The annual release schedule for Madden NFL has typically left the development team at EA Sports with little room for improvements beyond technical adjustments to the way we play on the gridiron. However, with Madden NFL 18, the game isn't just switching engines from the sports-focused Ignite to the DICE-developed Frostbite, it's also taking some calculated risks with new gameplay elements. As much as the Madden-head in me is interested in the physics and football-related improvements Frostbite is bringing, it's the new single-player story mode, "Longshot," that has my attention.

Before we dig into "Longshot," let's talk about some of the new things that were noticeable from our brief time with the core game. Switching to Frostbite might not look like it offers much difference from Ignite on first glance, but there are a lot of new animations in play. Like, a lot a lot. Tackling animations feel more authentic because of the weightiness of the players on both sides of the ball. You do feel the heft of larger players version more slender athletes, and that's apparent when trying to drag down someone like Le'Veon Bell with any New England linebacker.

EA Sports

Additionally, the canned animations for breaking out of those same tackles are gone, with Frostbite relying more on actual impact points and other invisible metrics to determine how and if a player can bust free. It's immediately obvious just how much a difference proper attack angles and using jukes will be in the future.

Target Passing, the latest QB innovation EA Sports is hoping will take off, is very hard to grasp in such a short demo, but could have potential for the devoted players eager for more control over the passing game. By holding the left trigger while playing as a QB, you can throw the ball to literally any point on the field for the primary receiver. It takes time to sort, and often more time than you'll have in a backfield before the pressure arrives. It could be a game breaker for busted coverages, but in just a few quarters it was much too hard to asses the longterm viability of Target Passing.

Now, "Longshot" is very much something I'm looking forward to playing. Previous attempts at single-player "stories" in Madden were often limited in scope. You could click on a few buttons on a menu, but there was no true exposition or feeling of true control over the career of your player. "Longshot" is basically an interactive movie set in and around the world of the NFL. The story was in development for three years before EA was ready to make it work in a game, and it's only thanks to switching to Frostbite that this narrative mode was even possible. Ignite just didn't have the necessary tools to bring a scripted, cinematic experience to life. As we all know from Frostbite's many other games like Battlefield, Battlefront, FIFA, Mass Effect and more, that's not a problem for DICE's versatile engine.

EA Sports

The story follows Devin Wade, a once promising athlete whose life didn't work out the way it was supposed to when the time to go pro came around. Now, he's willing to give it another shot by attending the NFL Combine as an undrafted free agent. The comparisons to Friday Night Lights (the movie, the series and the book) will come easily, but EA explained this wasn't a typical sports genre story. There are going to be moments where "Longshot" might seem familiar, but this isn't about going from an undrafted nobody to the Super Bowl MVP. It's a story about redemption and the challenges one must overcome in life when dealing with great hardships.

You can tell EA Sports is serious about "Longshot" not just in the way the developers talk about the potential this game mode has, but also in the actors that have decided to take part. Mahershala Ali, Scott Porter and former NFL player JR Lemon (as Devin) will all tell this story, and in just the 20 minutes of the story we saw, their efforts aren't squandered. Additionally, unlike the traditional Madden NFL 18 modes, "Longshot" will incorporate a variety of different mini-games and gameplay elements to separate it from the core competitive segments. High school games, 7-on-7 games, and combine tests will all play a part, and there may be some classic Madden action, but quicktime events and more will have just as much of a role. "Longshot" isn't intended to just be a bunch of cinematics surrounding a football game; it's truly meant to be a story you engage with on another level entirely.

Longtime Madden NFL fans like myself are already picking up this year's game because it's what we do. For a studio not necessarily known for its narrative chops, I'm very eager to see what EA Spots can bring to the table when it comes to telling an honest football story. The new improvements to the core game and the addition of "Longshot" could be enough to sway more casual fans and newcomers to invest in this year's entry instead of waiting for the next one.

Madden NFL 18 will be available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on August 25.