Over the past few years, EA Sports has been refining the Madden franchise on its proprietary Ignite Engine into a product that would please both competitive players and simulation fans. That often left potential newcomers behind, as Madden grew more complex and required more and more patience to master. After switching to the Frostbite Engine, EA Sports was afforded the chance to welcome players of all skill types with an original story mode called Longshot, as well as redefining the on-field action for every fan possible. As a result, Madden NFL 18 is quite possibly the best this football franchise has ever been.

Normally switching game engines in a sports title isn't all that noteworthy. In the case of Madden NFL 18 however, moving to DICE's Frostbite Engine drastically altered what the developers at Tiburon could do with this year's entry. Most notably, Madden has a single-player story for the first time in its long history. In the past, the development team has tried to incorporate narrative elements in its football games, but they were lackluster at best. Story, such as it was, was all text-based and relied on you giving multiple choice answers and looking at a calendar to decide whether or not you'd go to practice. Frostbite changed everything.

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Longshot is the story of Devin Wade, a college dropout and former high school star looking for one more chance at greatness. The story follows Devin as he attempts to earn his way into the NFL Draft by heading to regional combines in hopes of getting noticed by scouts. Rather than catching the NFL's attention though, Devin draws the eye of an overeager television producer who's putting together a wild (and improbable) reality show called... Longshot. The show promises to follow the story of Devin as he tries to work his way back in, and after some convincing from his closest friend, Devin agrees to star.

Not everything is as it seems with this show, and when Devin arrives for the live debut, he learns Longshot is actually a reality competition between himself and three other NFL hopefuls. As silly as it sounds in concept, Longshot is actually well-produced in execution. Though a reality contest to make it into the NFL seems about as realistic as any armchair quarterback walking on the field and earning a roster spot, Tiburon did its homework in creating a very believable contest of skills.

As Devin, you'll play through a number of scenarios where you'll not only have to make decisions that will affect your standing with potential scouts (they're always watching, even when poking fun at your friend in the middle of a Texas highway somehow), but also show that you have the football skills to make it in the NFL. The football game scenarios are much different than what you'd typically expect from Madden, and often are just a fast series of quick-time events that test your reflexes more than your actual Madden acumen. The further you progress however, the more you learn about football and how to play the video game outside of Longshot. The final series culminates in a collection of game moments that readies you for the big show after Longshot ends.

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None of this would be possible without Frostbite, as the previous game engine wasn't built for crafting cinematics and motion captured actors. Earlier Madden games used Ignite mostly for its physics-based capabilities. Frostbite not only gives Madden NFL 18 even better, more authentic physics on the field, but it also lets Tiburon test out new ways to enjoy Madden off the gridiron like Longshot. There are some hiccups along the way, as the directing of Longshot is a bit all over the place, and some narrative elements come a bit out of left field, but it's a valiant first effort that shows a lot of promise for what Tiburon can do in the future with similar modes.

Not surprisingly, finishing Longshot directs you to Madden Ultimate Team, the collectible card game that's risen in popularity since its inception in 2010. Once you complete the story which is about three-hours long (though there are multiple endings), you'll earn MUT cards based on the characters from Longshot. They'll help fill out your team while you take on some early solo challenges in an effort to level up enough to play MUT competitively or participate in MUT Draft Champions. For the most part, Ultimate Team breaks down as it has in the past, with players getting a base set of NFL athletes to fill out their rosters, while earning currency, cards, and packs through play to develop even stronger MUT collections.

Madden Ultimate Team also uses one of Madden's new play settings to set it apart from the basic game. This year, rather than everything across every mode being based off the simulation rules, Madden NFL 18 has three play settings that make it more appealing to each of the core player types. Simulation is for those Franchise mode die-hards, and relies on a more strict, realistic set of rules. Competitive has far fewer penalties, and is more rewarding for players that utilize the skill stick moves. Arcade opens up the action completely, giving you an experience tailored towards high scores and not caring that much about learning route trees and blocking schemes.

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All three provide distinctly different experiences, which is great for players who can appreciate all aspects of having fun with Madden. Even experienced players will still get a kick out of leaving the hardcore realm of Simulation to enjoy an Arcade-style game with friends, while moving from Arcade to Competitive eases newbies into a more nuanced playstyle before committing completely to the Simulation rule set. For too long Madden has suffered under the complexities of becoming the defining NFL simulator, but now that these new settings are in place, Madden NFL 18 has made itself a more welcoming place.

That goes double for the inclusion of the all-new MUT Squads, which lets you team up with two other friends for some raucous online action. One player controls the offense, and brings their offensive Ultimate Team roster into play. One player does the same for defense, and one player can be the Head Coach, whose role is primarily accepting or declining penalties. All three of you are active on the field at any given time, but the offensive leader will always play as the quarterback. On defense, anyone can swap to any position, which makes it a lot of chaotic fun when trying to match up against the other team of three.

While the Head Coach player might not have much to do during the course of the game decision-wise, that person still does get to play on the field. It's an easy way to get someone new to MUT or Madden acclimated to the fast-paced style of online play. It also lets you play with friends who maybe don't have the best collection of Ultimate Team cards, but want to enjoy playing with buddies online. Squads is a very challenging way to play, as communication is key to ensuring victory, but even when you're on the business end of a losing effort, it's still a lot of fun. Provided you aren't someone that gets frustrated with their friends playing online video games.

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Little else off the field has changed elsewhere in Madden NFL 18, with Franchise mode still bearing the same features as it has the last few years. A new draft board was added to the post-season draft, but its impact on the actual event is minimal. It does save you from having to dig through the clunky draft menu as much as you did in previous years, but for all the bullet-pointing of that feature, it's hardly anything noteworthy. It's a good thing that so much of the on-field action has been improved thanks to Frostbite.

Ignite was not a bad sports game engine in the least, but what Tiburon is able to do with Forstbite is make players more authentic. That doesn't just mean more and more in-game avatars look like their real life counterparts (they do), it also means these video game versions move and play a lot more like actual human beings. Tackles and broken tackles have some stellar new branching animations, and pass blocking actually exists this year. You'll also notice more players not on the offensive line contributing actual blocks downfield, rather than just standing idle while you run past them.

The skill stick is as important as ever as movement in the open field can make for break an offensive series. Players are a lot more dangerous than they used to be when working with some space, and when a fast, agile running back sees some green, you have to be on point to stop him. It makes Madden NFL 18 that much more like the real NFL experience, though the defense isn't without its improvements as well. Defensive backs react more appropriately to break-ups, and going for interceptions is a real risk/reward moment. Missing a pick means you just gave the receiver you were covering plenty of open space to work.

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Also, smacking down players with the Hit Stick feels more satisfying than ever before. It feels strange to say that in an era of being more thoughtful of the things big hits do to real NFL players, but you can feel the weight of jarring impacts more than ever with Frostbite.

Madden has been good for a long time, but this year it's great. There are so many small improvements made to the core of Madden NFL 18's gameplay thanks to the new engine, it's hard not to be excited when hitting the gridiron every time you fire up a game. Even after hours of play, we're still noticing new ways in which players are reacting and moving between the hash marks. With all those adjustments, coupled with the expansion of Madden Ultimate Team, and the inclusion of the surprisingly good Longshot, Madden NFL 18 has set a new bar for what we should expect from the series.

This review is based on a digital copy of Madden NFL 18 provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.