I never thought I'd get emotional over a football video game, but here we are.
Madden NFL 18 ($60; PS4, Xbox One) finally gives the perennial sports franchise a proper story mode with Longshot, a playable football drama that takes the focus away from stats and playbooks in favor of what really makes football interesting — the people.
Longshot tells the story of Devin Wade (J.R. Lemon), a former star quarterback from Mathis, Texas, who gave up his college football career after a family tragedy. When a trip to the NFL Combine gives Wade an unexpected shot at redemption, he's forced to confront both real-life challenges as well as his inner demons as he competes for a chance to get drafted.
This sets up a meaty single-player campaign that's not only one of the best ways to experience Madden as a newcomer, but also one of the best video game stories you'll play all year.
Gameplay wise, Longshot feels like the result of Telltale Games (the studio behind The Walking Dead and Batman) taking a stab at football. It's heavy on interactive cutscenes, where you'll make dialogue choices that determine how NFL scouts see Devin. Will you prank your best friend during an embarrassing moment, or leave him be? Do you hurl back insults at your trash-talking rival, or keep things classy?
These cinematic moments are broken up by basic mini-games, which range from simple passing drills to a surprisingly nerve-wracking game of memory in which you have to prove your football knowledge to your coach.
While these are mostly neat diversions, Longshot is at its best when it comes time to actually play some traditional Madden-style football. Whether you're reliving Devin's high school days or participating in a big reality show spectacle, Longshot's actual football segments focus on specific moments with simplified rules, cutting out the bloat that makes a standard session of Madden so intimidating for a non-football diehard.
You won't have to worry about calling plays or choosing formations, allowing you to focus completely on throwing big touchdown passes and enjoying the dramatic cutscenes that follow them. And while Longshot never feels like a glorified tutorial, its later chapters do a brilliant job of easing you into basic Madden concepts such as playing defense or completing a two-minute drill.
That joyous simplicity is what makes Longshot stand out among the rising crop of narrative-focused sports experiences. You're never worrying about upgrading a spreadsheet of stats or negotiating to get traded to a specific team — you're simply there to enjoy the ride. While your choices affect the ending (as well as your overall performance grade), that all felt incidental to the roughly 6-hour story that was so gripping, I devoured it in two sittings.
Featuring standout acting performances from Rus Blackwell (Coach John Ford), Mahershala Ali (Cutter Wade) and the absolutely show-stealing Scott Porter (Colt Cruise), Longshot's mix of humor and heartbreak is up there with some of the best football fiction on film and TV. While other sports games sell you on the fantasy of being a superstar, Longshot is made compelling by Devin's flaws, failures and impossible odds. I laughed; I cheered; I even got misty-eyed on more than one occasion.
Longshot has its flaws — some of the mini-games are more frustrating than fun, and I noticed plenty of janky animations during cutscenes — but none of them kept me from becoming completely invested in EA's heartfelt football narrative. The multiple endings and achievements add some replayability, though honestly, I'm probably going to start over just to relive Devin's journey. Longshot lays an excellent foundation for future Madden stories, and if its conclusion is anything to go by, there will be more.
Longshot aside, Madden NFL 18 also features the kinds of graphical and gameplay improvements you'd expect from a new installment in the long-running series. But perhaps for the first time in the franchise's three decades, the new Madden is more than just a robust football game. It's also a great interactive story that anyone can — and should — enjoy.