I recently wrote about the game at E3 2018 that most caught my interest. But there are other things coming out of E3 that I also paid peripheral attention to. One of the few reasons that I anticipate E3 each year is that it is also around the time that we start to get the first substantial looks at the upcoming Madden game.

Madden 19 E3 trailer.

The first thing that I noticed about Madden 19 previews is the focus on player movement and locomotion. Specifically, I noticed the fact that they seem to be re-selling us features that were supposed to already be in the game. Didn't Madden 25 already introduce this same mechanic? Yes, it was called "true step" back then. If it was so important to gameplay back in 2013, then why was it ever removed?

Player locomotion and runners getting through gaps in the line are focuses of Madden 19.

We're also seeing the return of a variation of the "get skinny" mechanic that dates all the way back to PS2 versions of the game, but which had been subsequently removed. Hitting the right gap in running plays has been a problem for a long time. It's good to see EA addressing it with the "hit the gap" and "push the pile" mechanics, but they've supposedly addressed this issue several times in the past, and it's never solved the problem.

They've also claimed that defensive coverages have been improved, and that defenders will now do a better job of playing the first down marker in coverage. That mechanic was also supposedly implemented back when Tiburon revised zone coverages for Madden 17, but apparently that didn't work either, so here they are, promising to fix it again. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any of these promises play out in the small bits of gameplay that I've seen so far -- let alone improvements regarding block-shedding, defensive coverage, or general A.I.. So I'm tempering my expectations.

I did not see any of the promised new gameplay features pan out in the gameplay previews from E3.

EA's dev blog has also stated that tackles will now factor in momentum, speed, and player weight. Wasn't that what the Ignite, Infinity, and Frostbite engines were supposed to have been doing for the past five years or so? Admittedly, I did see a few improved-looking group tackles and broken tackles in another piece of gameplay footage, but not much regarding the advertised features. Don't get me wrong, if all these features work, then I'll be happy. It's just not very reassuring to hear the same promises year-in and year-out, and then not see them in the advertised product.

Also, what's the deal with Terrell Owens being featured so much (as the cover athlete and in the trailer)? Is he coming out of retirement or something? Does Owens actually have anything to do with the content of the game?!

A long overdue Franchise overhaul?

In any case, it looks like Franchise Mode is a large focus of this year's game, which is good news considering that the mode was almost untouched in Madden 18, which seemed to focus almost exclusively on MUT...

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Madden NFL 18 - title

Oh boy, booting up Madden 18 for the first time was like watching a slow motion train wreck -- before the train had even left the station. After a few start-up questions to set my play style and difficulty level, the game immediately loaded into a demo game of a Superbowl rematch between the Falcons and Patriots. Except it crashed to the PS4 menu before the game could load. I booted it up again, sat through setting my initial preferences again, and then waited in anticipation to see whether the demo game would actually load.

It did, but instead of a tightly-choreographed narrative tutorial like in Madden 16 and 17, it loaded into a normal Play Now game, but with pathetically sparse commentary and lazy SuperBowl presentation. Now, Madden 17's tutorial wasn't great. The player banter was cheesily-written and poorly-acted, and completely misrepresented the actual content of the game. But at least it had scripted scenarios that put the player in position to try out some of the new features. Madden 18's introduction couldn't even be bothered with trying to be a tutorial. It just throws you into a game with a few tooltips popping up in the corner of the screen that you may or may not have time to read, and which may or may not be actually relevant or useful.

The demo game exposed the persistence of legacy issues with loose ball and onside kick recovery.

The actual game exposed several legacy issues were still present. Loose-ball physics and fumble recoveries appear to still be an ongoing problem. A fumbled ball just magically sticks to a recovering player's hand, and an onside kick was sucked right into the waiting hands of a member of the receiving team. So much for my hopes that the Frostbite Engine might be a panacea for fixing any legacy physics issues...

The game ended, I was given a "What's New" teaser video that explained the settings and options that I had already chosen before, and then I was put on the main menu where every piece of content was locked out. The only thing that I was allowed to do is replay that same Falcons-Patriots Superbowl rematch. You see, this year's Madden game pulls that annoying trick where it installs just enough content to allow you to boot up the game and play a tiny piece of demo content while the rest of the content downloads and installs in the background. I hate this feature! I don't want to play an incomplete game. I'll play it when it's fully installed and ready to go. In the meantime, I can read a magazine or play something else. Don't tell me the game is "ready to play", when it isn't!

What I got was a buggy, poorly-performing game scenario that I didn't want to play, and which did nothing but showcase that major legacy issues still remain, that the commentary might be sparse and lifeless (fortunately it isn't), and it couldn't even be bothered to actually teach me any of the game's new features.

"Ready to play", my ass... At least install the Skill Trainer so I can do some tutorials!

And I thought Grand Theft Auto V's tutorial was bad.

When the game finally was ready to let me actually play, I spent some of my early time in Ultimate Team to get my feet wet and see if that mode had become worth playing. No, it still isn't...

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Madden NFL 18 - Longshot

I'm still working on my full review of Madden 18. It was starting to get kind of long and rambly, so I decided to break off the section regarding the Longshot story mode (which I've already played to completion) into its own post so that I could be a little more thorough regarding this unique game mode. Well, unique for Madden anyway. Games like 2K's NBA 2k have been doing a similar thing for years.

Longshot is a pretty radically different gameplay mode compared to the rest of Madden, and so it also felt kind of out-of-place in the review for the rest of the game. It's very much its own self-contained thing. In fact, it very easily could have been released as a stand-alone game or "expansion" DLC pack for Madden 18, rather than being a back-of-the-box feature. It's inclusion in the core package is probably one of the reasons that franchise mode received so little attention this year, as I'm sure this thing must have taken a lot of time and resources. Madden is already overpriced as it is (in my opinion) -- especially when you consider how much money EA makes from the Ultimate Team feature -- so I'm certainly happy that I got to play this mode without having to spend any extra money.

The story of Devin Wade

If Madden 18's arcade, simulation, and competitive game modes aren't enough game varieties for you, or if you're one of those "games as art" "snobs" who writes lengthy blogs about ludonarrative dissonance or about how seemingly-arbitrary game mechanics are actually informing the narrative, then the new "Longshot" story mode might be for you.

This isn't a character-creator like in earlier iterations of Madden's Superstar mode, or NCAA Football's Road to Glory / Race for the Heisman / Campus Legend. Instead, you take on the persona of a character designed by EA, named Devin Wade. Devin is a former college football star who quit after the death of his father and is eventually recruited into a fictional reality television show called "Longshot", in which he's trained to become a potential NFL draftee. Wade is dealing with the trauma of his father's untimely death a few years ago, as well as his own feelings of inadequacy, abandonment, and maybe some guilt. You play through his training process, as well as flashback bits of his high school career (and watch other bits of his college career and some pee wee moments). Surprisingly, one thing that you won't do is have Devin suit up in an NFL uniform, as the mode concludes with him being drafted (or not, as the case may be).

Longshot includes flashbacks of Devin Wade's high school and college careers.

The mode is mostly like watching a movie (a three-and-a-half hour long movie), with the occasional quicktime event, mini-game, or time-sensitive Mass Effect-style dialogue choice...

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Madden NFL 18 - cover
Tom Brady graces the cover of Madden 18

The first bit of news regarding this year's Madden NFL football game has been released by EA. As is typical, the first bit of news is the cover athlete. This year, none other than Tom Brady will grace the cover of the game.

The cover shown seems to be labeled as a "G.O.A.T. Edition". "G.O.A.T." -- if you're unaware -- means "Greatest Of All Time". I'm not entirely sure if this label is supposed to refer specifically to the cover athlete, or if it's supposed to represent a belief within EA that Madden 18 will be the greatest Madden game of all time.

NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus followed-up EA's cover announcement by writing a "Power Ranking" of all Madden covers. I'm not quite sure what his criteria for judging these covers is, as the justifications written below each choice seem more like fluff to me. As far as I can tell, he's basically just ranking his favorite players that have been on Madden covers, rather than the covers themselves.

This lead me to contemplate my own standards for a good Madden cover. Personally, I don't like the use of an individual cover athlete for a sports video game. I do agree with Hanzus that the covers featuring Madden himself tend to be pretty bland, but I don't dismiss them off-hand.

Personally, my standard for a good cover (for any game, let alone a sports game) is that the cover be representative of the game itself. This applies to Madden games as well. A game cover should effectively be an advertisement for what's in the game. And in the case of an annually-released title (like sports games, Call of Duty, Rock Band in its time, etc.), the cover should advertise what's new in this year's game. For me, the best Madden covers are the ones that showcase new features of the game. So when EA has contests and votes to decide the cover athlete, I roll my eyes. It's such an arbitrary process.

Covers for Madden '95 and '96 stand out as particularly good covers featuring John Madden's image,
as they both highlight scenes of football being played.

Since I would prefer that the cover showcase new features of the game, rather than an arbitrarily-chosen individual athlete, I'd much prefer to see a scene on the cover, rather than an individual player. For this reason, I actually like some of the old covers featuring John Madden. The Madden '95 and '96 covers stand out to me as particularly good game covers for this reason. The '95 cover, in particular works really well, as the imagery invokes the idea of Madden himself watching the action unfold and providing his trademark commentary for it.

I'd like to see EA move towards using scenes like this on their covers, instead of just single athletes. Ideally, such a scene should be representative of some new feature or mechanic in the game. The '96 cover is a great example, as it shows Carolina Panther and Jacksonville Jaguar players, both of which were new expansion teams being added to the NFL (and to Madden) that year. The cover is, effectively, telling any potential buyer what is new in the game, without you even having to turn the box over and read the marketing spiel on the back.

As far as covers featuring individual athletes go, there are a few that I like...

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Madden NFL 17 - title

UPDATE OCTOBER 23, 2016: LATEST PATCH AND/OR TUNER HAVE PRACTICALLY RUINED THE GAME FOR ME.

I've been having miserable experiences with Madden 17 since publishing this review. I suspect that either patch #2 or tuner #2 are the culprit. CPU QBs have become robots that have 80% completion percentages every game. Running the ball has become impossible (for both human and CPU teams). Man coverage simply doesn't work at all, making corner routes, in routes, out routes, and slant routes unstoppable. The throw out of sack mechanic has been tuned down to the point of being irrelevant. And the list goes on...

Sliders don't seem to improve the experience at all. In fact, certain sliders (like CPU QB Accuracy and CPU Pass Blocking) don't seem to have any effect at all anymore. I am tempted to rewrite this review with a much lower score (Somewhere in the range of a D or D-), but I'm hoping that EA will fix the problem - or at the very least, that deleting the most recent Tuner data will resolve some of the issues. Sadly, I don't think it's possible for me to re-download the first tuner data. This is a shame, since that one actually did fix some genuine problems the game had at launch.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD PATCH #2 OR TUNER #2!

Electronic Arts has supposedly spent the last three years or so rebuilding Madden from the ground up. Because of that, the past few years' games have felt very incremental, and somewhat incomplete. It was obvious that there were still major holes in many facets of gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred that EA just take a two or three year hiatus in order to hold off on releasing a game until it was actually complete. I'm happy that it seems like we're finally getting a "finished" version of EA's vision of a "next gen" Madden game, and I was curious to see if it would live up to expectations.

By their own admission, EA has finally rebuilt the final few phases of gameplay that still used predominantly legacy code (e.g. special teams and the football itself). For the first time in a long time, it feels like Madden can be approached and reviewed as a complete retail product rather than one step in a long-term incremental beta process. Is it worth the wait?

We'll, first impressions let it down a bit. Much like last year's game, the introduction and tutorial for Madden 17 seemed like a pointless waste of time that misrepresents the actual content of the game with its frequent cutscenes and dialogue from players and coaches. I'm not sure who these scripted gameplay intros are intended for. I would expect that new players would likely be confused and unsure what to do, resulting in failing the intro without any clue what they did wrong or what they were supposed to do. Experienced players, on the other hand, are probably just annoyed with the lack of control in this sequence. The inability to skip the cutscenes only makes repeat playthroughs (if you care enough to try to actually beat the scenario) feel tedious, as you'll have to sit through more cringe-worthy dialogue. EA Sports / Tiburon isn't Naughty Dog, and so writing dialogue and directing voice actors are not the studio's strong suits. About the only thing that this intro sequence does is highlight the new commentary team, which is actually pretty good.

Slowly becoming a complete football game

Despite the blocked field goal in the intro being an un-playable cutscene, special teams was one of the primary areas of focus this year. It's an area that's been mostly neglected since the analog kick meter was introduced back around 2007. And what was the innovation that EA decided was necessary to bring their kicking game into the next generation? Well, actually, they decided to bring back a kicking meter that works almost identically to the older PS1 / PS2 era games. You start the meter charging by pressing X, then press X again to set the kick strength as the meter fills, then press X again to set the kick accuracy as the meter returns to the bottom. Nothing new here.

Madden NFL 17 - kick meter
The "new" kick meter is basically a return to the older kick meter.

However, you now have to hold the analog stick to aim the kick prior to starting the kick meter. If you let go, the kick trajectory will snap back to the default. This does require a bit more dexterity than either of the previous kick meter systems ever needed, but it's still fairly easy once you get used to it. Though, EA could maybe loosen up the accuracy window for online games because any amount of lag makes the kicking game virtually impossible. You also have to be more careful with timing your kicks, as the game and play clocks both continue to tick while the kick meter is charging. Not sure if this is a bug or a feature... So be careful that you don't wait too long and give yourself a delay of game (or let the game clock expire before) you get the kick off.

On the other side of the ball, defenders can now actually block kicks by jumping the snap...

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