Like most people, I was taken by surprise when Electronic Arts announced that they were adding a cinematic story to this year’s Madden release. For a company that is (fairly or unfairly) regularly criticized for yearly installments without much change, it’s a big undertaking and something completely different than what football fans have come to expect from Tiburon’s franchise. While that sort of attempt to do something new and fresh should be celebrated in of itself, it’s also important that EA tells a meaningful story.
While I came in expecting a certain level of polish (for all of EA’s flaws, I don’t think any of their recent releases could be considered ugly or broken), I ended up really being surprised by just how good Madden’s story mode is. Called Longshot, the mode forgoes the plot device that most sports games have had recently, which puts players in the shoes of a young upstart who just got into the league. Instead, players get to experience the story of Devin Wade, a once promising Texas quarterback whose career is initially cut short by the tragic passing of his father. After taking several years away from the game he once loved, Wade attempts to enter the NFL draft alongside his friend Colt Cruise.
As one would expect, Wade’s odds to make it to the NFL (let alone succeed) are slim after not playing a single down in the past three years. He defines the idea of a long shot, even though he was once one of the most recruited quarterbacks in all of the nation. It’s an interesting twist on the typical sports career mode, and it means that most of the action (and the accompanying drama) takes place off the football field.
That’s not to say there isn’t much football being played, as there are events such as the regional combine that have the player participating in mini-games in the style of Madden. The most ridiculous of these has the player literally steering a football left and right in order to complete the “perfect pass.” It’s really quite stupid, and I laughed about every time I saw it on my screen, but I can’t deny that I got into these amazing feats of athleticism during the moment.
The bulk of the game is more like a Telltale-style affair, as players are making important choices that impact the story’s ending, and dealing with quick-time events. Both of these would fall flat if the story wasn’t interesting, but the relationship between Devin and Colt is the real star here. Both characters, who are played by J.R. Lemon and Scott Porter respectively, come across great throughout the five or so hour story, and it really shows that the voice-acting and mocap sessions were done with all the actors in the same room. The chemistry between the two stars is fantastic, and their deep friendship really comes across as natural.
Another star of Longshot is Academy Award winner and Moonlight star Mahershala Ali, who plays the father of Devin in several flashbacks. His bond with both Devin and Colt is established early on through a wonderful scene of them playing football in the backyard, and it progresses from there. Despite only being in a handful of scenes (most of them high school football game flashbacks where he serves as the team’s offensive coordinator), his performance is a real standout, and the part couldn’t have been casted any better.
Since the player does have agency in the story, their own actions (through how they do in the football scenes and their choices) will determine whether or not Devin or Colt winds up getting drafted. The game’s final scene is an incredibly tense affair that involves them sitting around the couch waiting to get drafted. I’ve never found the NFL Draft to be more captivating than in this scene, as I had come to really like both characters, and was hoping that both could fulfill their dreams. One wouldn’t expect that simply waiting for a phone call could be a captivating scene, but director Mike Young pulls it off fantastically here.
The ending I got wasn’t exactly ideal (Devin ended up not getting drafted), but I can’t ever imagine playing through Longshot again. That’s not due to it being bad, as it’s actually a testament to how it personally connected with me. I got to see some incredible character growth, and while it was obviously scripted out by Electronic Arts, it still managed to feel like “my” ending. The story ended up finishing in a very real way, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with how everything played out.
Electronic Arts isn’t the first company I think of when I think about taking risks with established franchises, but I’m hopeful that Longshot will get them to do more experimentation in the future. It’s a story of personal growth, friendship and overcoming your own demons in a football wrapper, and it’s absolutely a success. As weird as it is to say, one of the year’s best stories is found in Madden NFL 18.
Review based upon PS4 build. Played at an Electronic Arts event. EA covered travel expenses.