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‘Madden NFL 18’ attempts to navigate the last great frontier in sports games

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)
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Madden NFL 18
Developed by:
 EA Tiburon
Published by: Electronic Arts
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

During these fast-moving decades of video game innovation, sports franchises like Madden NFL became known as cornucopias of play. As if in an amusement park with a variety of football-oriented rides, I felt more like an enthusiastic athlete with each day I indulged — despite sitting bulge-eyed on the couch with a controller in hand. I dove into 20 editions, many tweaked with refined graphics and online experiences. Each year, even during the outstanding 2003 edition when the now-retired John Madden still colored his commentary with folksy wit, I knew there was a missing link in this evolution: narrative.

Until recently, sports games generally neglected to attempt full-bodied story, the last great frontier in the genre. Things changed when Spike Lee was hired as director for a narrative portion of NBA 2K16 called “Livin’ Da Dream.” While the plot surrounding a rising basketball player wasn’t perfect, it had a satisfyingly dark edge that coaxed the story-lover to play it all in one sitting. Lee showed stark honesty when dealing with the sharks of the NBA, heart when it came to parental loss and depth when it came to the human condition. There wasn’t much game in it, however.

There’s a lot more game in “Longshot,” the ambitious but lopsided five-hour narrative Electronic Arts has developed as a kind of disguised tutorial for “Madden NFL 18.” Here, you watch the movie, make role-playing-game-like decisions about how to react to friends, players and coaches, and learn about football’s vagaries. The tale surrounds the ups and downs of young football hopeful Devin Wade, who is played with sincere zeal by JR Lemon from NBC’s “The Night Shift” medical drama. Wade is coached from childhood by his former athlete dad, played by Mahershala Ali, the Oscar-winner from “Moonlight.”

Wade is reticent, anxious, mistrustful and frustrated when his career stalls because of something that happened in his family. Some feel he overreacts to protect himself. Colt Cruise, Wade’s teammate and best friend, criticizes: “First sign of trouble, you head for the hills.”

Sadly, Colt’s burn is as intense as “Longshot” gets. This is a game that is sanctioned and licensed by the NFL, and many millions of dollars are at stake yearly. Electronic Arts’ writers decided not to deal with issues like football-related scandals or concussions.

Just as Longshot moves things forward for narrative in sports games, it takes steps backward. It nearly goes off the rails early when Wade joins a football reality show helmed by a creepy, tactless producer. You feel like you’re participating in a weird American Idol contest where completing a long pass is like singing a song without sour notes. Secondary characters are as cliche as they are one-dimensional and there are failures of the Bechdel test.

“Longshot” feels off-kilter as you indulge in sudden, lengthy portions of familiar gameplay that pull you out of the story. You choose plays and throw, play defense or pass the football. At its most intriguing, you have to remember how to call a long play, portion by portion, showing that you require intelligence as much as athleticism to succeed as an able quarterback.

At some point, you suddenly you find yourself in Dubai playing against the U.S. Army with NFL legend Dan Marino, who is the Army team’s guest coach. It’s a jarring transition. You don’t really know why you’re there because in the moments prior, you were standing near a cemetery plot. (Later, you realize Wade joined the Army after college.)

As you continue in Dubai, an Army recruit is introduced as an awesome player, yet her only line in the story is “Better call me” when she meets your best friend post game. Why couldn’t they offer this woman a line (or, preferably, more than one) that showed her intelligence?

These mistakes take away from the narrative that might have stirred, electrified and inspired. One of Wade’s friends is overweight and almost all he ever talks about is eating. He seems to have no goal in life other than being a food-chomping clown. A Hollywood producer is an irredeemable, bro-like jerk, incapable of learning from his errors. “Longshot” goes on for hours. How on earth could there not be room for more subtlety, for deeper characterization?

The ending appears to be very emotive, satisfyingly poignant for the lover of story and a kind of redemption for the Madden player. But wait. They nearly blow it all with an “Animal House”-like “Where Are The Characters Now?” epilogue. It doesn’t work. You’ve felt sadness and longing even as success is around the corner. You’ve felt pathos for Devin Wade who has struggled and compromised to get a real shot at NFL stardom. Then, you read these half-humorous, sitcom style pieces of epilogue text that stain it all. Was the director afraid to leave the audience with a general feeling of depth and satisfaction? Instead, he feels the need to joke about that character’s excess weight once again. It’s uneven and almost senseless.

As the credits continue to roll for minutes, you realize how many people worked on “Longshot.” With simple edits and additions, the experience could have rocked the game world with a thrilling tale that might have been remembered for years to come. While some of “Longshot” equates to creditable narrative, its tone deafness has to be dealt with in the next Madden, the landmark 30th anniversary.

Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.

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