Unlike most years, I opted not to board the “Madden NFL” hype train leading up to launch this time around.
Don’t get me wrong, I always look forward to each new edition of EA Sports’ annual football sim. But for “Madden 18,” I wanted to approach the game with a clean slate. So I tuned out as much pre-launch noise as possible and actively avoided reading others’ thoughts on the game.
“Madden” is one of the most subjective franchises around — some people love it with blind devotion while others refuse to play a single snap if the secondary color on their favorite team’s alternate jersey is the slightest shade too dark — and I’ve found it’s easy to be influenced by those who aren’t looking to get the same experience from the game that I am.
So when I fired up my review copy for the first time late last week, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the series was moving to the Frostbite engine, so I figured it would be really, really pretty, but beyond that I was Jon Snow — I knew nothing.
It didn’t take long to see how much of a difference the move to Frostbite has made. “Madden” has always looked good, but “Madden 18” takes the visual presentation to a new level. The lighting and reflections are incredible, but what impressed me most were the improved player models and how they moved.
Sure, there are still some weird animations here and there, but overall the motion feels smooth and, most importantly, organic. I finally feel like I’m in complete control of my players and no longer just steering them between animations. Whether it was watching undersized defensive backs bounce off of Gronk in the open field or seeing Marshawn Lynch bowl over a safety and sprint to the end zone, “Madden 18” never failed to deliver at least a couple “wow” moments in every game I played.
That’s not to say that the on-field product is perfect out of the box. I spent a great deal of time tinkering with sliders in order to get the AI to effectively run the ball and realize that Brian Hoyer isn’t Tom Brady, but once I got things dialed in to my liking, “Madden” has never played better or been more fun.
This is another area in which “Madden 18” excels — its customizability. New for “Madden 18” are three distinct play styles — Arcade, Simulation and Competitive. Arcade is geared toward first-time players and those just looking to have fun. Penalties are limited, injuries are turned off and touchdowns come quickly. Simulation delivers the most NFL-accurate experience, with player ratings and player skill driving the outcomes. And Competitive is all about a player’s individual stick skills, which is why this is the default mode for online head-to-head matchups.
The traditional difficulty levels still exist within each play style, so it’s easy to cater “Madden 18” to your specific tastes. My kids aren’t quite “Madden” pros, so we’re using Arcade to level the playing field, but then I can bump it over to Simulation to play games in franchise mode. The multiple play styles makes this the most accessible “Madden” to date. I also recommend checking out the Coach Adjustments screen in the play select window — there’s good stuff to be found there.
I was disappointed to see franchise mode return with practically no changes from “Madden 17,” but the addition of Play Now Live, which blurs the line between typical exhibition games and the actual NFL season, and the new story-driven “Longshot” mode help soften the blow.
I’ve never been a big fan of these story modes in my sports games — I’m looking at you, “NBA 2K” — but “Longshot” was so well-produced and acted that it was impossible not to want to follow the saga of Devin Wade to its conclusion. I was surprised at how little actual football I played during the experience, but frankly I didn’t mind simply watching the story unfold. My only complaint is that it was over too soon.
Play Now Live follows along with the real NFL season and features updated commentary and rosters to reflect the goings-on in the League. After completing a game, you can jump into franchise mode and finish out the season with all of the actual NFL stats and records up to that point intact. It sounds like a cool feature, but we’ll have to wait until the season kicks off to see how well it actually works. I have heard some updated commentary during Play Now Live preseason games, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Finally, the card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team mode has been updated with MUT Squads. This 3 v 3 mode puts each player in control of one aspect of a team — the offensive captain calls the plays on offense and controls the quarterback, the defensive captain calls the defensive plays and the head coach selects the uniform and stadium and is responsible for calling time outs and accepting or declining penalties. I’ve only played a couple of games, but I can already tell MUT Squads will be a mode I revisit often. I only wish it allowed for multiple users on one console.
“Madden NFL 18” is clearly a high-point for the series. MUT Squads is a fun twist on the Ultimate Team concept, the multiple play styles make it easy for my kids and I to enjoy the game together, and the “Longshot” mode frankly blew me away with how good it was. And with the Frostbite engine powering the action on the field and off, “Madden 18” is a game that looks as good as it plays. Hopefully Tiburon revisits franchise mode for “Madden 19,” but in the meantime there’s more than enough here to hold me over until then.
“Madden NFL 18”
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Rating: E for everyone