‘Madden NFL 18’ review: Solid story mode makes new entry more than mere roster update

One of the most common knocks on the “Madden” franchise is that each year’s entry is little more than a …

One of the most common knocks on the “Madden” franchise is that each year’s entry is little more than a $60 roster update. Fair or not, there’s a vocal segment of sports gamers who feel this way.

For this year, at least, such accusations are entirely unwarranted.

“Madden NFL 18,” scheduled for release Aug. 25, debuts the series’ first true narrative campaign. The mode, a story called Longshot, feels entirely different from the typical NFL career mode. It’s more similar to The Journey from “FIFA 17” or the story-driven MyCareer mode in recent “NBA 2K” releases.

Longshot focuses on Devin Wade, a fictional former Texas Longhorns quarterback aiming to be an NFL draft pick. Wade left UT several years earlier in the wake of family tragedy, so his path to the draft looks rocky at best. His course changes when he’s recruited to participate in a reality show, “Longshot,” that aims to put his journey on display.

Very little traditional on-field action is included in the mode, which takes roughly four to five hours to complete. Instead, Longshot feels like more like an interactive movie in which players select Devin’s responses and shape his personality.

Actor and former college quarterback JR Lemon (“The Night Shift”), who portrays the protagonist, is joined by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Scott Porter (“Friday Night Lights”). While Longshot doesn’t break any storytelling barriers, it’s a serviceable sports narrative and is a welcome addition to the “Madden” franchise.

Beyond the big new mode, the series has adopted Electronic Arts’ preferred Frostbite engine. Both Longshot and the typical digital gridiron action look incredible. Lights, shadows and textures all push the limit of what’s to be expected in a sports game.

“Madden” now offers three distinct play styles: Arcade, Simulation and Competitive. Casual players likely will stick with Arcade, with Competitive mostly for the online ranked match crowd and Simulation for those seeking a stricter NFL experience. The choice of preferred experience is a nice touch, as long as friends can agree on which style to use during couch sessions.

Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) received some new options in the form of MUT Squads, which allows friends to combine forces in online play using their custom lineup. The MUT-heads should eat it up, while those who prefer franchise mode will meet the addition with a shrug. The latter mode should feel largely the same in “18.”

The top mechanical adjustment to the on-the-field play, dubbed Target Passing, won’t revolutionize the aerial attack. It’s probably not doomed to fail in the way the infamous Vision Cone of a decade ago did, but it’s impact feels minor.

But on the whole, there’s enough new this year for the latest “Madden” to feel fresh.

‘Madden NFL 18’

Releases Aug. 25 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, $59.99

Scott Fontana