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Madden 18 review: First thoughts on the Detroit Lions

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It’s that time of year again, football fans! Madden 18 is here and we’ve taken a look to give you an idea of whether it’s worth your time and money again this year.

Microsoft Holds News Briefing Ahead Of E3 Conference Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

I love the Madden football series. Sure, it has it’s flaws, but overall it has always been an entertaining way to live out your fantasy of leading your NFL team to glory, building a franchise from nothing or just going head-to-head with friends or strangers.

The game is released each year in August, and while critics of the series like to call each one just a “roster update” and harken back to the glory days of NFL 2K, they’ve added features every year to tweak the formula and try to keep fans interested. Sometimes it works (hit stick, baby!), sometimes it is an abomination that must be killed with fire (Looking at you, “Vision Cone”), but there is always something. We’ve taken the liberty of booting up Madden 18 to see what they’ve done with your beloved Detroit Lions and give an honest assessment of the game as a whole.

Housekeeping

I own and play the game on PS4. I’m not a MUT player, nor do I play online much. So when I’m talking about the game, I’m looking at the gameplay as a whole as well as some basic franchise mode features. I did some one-on-one games and then ran through half a season on franchise (sort of, but we’ll get to that). I also tried the Longshot campaign. While it isn’t long, I didn’t finish so I just YouTubed the rest of the cutscenes.

Visuals

The new Detroit Lions uniforms look sweet, especially the new away uniforms with the white jerseys and blue pants. Visually the game looks better than ever, and the addition of the new Frostbite engine is apparent if you’ve played any previous titles.

It’s still football, and many of the animations are recycled, but everything is a little crisper and cleaner. Some of the gameplay changes are easier to identify because they’ve done a decent job of updating some of the animations to give them a bit more impact, specifically involving some of the gameplay updates.

Despite the visual updates and new engine, this wasn’t a game changer. This is the same type of update you’d expect to get after developers have had a year to clean up an existing engine and update animations, I really expected to be wowed by the new engine as much as it was hyped.

Playbook

This is probably more Detroit Lions specific, but the Lions playbook has been completely retooled. That makes sense since the scheme has changed so much under Jim Bob Cooter. Elements of Joe Lombardi’s offense are phased out. It was a bit challenging for me to learn, but that’s mainly due to my own personal preference for offense, and I was eventually able to get onboard with the new scheme and blocking assignments to get where I needed to be and keep the ball moving downfield.

Just be aware coming in that many of the plays you were used to are now gone, particularly in the run game. Those have been replaced with fronts with less motion pre-snap and more where a TE or OL will block across the formation.

Injuries

This was something that the Madden team worked on: improving injury frequency including off-ball injuries. It’s a nice concept, but its execution is pretty poor at this stage. The addition of more frequent, but less severe injuries was actually a nice touch. It can be annoying, but having a guy leave with injury and come back the following week is fairly common.

I have now played 14 games and Rick Wagner (Injury 84) was injured in ten of those games. I don’t know why Wagner was having such a hard time, but that level of frequency suggests an issue with code and not just bad luck. Ameer Abdullah (Injury 84) had a season-ending injury in each of the one-on-one games I played and suffered an eight-week ankle dislocation Week 1 of the regular season in franchise mode on a defensive play where he wasn’t even on the field (because he doesn’t play defense).

Injury mechanics were an issue at launch for Madden 17 as well, I’m sure it will get addressed, but best to just turn them off until they do. The video above is an example of the reverse problem, showing that Madden still hasn’t figured out how to do injuries realistically (and hasn’t for years).

Gameplay - Simple functionality

If there’s any elephant in the room with the new Madden, it’s the hurry with which it was released and the lack of extended testing. Fans complain about this a lot, but most of the time it’s really unwarranted. A year is an incredibly short timeframe to deliver a fully finished game (most take multiple years), and doing so with a new engine is even more aggressive.

That said, there’s some merit to that this year. I mentioned before that I played half a season in franchise, but that’s not entirely true. I could not play the preseason games against the Jets or Patriots because the game would crash. I tried restarting the franchise and reinstalling the game, but to no avail. It was just broken. Bugs are expected in any modern game release, but I can’t recall a Madden where I simply couldn’t play some games and had to sim them. That is no bueno.

Gameplay - Menus and Navigation

A big criticism I’ve always had with Madden are their menus and navigation. It has been terrible in recent years, but it looks like they focused on it some this year. It’s a lot faster and the initial load up doesn’t take seventeen friggin’ minutes like Madden 17 did (I grew to hate Rob Gronkowski’s stupid face).

Using experience to upgrade your players is faster than 17, but still slow and tedious. RPGs have been using experience points to update players for decades, EA still seems like they’ve done no research on how to do that part right.

Gameplay - Blocking

Now we’re hitting some meat and potatoes. This is quite easily for me the most obviously improved area of Madden 18. The updated visuals help even more, but they’ve done a far better job of making a good offensive line feel like it’s good, and vice versa. The weak spots of your lines are more pronounced (Graham Glasgow gets thrashed by good defensive tackles) while your stronger players tend to trounce weaker ranked defenders.

When benching Taylor Decker to start my franchise (he isn’t “injured” in the roster), it was a very clear difference than when he was in on my one-on-ones. Having two weak players on the outside was not only noticeable, it forced me to change my offensive gameplan. Run blocking still isn’t as good as I feel it should be, but there are some subtle improvements I noticed, like not having blockers simply disengage when your runner was perpendicular to them. It allowed me to run through lanes that would exist in real games, rather than having a defender regardless of rating leap into the hole and take me down every single time.

With all the new schematic changes for the Lions with blockers crossing formation to take on backside blocks, it was very noticeable when one of those blockers wasn’t very good. There was a clear difference when Tim Wright was attempting to block vs. Darren Fells or an OL. Missed blocks felt real and not cheap code exploits.

Gameplay - Passing and Receiving

Matthew Stafford is a good QB, but I feel it isn’t earth shattering to claim that Jake Rudock is not. In Madden terms, that’s a simple fact and not an opinion, and it really felt like it. The dropoff in ratings from Stafford to Rudock is steep and so is the difference in play ability. Passes went wild at a higher rate the deeper you went and it felt significantly more difficult to just run an offense. That’s how it should be. The Lions offense doesn’t have nearly as many shallow crossers and digs, so it wasn’t as easy to simply rely on those short passes as a crutch. I feel like, as in life, if Stafford goes down, so does your season.

Gameplay - Running

This felt a lot nicer. It’s still not as comfortable and intuitive as I’d like, but part of that may be the Detroit Lions’ lack of reliable run blocking or rushers in the first place, so I won’t judge too harshly.

Franchise Mode - Cut day

Cut day AI is one of my favorite broken things about Madden. Teams will cut their first and second-round picks because they have a 36-year-old vet with the same ratings on the roster. It’s hilarious. The Lions biggest cut in Madden 18 is starting defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. At 74 overall, the second-year player simply wasn’t as good as Akeem Spence and Jordan Hill. Other notable LOLs are here:

On the plus side, I was able to nab Daeshon Hall and start him across from Ezekiel Ansah. Oddly, almost no quarterbacks were cut by teams and they would hold on to the lowest rated QBs they had. If that meant they had to cut a rookie with a 74 rating, then that’s just how life is in virtual football world.

Franchise Mode - Changes

There was one notable change to franchise mode, and it’s a small one. Instead of just ‘watching’ players you scout, you create a draft board. It’s essentially the same thing, so that’s not really a change. Everything else is pretty much the same. And since that one change isn’t a change, that means everything is the same. Sorry if you were expecting innovation.

Ratings and balance

Complete player ratings at EA

A’Shawn Robinson is severely underrated in the game at only 74 overall, and he is often cut from the team prior to the season. Jarrad Davis started only at 74, but I was easily able to get him up to 77 by midseason just by raising a couple stats, so it’s not concerning. Teez Tabor still has an 87 speed, so his combine didn’t prevent him from getting decent ratings (though 87 is pretty slow for a corner, lower than that would be crippling). Ameer Abdullah is the second-highest rated RB on the team, so Theo Riddick is often the starter and you’ll have to adjust the depth chart for realism.

Madden still hasn’t figured out how to get the depth charts right on the offensive and defensive lines. Eric Ebron is one of the highest rated players on the Lions offense, as it adjusts for scheme, and he’s easily one of the best weapons in the game. Rookie Kenny Golladay is also rated a 74, the same as Jarrad Davis (!), and he’s a freaking monster. Playing him out of the slot seems like cheating.

Rookie QB Brad Kaaya has a slow development stat, so if you were hoping on developing him in the game you may as well give up (unless you change that stat). Jeremiah Ledbetter is the team’s lowest rated rookie at 63 overall, only a point lower than ‘starting’ defensive end Cornelius Washington.

The story mode

The “Longshot” story mode was a new and, in my opinion, unnecessary addition to the Madden franchise. It wasn’t terrible and had a few worthwhile moments, but my overall impression of the mode was that of being underwhelmed.

The acting wasn’t as awful as I expected, but the story is bland and cliche. The best part of the whole mode is the high school announcer. As it is, this probably should have been a standalone project from the Madden team, and it likely would have been a lot better with more options, focus on storytelling, and more creative writing. Also, no quick time events would be nice. It’s worth playing once, but you’ll probably never play it again after having done so.

Final Verdict

I’m a huge fan of Madden and have bought a copy every year for a very long time. The question for me isn’t if I’m going to get it, but when and for how much.

If you’re a newcomer to Madden, this would be a fine purchase as long as you know that it’s super buggy and will take some time for patching to catch up. If you are on the fence about buying the game, though, I’d probably give it a pass. There wasn’t nearly enough innovation to modes outside of MUT to make it worthwhile.

The lack of innovation is a common complaint from even the most ardent fans of the series, but even the addition of an entirely new mode that EA has never attempted before couldn’t save this game from being a prettied up roster update.

There’s enough promise here for long-time fans of the series to buy the game, but my recommendation is to do what I’m doing: Wait until it’s at least half off or you can find it from some angry fan who’s rage selling it on Amazon or Ebay.