“Madden” is back again, and not everything is the same old, same old.Jeff Dunn/ScreenshotYou don’t expect to see your dad die in a game of “Madden.”
Not your dad, of course. But with the addition of a full-on story mode, “Madden NFL 18” wades into the waters of scripted drama — a first in the popular football game series’ 29-year history.
Like recent “NBA 2K” and “FIFA” games, “Madden NFL 18” is a more accessible and ambitious game because of it. For the first time in years, there is a genuine nudge for people to jump in who don’t buy every annual “Madden” game like clockwork in.
Beyond those narrative aspirations, though, “Madden NFL 18” is still “Madden.” That’s still good and bad. Let’s take a closer look:
The story mode in “Madden NFL 18” is called “Longshot,” and it’s easily the most dramatic change to this year’s game. Playing it often feels surreal considering what “Madden” games are usually like.
Devin here is played by JR Lemon, who is a former football player himself.Jeff Dunn/Screenshot
In Longshot you play as Devin Wade, a Texas-bred 23-year-old with football in his blood. He was a five-star recruit and the star of his high school team, just like his dad, Cutter, before him. But he fell on hard times shortly thereafter and abruptly quit football altogether. Now he’s looking to rebuild his life and career by living up to his lost potential and making it to the NFL.
Wade is joined throughout by Colt Cruise, his best friend and former teammate who also dreams of playing in the pros. He’s goofy — the kind of guy who nicknames himself “the Cruise missile” — but earnest, loyal, and ultimately likable.
If the setup above didn’t make it obvious, Longshot deals heavily in clichés and sweeping terms.
Yes, that is a hoverboard.Jeff Dunn/Screenshot
The story is based in an idyllic Texas town, where football is worshipped and the only working people you see grind away at a rock quarry. It’s all very “Friday Night Lights.” Devin and Cole drive around that town in a beat up pick-up truck.
Every single character is a type: There’s the smarmy TV producer, the no-nonsense football coach, the constantly loving and supportive father, and the portly friend who’s always hungry. (What there is not: women who aren’t devoid of personality, which is sadly predictable.)
It’s largely a tale of redemption and overcoming the odds, which is well-worn territory for sports movies.
But that’s manageable. “Remember the Titans” had its clichés, too. For much of its roughly four-hour run time, Longshot is an enjoyable, Disney-lite sports flick bolstered by strong lead performances and the sweet, believable bromance between Devin and Colt.
It does well to set a particular tone, and there are more than a few genuine laughs in the script.
It’s also surprisingly dark.
Longshot’s first few acts are by far its most interesting. As hinted above, Devin’s struggles stem from the sudden death of his father — played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, superb in a sadly limited role — and it’s briefly acknowledged that his mother died during his youth.
The game doesn’t dig terribly deep into Devin’s trauma, and “dead parents” is an easy narrative device for generating sympathy, but there is still a lingering sense of sadness throughout.
Building on that: Devin’s desire to clean the skeletons out of his closet has him accept a spot on a reality TV show in which former and would-be NFL players compete for a chance to make it into the league. At one point, one of those players, whose career was cut short by injury, says, “I went from playing with Philip Rivers to sitting on my couch.” That’s kind of tragic!
The idea of people desperately trying to play in a league that’s already discarded them isn’t that far from reality. Nor is the idea of people cheering and jeering those players as they put their very real hopes and dreams on the line for our amusement. A moment where an ex-coach admits he rushed an injured player back too soon in an attempt to advance his own career is similarly striking.
Unfortunately, Longshot loses some of its momentum toward its conclusion.
“Madden” is an officially licensed product from the NFL, so I can’t realistically expect Longshot to scrutinize some of football’s darker realities. You won’t hear anything close to the word “concussion” here.
But the story starts to veer a little too close to advertisement for comfort toward the end. It becomes less clear whether Longshot is really in on the themes it floated earlier; without getting too deep into spoilers, let’s just say the phrase “Football is family” plays a not-insignificant role in how things play out.
That, plus the product placement liberally peppered throughout the story, is kind of gross. It also makes the need for some competition in the football game space even clearer.