Madden NFL 18 has a story mode, a first for a Madden game. Called "Longshot," it follows the career of fictional would-be quarterback Devin Wade. Unlike Madden 18's Ultimate Team mode, which allows you to feel like an all-powerful football god who can make record-setting numbers of touchdowns per game, Longshot isn't about winning. Instead, it's a story about overcoming loss and grief, in life and in football.
EA Tiburon, Madden 18's development team, described the story mode as a "movie you can play." It stars film and TV actors playing fictional football players, plus a couple cameos from actual real-life players like Dan Marino. Players control Devin Wade, played by football pro turned actor JR Lemon, as he navigates the difficult realities of becoming a football star.
Through flashbacks, Longshot shows us Devin beginning his football career as a high school quarterback. His dad -- Cutter Wade, played by Mahershala Ali of Moonlight and Luke Cage fame -- coached the high school team on which Devin and his best friend, Colt Cruise, get their start. After winning state championships and becoming high school heroes, Devin and Colt go on to play for the University of Texas.
When Devin has flashbacks to high school and college football games, the player goes along with him to play those games. Unlike in Madden Ultimate Team mode, you don't get to decide plays or call time-outs, nor can you pick your teammates or switch between them during games. It's minimalist Madden; you only control Devin and whichever players catch Devin's passes.
Later on in Longshot, Devin and Colt play football games with set-ups you'd never see in traditional Madden, like this 7-on-7 pickup game amongst army pals
During Devin's time at University of Texas, his dad dies in a car crash, and a grieving Devin has a panic attack about the car accident during a high-pressure college game. In this scene, "Longshot" introduces a situation that Devin, and therefore the player, cannot win. It's a frustrating narrative choice, and it's one that continues throughout the game.
After leaving UT and taking three years off football, Devin circles back to join Colt and try his hand at the NFL. While Devin was away, Colt kept his nose to the grindstone to become a great wide receiver in spite of his short stature. Meanwhile, Devin has a lot of catching up to do.
Unlike Colt, Devin didn't play college ball long enough to know every football formation; he's never even called his own plays before. He can't consistently identify which players are the safety, or tell from his coach's calls where each receiver should run next.
The game makes these moments hard, asking Devin to make snap decisions with timed dialogue answers. Even if the player answers every question correctly, Devin often looks hesitant and scared. In cut-scenes that can't be controlled, he gets answers wrong, frustrating his coach and moving him ever closer to giving up. There's no option to change the difficulty in story mode or to make any tweaks to player skillsets that are available in other Madden modes. No matter what, you'll fail certain parts of Longshot because Devin is out of his depth.
Shortly after Devin's first NFL try-out, a slimy reality TV executive approaches him about appearing on a new series called Longshot documenting his journey to the NFL. This exec rides a Segway and tells jokes like, "Calls [in football]? It's all text messages these days anyway!"
He and the rest of the TV crew spring surprise football challenges on Devin while the cameras are rolling, such as completing a series of throws via quicktime events that bear no resemblance to the rest of Madden's controls, or memorising lengthy play calls (also not required of a Madden player, but definitely required of real-life quarterbacks). These segments feel like carnival games -- some are almost impossible to beat, especially in the moments when the narrative needs Devin to fail.
I played the story mode in full twice. The first time through, I labored over my decisions, replayed sections multiple times in an effort to understand what I had done wrong, and read up on the football formations that Devin (and I) should supposedly know all about. The second time I played, I knew most of the answers to my coach's pop quizzes, so the story mode went by much faster. But even if you pick the right answer, Longshot will enter a cut-scene where there's another answer that Devin gets wrong. The point is that Devin doesn't know the answers, even if you do.
When the narrative needs Devin to win, he'll win. Devin's flashbacks to his star moments in high school football feel easy and effortless. For these sections, you get as many tries as you need to ensure you nail every pass and interception. The scaling difficulty of the gameplay accurately reflects the emotional beats of the narrative and Devin's nostalgia for his past, but it suffers from the same problem as the game's unbeatable sections. Longshot changes the rules to create whatever outcome makes the most sense for its story.
Once I'd played through the game twice, I came to appreciate this decision. On my first playthrough, I felt just as discouraged as Devin about the state of my football career. Failure made Devin lash out at his best friend, fall to his knees in solitary frustration, and even get to the point of tears.
In my first playthrough I blamed myself, but once familiarity helped me look through the smoke and mirrors, I could see that failure was built into the story Longshot is telling. It's not like the rest of Madden, which lets you design the best possible team in a surreal vacuum. Longshot is about Devin becoming the best quarterback he can be, in spite of significant personal setbacks.
This isn't to say your choices don't have some effect on the narrative. The timed dialogue trees force Devin to make choices based on what he thinks NFL scouts would want him to say and do, and the game keeps a "scouting report" with harsh judgments about both his football passes and his personality. Devin also has to decide whether he's willing to make sacrifices for Colt (played by Friday Night Lights star Scott Porter), and those decisions influence whether Colt gets drafted to the NFL.
Two besties, having a road trip singalong.
The friendship between Colt and Devin gives the game an emotional core that goes beyond the balancing act of the numbers-driven "chemistry" stats in Madden Ultimate Team. During their road trip to NFL tryouts, Colt encourages Devin to sing along with the radio.
They pump their fists, harmonizing with Miley Cyrus together, as the sun sets behind their pickup truck. Later, Colt writes a song on his guitar for Dev called "Longshot" and performs it for him in an intimate bedroom setting. Longshot generally explores their friendship with maturity and respect, telling a sweet, gentle story interspersed with more rambunctious football sequences.
Longshot doesn't deal with any of the gritty realities of pro football, like concussions or steroid use. It doesn't bother navigating the seriousness of Devin's PTSD after his dad's death, either.
In spite of the game's themes about grief and failure, the narrative never gets too grim, instead focusing on Devin's friendship with Colt and his larger dreams of football stardom. The game's pro-NFL stance is heightened by the numerous cameos from famous football stars and commentators. This might disappoint players hoping for a more serious commentary on the NFL's missteps, but that just doesn't seem to be the goal of Longshot's more emotional and personal story.
A complete newcomer to Madden should play through the first several solo challenges in the Madden Ultimate Team mode before tackling Longshot. After you've got the hang of reading plays and making quick decisions about your quarterback's passes, you'll be ready for Devin's journey, which doesn't give you much direction about how to play or what to do next.
But, hey, Devin didn't have that direction either. He has to fail in order to learn. But he will learn, and you will too. Even if you don't, Colt will still write a song for you.