Like last year, Madden NFL 18 is another one of Madden’s down years. As players of the series will know, there are years when sweeping changes hit the game, and there are years when the game feels more like a roster update. While Madden NFL 18 can certainly be looked at as more than a roster update with tweaks and changes to core game modes, the introduction of a narrative driven story mode for the first time in the series, and marking a transition to DICE’s Frostbite Engine that powers many EA games, Madden 18 does not feel like much of an upgrade over Madden 17 when looking at it across the board.
What’s been included this year feel like risk averse additions to the game. EA Tiburon takes very little chance in improving the annual franchise in meaningful ways this year when it comes to gameplay features, and even the new Longshot story mode lands with a thud as it just doesn’t have the type of quality that you’d expect from a single player campaign-like experience in terms of writing or presentation, despite desperately wanting to be something that picks at the player’s emotions, telling the story of two NFL hopefuls. While it’s a first run for EA and not quite as shlocky as NBA 2K’s Livin’ Da Dream mode from 2016, Longshot feels like a take it or leave it mode. While some might enjoy it as a break from the core Madden modes, there’s not much substance here. With more cinematic meat on its bones than actual gameplay, Longshot can wear out its welcome pretty quickly.
Looking past this highly touted new mode, you really start to look at the engine switch as the feature for the game that’s supposed to sell it. Unfortunately, the graphical improvements that we see from Frostbite in Madden 18 aren’t many. Improved lighting is probably the most evident change. While things like character models and animations look and feel much like they did last year. Some player face models seem to have gotten a visual bump, but it’s certainly not the type of generational leap that we saw a few years back. Perhaps giving Tiburon a few more years to work with Frostbite as they push further away from the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation of consoles, we’ll continue to see improvements across the board. This year, however, is not a year that will make your jaw drop. In fact, many of the small things and visual glitches that we’ve seen in previous Madden games still haven’t been fixed. Awkward player animations, tackling that feels like the players are magnetized, and weird ball and player physics that crop up from time to time are evident throughout the game.
Franchise Modes are a big thing for sports games, and EA continues to really ignore this aspect of their game… at least in adding new features and expanding on it. Franchise mode this year really doesn’t have any standout improvements to highlight. Franchise starting points are one, but it’s such a slight tweak to the formula that it really only changes the game in a marginal way. Customizable Draft Boards also are a new addition to this mode, allowing auto-drafters some chance at building a solid team. While it hasn’t been improved significantly with features that some of the fan base have been clamoring for in terms of depth, Madden 18’s CFM is certainly serviceable. The mode offers multi-year progression in online or offline franchises, with the option to do fantasy drafts and manage many of the aspects of your team’s franchise. With the lack of additions to this mode compared to last year, it really feels like EA is funneling players towards Madden Ultimate Team where all that sweet, sweet microtransaction money can be made.
For the most part Madden Ultimate Team feels familiar, but there have been some pretty big changes made to the popular mode. Online Team Play returns to Madden through MUT Squads. This mode allows friends to team up and play 3 vs. 3 online team play. Three players can combine their rosters to create a MUT Squad then take it online selecting one of three roles to play: Offense, Defense, or Head Coach. While the reintroduction of MUT Squads and Online Team Play is a welcome addition, our experience with the aspect of the game was not quite up to snuff in terms of quality in connectivity for the game. Compared to online franchise and head to head modes we saw a higher rate of connection problems when playing, or trying to play, MUT Squads. While this may or may not persist following the game’s launch, it’s certainly been an issue that’s worth mentioning.
MUT continues to be one Madden’s most robust modes. It offers players solo challenges to play against the computer. Head to head competition and the aforementioned squad based gameplay. While the mode starts out incredibly generous in getting you on your feet, it does turn into somewhat of a grind pretty early on. If you’re new to MUT it’s a mode where completing challenges and games will earn you coins and card packs to build a team to your liking. You can use coins to purchase card packs or look for trades and auctions within the mode’s marketplace. There are competitive challenges and leagues within the mode, that have players looking to build the “Ultimate Team.” You must manage player contracts to keep star players on your squad, so you’ll need to manage your coin reserves carefully. While Madden has felt more and more in tune with the actual NFL season for some time, MUT is the mode that probably gets the most love on a weekly basis, dropping new special cards to players throughout the year. The aforementioned grind of MUT can be circumvented by plunking down more cash for card packs that contain high level players. The argument can certainly be made that MUT is pay to win, but then again it all comes down to RNG. Just because you do spend some extra cash for new packs, doesn’t mean you’ll get a player that you want. It’s all gotten quite egregious in its implementation, but MUT continues to be popular with fans of the series as it continues to get a lot of attention from the developers on a year-in year-out basis.
Of course, the core modes are still intact in Madden 18. Some things just don’t change, and a couple of these modes have been around for as long as I can remember. Skills Trainer is one of those staples, and is once again included in Madden 18. The Gauntlet that was introduced in recent years is available in both the Skills Trainer module and in MUT. In Skills Trainer it consists of 40 levels of increasingly difficult challenges and gives you only a handful of “lives” to complete it. As its name says, Skills Trainer allows you go through numerous drills in Madden 18 to help you gain grasps on core concepts for the game. Head to Head modes also seem a little light in terms of features. EA has abandoned the lobby system from previous games, giving players only a handful of ways to play online that aren’t under the franchise mode or MUT umbrellas. You basically have an option for quickplay that’ll match you up with a random opponent, or the option to play unranked games with friends.
The complete package for Madden 18 feels a little bare when compared to previous years in the series and we’re not just talking about last year. Madden 18 feels like roughly the same game as we saw released just under a year ago. Despite those yearly claims to the contrary regarding improvements, nothing in Madden NFL 18 stands out as such. None of that is to say that Madden is a horrible game, but expecting big changes over last year will only breed disappointment. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if EA’s Madden is a bad game in any given year. With little competition it’s incredibly easy for them to pass off versions such as Madden 18 with little to no meaningful changes to the formula.
Madden NFL 18 marks a second consecutive year of Madden football in a holding pattern. Features and additions to this year’s game either just don’t feel noteworthy, or miss the mark entirely. However, with no where else to turn, virtual gridiron fans will certainly get enjoyment out of Madden 18. As consoles are hitting maturation, hopefully Madden hasn’t peaked and continued use of the Frostbite engine will bring more noticeable improvements to the visuals of the game in the coming years. As far as features go, continuing to build out CFM and offering more options for players who just want to play online without the MUT overhead would be welcome