Like its cover athlete fitting a pass into a tight window, EA Sports sure made the right read when picking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for the front of its latest offering, Madden 18.
NFL fans have wondered when Brady would grace the cover of the annual franchise, so it's only fitting EA Sports made the move on its best offering to date. He headlines the normal and G.O.A.T. edition, following in the footsteps of teammate Rob Gronkowski one year ago.
Like those foundational pieces in Foxborough, Massachusetts, EA Sports has for the fourth consecutive year built a strong on-field game by listening to fans of the series and sticking to one overarching theme—accessibility.
With gameplay refinements, a nod to different types of players at the controls and fan service, EA Sports' juggling act ends in one of the prettiest touchdown catches in recent memory.
Core gameplay is the foundation of this console generation's Madden. This will feel familiar to the franchise's fans, with additional tweaks to improve the user experience.
The biggest new wrinkle is the addition of target passing, a mechanic allowing a player to control exactly where the ball will wind up, offering greater precision than ever through the air. After the snap, pull a trigger and use the left stick to guide where the ball will end up—the marker a player guides allows for any throw seen on television, from back shoulder to hanging it just out of bounds for the sweet toe-drag catch.
This addition feels intuitive and is a much-needed one, though at times the attention needed to guide the marker down the field makes it easy to lose pocket awareness and take an unnecessary sack. The caveat, of course, is this is a user-activated feature on a play-by-play basis, meaning it's not a persistent part of gameplay until a player decides he or she wants full control to execute a pass the game's cover star can, but most in the league can't.
Sticking with the offense, the ground game feels a tad better than last year's focused improvements, with even less of the infamous lead blockers slamming into the wrong guy, leaving the player's ball-carrier to absorb punishment like he's working a punt return without a fair catch and defenders bearing down.
As usual, EA Sports divvied up the time so the game doesn't become imbalanced. Some might not notice it right away, but defensive back improvements via different button prompts give the player more control to go for an interception or play the receiver—as opposed to the frustrating experience of only having one button available and it seeming random as to what the player-controlled defensive back actually does when playing the ball.
New animations and realistic dragging tackles round out the changes that stick out right away, with the offense-defense tug-of-war updates coming in as a draw.
Graphics and Presentation
Indeed, this is another Madden release.
That's not meant to discredit the work put in by the team at EA Sports—but fans would agree the game has looked great for years.
This time out, the players look well proportioned, the reflections on the helmets are still jaw dropping and the full crowds in intricately reproduced stadiums are the most life-like we've seen. Those crowds cheer and boo appropriately, too, with a sprinkle of fitting team-based chants added in for good measure.
In the booth, Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis return after a solid debut and have well-timed and contextualized offerings. It's nice that the commentary varies based on game modes such as an Ultimate Team challenge scenario, and even nicer the two will keep adding content to the ever-evolving package with updates like they did a year ago.
If there's a complaint about a package that does a great job of feeling like a real-life broadcast, it's hiccups in the superb Frostbite engine, which sometimes send limbs through other on-screen players and briefly yank a player out of the immersive experience. They're few and far between, though, and more often than not the bodies on a screen do a good job of navigating the chaos.
It's not easy for a sports game to step into the story-mode arena and excel when 2K Sports has set the bar so high in the NBA 2K series and MLB The Show has done the same with Road to the Show.
Yet with Longshot, Madden 18 just elbowed its way into the tight space and manages to stand out.
Without tip-toeing too far into spoiler territory, Longshot is the story of former Texas quarterback Devin Wade and his bid for a football comeback, which brings along funny sidekick Colt Cruise. J.R. Lemon is superb in the lead role, with Mahershala Ali shining in the role of Wade's father, Cutter Wade. Marem Hassler, who plays Longshot producer Julia Vasco, also steals the spotlight while guiding the story along.
Longshot is, in a big way, surprising. The digestible story (coming in at three to four hours) fits in an arc one could normally go get at a movie theatre without it feeling hamfisted. Some of the beats are a bit odd, such as a prospect like Devin Wade—who started at Texas as a freshman—being confused when a coach asks him to pick out a safety on film. It's a suspension-of-disbelief ordeal, though, as one begins to understand EA Sports wisely used the game mode as a way to help teach players about the sport.
The path through Longshot is fulfilling and has a proper payoff. Some of the gameplay elements and where scrimmages occur are sure to leave players yearning for more.
And that's just it with Longshot—players can only wonder what happens with Wade next. It's fun to think about the future of Longshot, too, and where it could branch off in future iterations of Madden, whether it's more fictional characters like Wade or actual pros.
Ultimate Team and More
Seasoned Madden fans will be happy to know the usual stuff fills out the comprehensive package. Franchise mode is here and detailed, with practice squads and beyond. Ultimate Team, with its auctions, challenges and weekend tournament ladders makes a triumphant return.
Ultimate Team is where one of this year's biggest changes unfolds thanks to the introduction of MUT squads. The mode signals the return of co-op to the franchise, with three friends able to team up and hop online.
This performs as expected, with players asked to choose between offensive captain, head coach and defensive captain. Players in each role bring along their respective cards and playbooks before hitting the field, though the roles don't overly restrict gameplay because players can switch to any of the 11 players on the digital field after the snap.
Madden 18's other big change comes in the accessibility arena thanks to the introduction of play styles. Arcade lets players pad the stats while sitting back and relaxing, mixing skill and ratings, and competition is tailored toward user skill over anything else. These can help Madden have a broader appeal, though it was nice to switch the styles on the fly based on the mood of the play session.
Though it hasn't made most of the headlines, Play Now Live deserves a nod. It was refreshing to load up the week's current games, pick one and play it with current rosters, and after finishing have the option to start up the franchise right away and run with it. That feature during the regular season, with live rosters and the commentary updates based on real-life developments in the week prior, is a seamless, why-hasn't-this-been-here-before feature.
Madden 18 is, in a word, smooth: Menus are silky smooth, as are precision throws and patiently barrelling through ever-developing holes in the offensive line or gliding around the edge as a defender looking to get after a passer. EA Sports earns the same classification for recognizing and addressing the many hats its audience wears and listening to gameplay and feature requests at the same time.
Call it a culmination of a console generation's worth of work—the ground floor of Madden 18 is a well-tuned machine of football simulation, which has opened many other doors for its audience, ranging from a Hollywood-esque story to a collection craze like Ultimate Team to a competitive scene outlasting juggernauts of the pro sporting scene like Halo and others.
New additions haven't prevented simple gameplay and quality-of-life upgrades, to the point it's almost hard to outline everything about the game in a respectable manner because there's simply so much here for football fans.
Bold new moves by an established franchise aren't necessary. But Madden 18 goes there while making a point to be more accessible than ever, even teaching the fundamentals of the sport through various game modes.
Like its cover star, Madden continues to get better with age, with Madden 18 a culmination of the franchise's best parts while branching off in new directions enough to feel fresh at every turn.