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Madden NFL 18 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Dedicated "Simulation" game mode
  • D-linemen have more presence
  • Defense in general is easier to play
  • Tradeoffs for strategic decisions
  • Rus Blackwell's Longshot performance as Coach Jack Ford
  • Longshot adds a lot of potential for the future

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • "Ready to play" partial installation
  • Very few franchise improvements
  • Unreliable MUT / Cloud servers
  • Inconsistencies between Cloud and Offline Franchise
  • MUT is still an unsportsman-like, gamified, pay-to-win bastardization of football
  • Can't adjust stick sensitivity of targeted passing
  • New mechanics obfuscate old controls
  • New mechanics are ineptly tutorialized
  • Tackle Battle is still present
  • The soundtrack

Overall Impression : D+
Very few upgrades that I (personally) will actually ever use

Note: This review does not explicitly cover the Longshot story mode,
but I did factor Longshot into the overall grade.
Please click here for my review of Longshot.

Madden NFL 18 - cover

Developer:
EA Sports Tiburon

Publisher:
EA Sports / Electronic Arts

Platforms (< indicates platform I reviewed):
PlayStation 4< (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).

MSRP: $60 USD (or $80 for the G.O.A.T. edition),
+ micro-transactions.

Original release date:
24 August, 2017

Genre:
sports, football

ESRB rating: E for everyone for
comic mischief, mild language, mild violence

Player(s):
up to 2 players local,
up to 6-players online (via MUT squads),
up to 32-player online leagues

Official site:
easports.com/madden-nfl

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.

New features are geared towards Ultimate Team

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. EA has kind of sort-of, partially implemented some of the suggestions that I've pitched for the mode, but it's not quite there yet. I'm seeing more challenges that involve simply playing out a "full" game ("full" by MUT standards), but with extra, optional challenges that award you with bonus coins.

There's a greater emphasis on historic greats, and on completing bonus goals as part of a game or challenge.

There isn't a full-fledged Team Builder, but EA did throw in some unlockable generic uniforms that allow you to create a team that isn't just an existing NFL team. This adds a little bit of a personal touch to the mode -- or at least it would, if not for the fact that uniform availability is tied directly to your progress in the solo challenges.

There's also a much greater emphasis on recruiting historic players (the "Greatests Of All Time") and then upgrading them. Having Ronnie Lott and Dieon Sanders in my secondary is certainly more satisfying than having some random team's random bench-warmer, even if the historic players are still only mediocre shadows of their real-life selves.

You can customize the look of your
team with unlockable generic uniforms.

All that being said, the mode is still, fundamentally, a pay-to-win micro-transaction-milking pseudo-gambling game about collecting cards rather than actually building a team. In fact, I actually realized that I had been overly generous to Ultimate Team in years past. I had assumed that with enough time and enough games, you could grind to unlock anything in the mode. I was assuming that the green points (which are required for all high-level packs) could be earned by winning head to head games and events. I was wrong. These points can only be acquired by buying them through the PSN or XBox Market!

Yes, you can technically grind out some elite players. You have to do this with the set trade-in feature that allows you to trade in a number of cards from one rating tier in order to get a single card from a higher rating tier. You'd either have to grind out a crap ton of excess high-70 gold cards in order to get a single 80-something elite, or you have to mortgage your entire team in order to gamble for a single elite talent. Or you can grind out the tens of thousands of coins necessary to buy an individual elite card from the auction house, and hope that other users are selling cards that are worth buying. It's possible, but it's one hell of a grind!

Again, I want to emphasize that even if you give EA that money, you still can't import any of your previous year's cards. When next year's game comes out, POOF! There goes goes the Ultimate Team that you paid money for. So yeah, I had completely underestimated the corporate greed being displayed by EA in my previous years' reviews of MUT. This grind isn't made any easier by the giant experience bar and level (similar to other online games like Battlefield), which only serves to gate off certain game modes and options rather than improving your on-field performance. Maybe if the exp levels allowed you to upgrade your cards or grant some other on-field bonus, then it'd feel meaningful -- but as it stands, it just feels like more grinding.

I have a team full of all-time greats, but still will never be better than a 70-something overall.

The UI for navigating MUT is also still horrendous and slow. Getting anything done (such as rearranging your depth chart or trading in sets) is a circus of unnecessary button presses and long wait times. Trying to do play the weekly predictor sets is also absolutely, intolerably, slow. The game can't even be bothered to remember which set you just exited out of, so when you go to predict the next game, you have to start at the top, and scroll through the entire list again. MUT games in general still feel unnecessarily rushed and un-representative of football, and encourages and rewards bad sportsmanship (such as running up scores, never punting, and so forth). And the whole thing still just feels so sleazy and impersonal. And I'm still bitter that I didn't get to keep my 87 overall Brian Urlacher from last year...

But despite my frustrations with MUT and it's micro-transaction, pay-to-win economy, it's one saving grace is that it's a completely isolated game mode. You don't have to play Ultimate Team at all. You don't have to grind out coins, or pay EA so that you can have a competitive team. You can still enjoy the regular Play Now mode by yourself or online -- you just don't get any progression from that. You can still enjoy the Longshot story mode. And you can still enjoy Franchise. All without having to shell out a single extra penny, which is a heck of a lot more than can be said about NBA 2k18's "My Career"

There are more controls for
playing as DBs and WRs.

MUT Squads is the focus

So why am I talking so much about MUT -- again? Well, it's because most of the new gameplay features seem designed to accommodate Ultimate Team's new "MUT Squads" feature. MUT Squads is a MUT mode that allows you to combine your MUT teams with friends' teams to play three-on-three multiplayer matches, with each player having a specific role on the team. Because of this, EA's focus this year seems to be on trying to further flesh out the controls and features for playing off the ball. I didn't play this mode because I refuse (out of principle) to participate in MUT's pay-to-win economy, so I can't really say anything about how this mode works out.

There's new mechanics for controlling wide receivers that allows you to perform different releases at the line, and which requires you to use the right stick to make cuts in your routes. Just like with defensive linemen, you can also tap the turbo button when the ball is snapped to get a quicker burst off the line. On the other side of the ball, defensive backs can now use the right stick to perform different press maneuvers to try to force the offensive receiver inside or outside, or to try to stand him up at the line.

And speaking of defensive linemen, they can finally perform a "reach" move that allows them to attempt to make a tackle or sack while still being engaged in a block. This is a welcome addition that I've been asking for for years. It's probably the one new mechanic that I will regularly use in my own Franchise play, as I doubt I'll ever spend any time playing as a receiver or DB.

Being able to reach for a tackle or sack while blocked is something I've requested for years.

The controls for the reach tackle are a bit counter-intuitive though. They're mapped to left and right shoulder buttons (which is fine), but the directions invert depending on whether player lock is engaged -- regardless of the camera. In the Skill Trainer tutorial, the controls were respective to the player character. I assumed this was just how the mechanic worked, so was surprised when I got into my first game, and the controls were suddenly respective to the camera. Apparently, even though the Skill Trainer uses the default camera perspective (behind the offense), Player Lock is engaged, and so the reach controls become respective to the direction the player character is facing. When Player Lock is disabled (even when the camera is behind the defense), the controls are inverted.

Well that's confusing! Perhaps tying this feature to the right stick would have been more appropriate, as you could simply flick in the direction of the player you're trying to tackle?

The other big new feature is the targeted passing. I originally suspected that this would end up just being a visual indicator for the legacy pass leading mechanic, and would be implemented in the laziest way possible. To EA's credit, I was wrong. This is a completely new method of passing the ball in which you can literally throw the ball to any location on the field.

Can we get some QA on the tutorials, please?

Targeted passing takes a lot of practice, as it is a very button-intensive process. It certainly doesn't help that the Skill Trainer tutorial doesn't even provide accurate instructions on how to use it (more on that later). I don't foresee there being very many situations in which the targeted passing would provide a level of control or accuracy that would make it worth the burden of the extra complexity -- at least not from the perspective of an offline franchise player. It seems very useful for the multiplayer MUT Squad games, as your receivers are not necessarily going to follow their assigned routes, and the QB kind of has to go a bit off-script.

There are only a handful of situations in which Targeted Passing seems useful for an offline player.

There's a few situations in a single-player game in which this mechanic is likely going to see a lot of use. Hitting a specific hole in a zone (whether your receiver can get there or not) in order to avoid an interception is a good use. Keeping the ball in bounds on corner and drag routes is probably another really useful application. The mechanic will probably really shine for users controlling mobile quarterbacks who escape the pocket, forcing their receivers to break from their assigned routes. But in general, I'm just not comfortable with the stick sensitivity of this feature, and I haven't found any setting to adjust it. I've found it too sensitive for making small adjustments (like hitting a back shoulder fade or trying to position the ball away from a defender). As such, I just don't see myself using this mechanic much -- at least, not until I can hack the game to support a mouse.

Maybe if the game included an option to only use targeted passing, and I was forced to use it, then I might get enough practice to feel competent with it. No such luck.

As for the tutorials, the ones for the new mechanics seem universally flawed. Each one provides inaccurate or incomplete instructions for some element of the mechanic. The targeted passing tutorial tells you to hold R2 to change the intended receiver (which actually causes the QB to scramble and toggles targeted passing completely OFF). The WR release tutorial tells you to flick the stick up and then left (or right) to make a post or corner cut (it in fact requires you to make a single flick diagonally in the direction of the cut). The reach tackle tutorial doesn't clarify that left and right are relative to the player and not to the camera. Furthermore, successfully executing the technique in the drill almost always forces the runner out of bounds, which forces you to redo the rep, which prevents you from actually successfully completing the tutorial.

Targeted Passing tutorial provides inaccurate instructions on how to use the feature.

More generally, these new tutorials also lack any real explanation of what the purpose of the mechanic is, or the strategies associated with it. All the previously-existing Skill Trainer tutorials explain the actual football concepts behind the mechanics, as well as providing suggestions for when it's appropriate to use a given move or technique, what it counters, and what counters it. The new drills don't even bother; they just tell you what buttons to press with no context for when, why, or how you would want to actually use these techniques. It just seems so lazy. What is the purpose of the different WR release moves? Why would I use one instead of the other? How should I know which one is best to use for a given route or in a given circumstance? I don't know, because the game doesn't bother to tell me. One more reason for me to never use the mechanic...

Other Skill Trainer drills have also been changed in negative ways. The Basic Defense Pass Rush drill, for example, is now almost impossible. In last year's game, this drill had the problem of being too easy, as the QB would routinely hold the ball indefinitely until you sacked him. EA's fix was to make the QB use normal timing for throwing a pass. The problem is that this reduces the drill almost completely to an RNG for whether or not you win your pass rush move -- which is an RNG that is not in your favor. You have to get a sack in half the reps in order to even get a bronze, yet the pass rush moves have a less than 50% chance of success (unless maybe you're using an elite pass rusher). Even if you force the QB to throw an incomplete pass or even an interception, the game counts that against you because you didn't get the required sack. If you're lucky, the game will have matched you up against a team with an incompetent quarterback or a crap offensive line. Otherwise, you're screwed.

The pass rush drill is almost impossible because the quarterbacks will force bad throws to avoid sacks.

Maybe EA felt they had to make these drills more challenging in order to prevent users from exploiting them for experience in online franchises? That's all well and fine, but the core purpose of these drills is to act as tutorials. They're supposed to teach the user how to execute the given technique(s). If you provide poor instructions, or make the technique too difficult to execute, or just lack good feedback, then the drill is useless as a teaching tool, and the entire Skill Trainer becomes pointless. I love the Skill Trainer. I think it's one of the most genius features in any sports game ever. Playing it actually has the potential to make you a better, more informed and knowledgeable football fan in general -- and that's fantastic!. I don't want to see the Skill Trainer turned into a series of pointlessly-challenging mini-games with no instructional value.

So is there anything here for me?

Most of the gameplay enhancements seem to be catered more towards online competitive and cooperative play, which doesn't leave me with much to be excited about in this package. Some changes even hurt old features that I liked. The new defensive gap control overlay is now mapped to holding R2 and pressing Square or Circle. This is a consistent problem for several reasons. For one, waiting for the coach cam overlay takes a split second longer, which gives me slightly less time to actually look at my assignment. Since CPU QBs still snap the ball immediately, I can rarely see both my gap assignments. And if I'm trying to see my right gap assignments (by pressing circle button), and the CPU snaps the ball, I often end up switching players to someone I don't want to control, and then putting that player out of position. I hate this change! Absolutely hate it.

There's more strategic options, and they have much stronger trade-offs.

While I'll ignore most of the new features of the game, there are some welcome tweaks to the way the game plays on the field. In general, there's a greater sense of tradeoffs for your strategic decisions. QB accuracy has been tweaked so that lower-tier QBs throw many more errant passes. The popular "Coaching Adjustment" from NCAA Football has been ported over, allowing you to situationaly change the behavior of your team. I wish that this feature were only accessible during the start of a quarter or during a timeout, but whatever. Committing to run or pass on defense will also leave you much more vulnerable to the opposite if you guessed wrong. Same goes for offensive slide protections. Trying to jump the snap too early also seems to result in your defensive lineman being pushed to his knees. If I set my defense to protect against the pass every play (as I did in last year's game), even the CPU will run all over me.

There's also some new defensive visual assists. Much like how the predicted path of a runner is drawn on-screen, the coverage assignment of defensive players is displayed on-screen. The game will draw a line from the selected defender to the man he's supposed to be covering, or to the spot on the field that he's supposed to be protecting in zone coverage. The zone arrow indicator even changes length based on how close you are to your assigned zone. Better yet, this feature can be specifically toggled on or off independent of other assist settings -- unlike the running path visual assist, which still seems to be tied to special move assist.

An indicator will remind you of your selected defender's man or zone assignment.

Divided fanbase

One of my consistent complaints over the past few years of Madden games has been the series' focus on fast-paced, arcade football action catering to competitive, online players -- often at the expense of simulation sports fans. Competitive and arcade players want the game to emphasize user skill, consistency, and reliability in A.I. behavior; whereas, simulation fans want a more strict adherence to football rules and strategies and to the player's ratings and attributes. So tuning the game in one direction or the other often upsets players on the opposite end of the spectrum -- heck, even proposing something like bobbled snaps or practice injuries on forums or Youtube comments can earn vitriol (and sometimes even death threats) from competitive fanboys.

You're asked from the start whether you're a competitive or simulation player.

With the increased popularity (and profitability) of the game's online modes, the devs have often veered too far towards the arcade bandwagon for my tastes. Ultimate Team features are added at the expense of a deeper, more robust franchise mode. Features intended to speed up the more mundane parts of football (such as calling plays) come at the expense of strategic options. And so forth. Some of the years' games have balanced these competing elements better than others.

This year's game [finally] explicitly acknowledges this divide in the fanbase, while also simultaneously trying to satiate both ends of the spectrum. For the first time, Madden now features different game modes that include different rulesets and tuner balancing catering towards arcade, competitive, and simulation players. For some reason, the "Simulation" game mode still doesn't default the quarter length to 15 minutes, and I still can't enable the accelerated clock during the two-minute drill, but at least this effort is a start.

No, EA did not hide an NCAA Football
game inside of Longshot.

If arcade, simulation, and competitive aren't enough game modes for you, there's also the brand new "Longshot" story mode, which I've already reviewed separately because it's such a radically different experience from the rest of Madden. In summary though, Longshot turned out to be more interesting than I was expecting, and Rus Blackwell really steals the show in his role as Coach Jack Ford. I'm actually pretty excited about the possibilities that this opens up for creative story-telling in the future.

One step forward, two steps back

The amount of attention required for MUT Squads and Longshot means that this is another year in which franchise gets almost no attention. If you're primarily a franchise player, I suggest skipping this year's game. Heck, the few features that are added don't even work properly (or at all) if you play your Franchise offline! You can now pick up a new franchise at any point in the NFL season, with accurate rosters, injuries, and stats. Unfortunately, this only seems to apply to cloud franchise modes. I don't really trust the cloud franchise, as I can't stay connected to the servers for the duration of a full, 15-minute quarter game. Additionally, I can only play as one team in a cloud franchise, so I can't play as the Bears and the soon-to-be-home-team Raiders. Unfortunately, I can't use these advanced start features for my offline, dual-team franchise. Even more annoying is that Las Vegas is an option for relocation in Cloud Franchise, but not in offline Franchise.

You can start a Franchise mid-season, but only when playing on the cloud.

The rosters for these advance starts are also horribly inaccurate, as every team only has about 3 or 4 players on their practice squad. Starting a new franchise with the current, active roster leads to completely randomized practice squads. And since even the commissioner can't move players between different teams or practice squads, trying to rebuild your chosen team's practice squad is a huge chore. So if there's a particular practice squad player that you want to develop (like, say, Bears undrafted rookie Tanner Gentry -- who isn't even in the game's roster at all), then you're out of luck.

I also don't want to restart with the pre-season rosters because then I would lose out on the key early-season injuries, such as the Cardinals losing David Johnson or Chiefs losing Eric Berry. Unfortunately, there's still no way for the league commissioner to manually edit the injury status of a player. In the end, I was stuck in a frustrating pickle regarding starting my franchise, because none of the options available really felt satisfying. And I still have no idea if I'll have to restart when (or if) EA fixes the offline franchise Las Vegas bug.

You can relocate to Vegas now!
But only in Cloud Franchise

The related Play Now Live feature can also be used for stand-alone Play Now games, but doing so seems to ignore your own personal settings. For example, I have my game set to 10 minute quarters for Play Now, but whenever I play a Live game, it forces me to play the default six-minute quarter. So I don't use that feature either.

There's a few other very minor tweaks to Franchise preseason, drafting, and some new logic for generating injuries away from the ball (offensive linemen are no longer immune to injuries). But these minor improvements shouldn't be enough to sell franchise players on the new game.

Not a substantial enough upgrade

As someone who typically thinks of games as art, the inclusion of an actual narrative campaign in this year's game is a significant and interesting step for the series. I do look forward to seeing where this mode goes in the future. But Longshot is about the only thing that Madden 18 has going for it, and that's only good for about 4 hours of gaming anyway. Not worth a $60 investment.

This is easily the most disappointing and frustrating year of Madden [for me] in a handful of years. Not only is there very little new content that I will personally ever use, but there's also numerous bugs and functionality that works in one game mode (Cloud Franchise) but not in another (offline Franchise) that make me not even want to start a Franchise. When you're releasing a game every year, there are going to be off years -- at least for certain portions of the player base. This is certainly an off-year for me.

Maybe, if I play around with the targeted passing some more, I might eventually come to like it and see Madden 18 as a revolutionary step forward for the series. Maybe. If you do play competitively, however, then the added precision in passing and the ability to play cooperatively might make 18 the single best Madden game in the past 12 years. I'm just not one of those players.

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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