Here's a phrase I never thought I'd say: one of the coolest surprises I saw at E3 was a new Madden game.
I got my hands on Madden NFL 18's new Longshot story mode, which follows a player's journey from childhood to college football stardom. It looks and plays like a Telltale Games version of football, and that's a great thing.
According to creative director Mike Young, the goal of Longshot was to tell a relatable football story while also easing more casual players into Madden. Instead of living out the fantasy of being an NFL superstar, you'll step into the cleats of small-town Texas quarterback Devin Wade, whose story encompasses everything from backyard catch sessions to career-defining college football games.
Longshot mode's gameplay differs dramatically from what you'll experience in a standard game of Madden. The game's interactive cutscenes have you make dialogue choices and perform quick-time events, while its more traditional football segments have you play through specific scenarios rather than full four quarter games.
I got to see all of these mechanics work in tandem during the chapter I played, which tasked me with mounting a crucial comeback during a high school game in which Devin's team was down by three touchdowns. I didn't have to worry about calling plays or playing defense -- the action was solely focused on getting to the end zone enough times in a row to emerge victorious. This solves my biggest problem with most career modes in sports games, as you typically have to slog through a full game to further your player's journey.
The action felt uniquely cinematic compared to a regular Madden match, as big catches and runs were accompanied by dramatic camera angles. The game eventually transitioned into a Telltale-style interactive cutscene in which I had to press the right buttons at the right time to make sure my wide receiver made a game-winning play. It was thrilling and dramatic in a way that I never thought I'd see from a Madden game.
Longshot mode also nails the little details, from the game's believable and endearingly goofy high school football announcers to the chillingly emotional music that plays during pivotal movments. The whole experience felt like the video game version of Friday Night Lights, which is a great TV show not because it's about football, but because it's about real, relatable people.
"It gets to the heart of why we love these sports," said Young.
The Friday Night Lights connection is no coincidence -- the game's star studded cast includes FNL alum Scott Porter, as well as Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Save for a few funky moments with Porter's character, all of the game's actors looked strikingly true to their real life counterparts, which made it even easier to get immersed in EA's playable football movie.
"Acting quality was such an important thing for me," said Young, who's been working on Longshot for four years. "Why not have this kind of emotion in a [football] game?"
Madden NFL 18 has officially gone from something I'd probably check out for a few hours to one of my most anticipated games of the year. The game will include plenty of new features for competitive Madden fans, including precise Target Passing, improvements to Ultimate Team mode, and unfortunately, a cover with Tom Brady on it. But none of that means much to me; I'm jumping into this one for the story.
Photos: Electronic Arts