Image courtesy of Electronic Arts

The 'Madden NFL 18' Story Mode Is Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

Devin Wade's football journey is worth experiencing, regardless of what you think of football.

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Aug 22 2017, 6:56pm

Image courtesy of Electronic Arts

A few hours into Longshot, the story mode attached to Madden NFL 18, the main character's college coach delivers a corny line that's been uttered in every dramatization of the violent sport: "Football is family." Corny, yes, and football could be substituted for any other sport or community touchstone, but it rang true, especially in Longshot's Friday Night Lights-inspired world. It carried weight because Longshot imbued it with emotional truth, precisely the last way I expected to describe a story mode for a series that's never had one in its 29-year run.

It's been a looong time since I spent any significant time with a Madden game. My dad was a higher-up at Riddell, a sports equipment company who supplied the NFL with everything from helmets to shoulder pads, so football was part of growing up. Every Sunday, if my dad wasn't travelling for work, he was on the couch, yapping on the phone, and flipping between all the games. In the same way that I've attended E3 enough times for the bombastic event to become routine, my dad managed to grind the same spectacle out of the Super Bowls he would attend every year. Despite my dad's unprecedented access—I used to get dragged to stand on the sidelines of Chicago Bears games as a kid, bored out of my mind—football was never my thing. (Once, I helped bring the Bears' field goal net up and down during a game.)

Look, at some point, you need to embrace your dark side and become the terrible quarterback you're forced to root for, packs of smoke 'n all.

It wasn't until I met my wife, herself a diehard fan, that I decided learning to love football was worth it, if only to understand why she was yelling so much every Sunday. The consequence of this newfound interest was a deep fondness for a football team that's been largely terrible since 1985, and regret over the years I didn't sit down on the couch with my dad all those years. (He passed of a heart attack five years ago, but just before a random event took him away, I managed to attend a Super Bowl with both him and my brother. We watched our rivals, the Green Bay Packers, pull out a win, a moment equally touching and tragic.)

Longshot primarily concerns itself with the relationship between Devin Wade (J.R. Lemon, former college running back-turned-actor) and Colt Cruise (Scott Porter, aka Jason Street from Friday Night Lights). The two have been close ever since they were kids, as tight as brothers, and the relationship defined by a familiar dynamic: Wade the quarterback, Cruise his ever-present, always-reliable wide receiver. Their bond became increasingly important when, over the years, Wade lost both his mother and father. The latter caused a massive crack in Wade's psyche during his college playing years, prompting him to walk away from the game for three years. Cruise decides it's worth traveling hundreds of miles for a regional combine, an event where NFL hopefuls, folks who don't really stand a chance, have an opportunity to prove they're a diamond in the rough for scouts from various NFL teams.

Longshot works for two reasons: One, you buy the relationship between Wade and Cruise, who exhibit the shit-talking, hard-loving friendship you'd expect from lifelong friends. Two, Mahershala Ali ( Moonlight), playing Wade's father, sells the bond with his son. He's only in a few scenes, but they're impactful. A football-loving father mentoring his football-loving son is about as cliche as it comes, but cliches can be waved away with meaningful characterization, and—I know how ridiculous this sounds—Longshot pulls it off.

Though the story largely moves in a straight line, you have some influence over what happens. Early on, as Wade and Cruise are driving to the combine, they pull over to the side of the road, so Cruise can relieve himself. Wade pulls out a camera, and the players has a choice: share an embarrassing photo of his buddy online—or don't. These decisions are part of your overall scouting report, and as ridiculous as that might sound, the drafting prospects of modern football players are routinely interrupted by decisions they make on social media.

In 2016, minutes before the start of the draft, a video of offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil wearing a gas mask and ripping a bong hit surfaced. Tunsil was considered a top-three pick, one of the most valuable players in the draft. But NFL teams are notoriously conservative, and he tumbled down the board. (That's to say nothing about the largely unspoken and uncomfortable political dynamics of black football players being routinely judged by largely white NFL team owners.) He was eventually picked up by the Miami Dolphins at the 13th spot in the draft, where he's been a key part of a successful offensive line down in Florida.

Because Electronic Arts partners with the NFL to produce the Madden series, there was no way Longshot would ever invoke the real reasons draft prospects run into trouble—drug use, allegations of physical and sexual assault, etc.—but the notion of online conduct playing a role in whether someone gets picked up by an NFL team is wholly realistic, if often goofy.

Unsurprisingly, you're also asked to throw the football around. Sometimes this means being dropped into a moment in Wade's past, like bringing his college football team back from a deficit and becoming a hometown hero, or running drills, as professionals try to whip Wade's football skills back into shape. The latter can prove as gripping as the story; the game purposely treats Wade as more ignorant of how football works than he probably should be, explicitly so it can walk you through the more advanced machinations of how football works.

Rather than just having you run plays—this one is a pass, this one is a run, this one is a deep ball—it takes time to carefully explain why you might throw to one receiver or another, based on how they're being covered by the defense, or why football plays are phrased to strangely. I came away from Longshot with a better understanding of football mechanics, and as someone who's spent way too many years not knowing the difference between a nickel and dime alignment on defense, I appreciated Longshot helping me grasp nuance.

There are plenty of problems, of course. The story's central conceit, where Wade is pulled into a goofy and unrealistic reality show, falls flat, especially when it tries to paint a random TV executive as a cartoonish villain. Longshot's best moments are when the focus is on the emotional bonds Wade and his circle have to football, and why it means so much for him to give this a shot, letting the cards fall where they may. Wherever Longshot goes from here, it would do well to learn from the success of the grounded moments, rather than melodrama.

If EA is smart, they'll realize trapping something like Longshot inside Madden is a bad idea. This is something they should be selling on digital stores for $20, separate from Madden. When the credits rolled, I didn't have any interest in playing a regular game. I would have happily played more Longshot, to see the future of Wade's career, but that's not what the game was offering anymore. There's a real opportunity to capture people who are into football, or even just good stories, but don't find a traditional Madden game appealing. EA really is onto something here, and for once, I'm looking forward to next year's Madden.

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