “Longshot” never quite reaches Telltale Games levels of story-shaping. Many of the dialogue choices feel as if they’re not really impacting the story as much as making sure you’re still paying attention. I wanted more of a sense of authorship in “Longshot” when it came to the off-the-field action.
Believe it or not, the on-the-field action is similarly ambitious-but-flawed. Often using the show-within-a-show concept, “Longshot” occasionally breaks into a mini-game, including ones in which you have to throw balls at targets to rack up points or a memory game in which you have to repeat plays back to your coach. None of these are difficult, but they sometimes play out more like annoyances more than storytelling. What does throwing a ball at a moving target in a shooting gallery style really have to do with football? And I get that’s part of the point—the reality show within the game is portrayed as being somewhat silly—but that doesn’t improve the actual experience of doing it. When “Longshot” actually becomes about winning football games, it picks up, but I was surprised at how little I felt at the end of Devin Wade’s arc. Too much of “Longshot” is repetitive, and it too often feels like you’re watching someone else’s story rather than writing it yourself. I’m hopeful that future iterations of “Longshot” put us in someone like Devin Wade’s shoes more than just making us passive observers to his arc. The important thing to remember is that there's a lot to build on here. "Longshot" should be looked at almost like Devin Wade's career itself: promising but not yet fulfilled.
As for the rest of “Madden NFL 18,” it plays out pretty much as you’d expect—this franchise has been fluid and refined for years now. The Ultimate Team mode feels more impressive than ever and I played the bulk of two seasons—a relatively failed one with the Detroit Lions and a Super Bowl-winning one with the Oakland Raiders—in which I noticed only a few glitches, and they can likely be patched with updates. The announcers made more mistakes than is typical for a “Madden” game, but again that’s something that could be fixed, and the game promises regular updates, including updated broadcast presentations throughout the season that will pick up on real-life NFL developments. Once again, EA Sports has endeavored to make a game that fans don’t just play in September but through the season and beyond. Well, at least until next August.
Madden NFL 18 will be released for the Xbox One and Playstation 4 on August 25, 2017.