Sifting Through The Sports Games Of E3 2018
E3 is always a nice pitstop before the glut of fall games, and with Madden, FIFA, and other heavy-hitters in attendance (NBA 2K9 wasn’t there, like usual), we got a pretty good look at most of the features for this year’s sports titles.
Today I’m joined by colleague Matt Bertz to talk about it all.
Matthew Kato: My hot take is that we saw some solid titles, but it’s like each one had this question mark that could be make or break. For instance – Madden’s new scheme fits progression system could be cool because it affects the way you build your team, but it could also be dicey if you don’t like how your players are progressing due to the bucket system. PES plays well as always, but that game has to revamp its Master League mode. FIFA feels new in some areas, but the same in others...
Matt Bertz: Since you brought it up already, yes, I’m worried about the way player progression is being handled in Madden 19’s revamped franchise mode, and it overshadows all the other improvements touted by the game for me. Every time a sports game replaces being in direct control of stat upgrades in favor of a “bucket” system – see the NBA 2K series – eventually they go back to giving users the granular control they prefer. I hear EA’s concerns about the fact that players spending upgrade points in particular ways skews contract expectations and free agency asking prices, but it seems like this is replacing the car tires when the problem is with the suspension. I’m also curious to see how randomization fuels that and if they can actually accurately reflect the various coaching schemes in the NFL. If great players who can literally plug into every offensive system (like an Antonio Brown) don't get the scheme fit XP bonus that's going to drive fans nuts.
MK: Turning to some positivity regarding Madden, I like how the running game and player movements after the catch feel. Apart from some specific moves like one cut, I think in a more general sense how movement feels just using the left analog stick is a good sign that gameplay is coming along.
MB: The added variety in receiving animations is nice. I didn’t get to play enough to tell if it’s fixed, but I really hope Real Player Motion (RPM) results in less-janky tackling animations. Did you feel like these were minimized in your more extended hands-on?
MK: I think you notice less jankiness in the post-play stuff, and I saw some tackles of the QB that were 50-50. Saw one that was realistic in how the QB got rid of the ball while being taken down, and another that seemed more like Madden 18.
As a cross-sport comparison of RPM, I think FIFA’s gameplay was less clear. I think FIFA’s traditional strengths – overall player movement, special moves, and physical play – continue to stand out, but I’m just not sure how the gameplay is going to be in situations that the series has had problems with like determining possession of free balls, passing, and getting shots off. I will say, however, that the physical interactions have taken another step up where you see players come together and the ball might squirt out free, which is a nice evolution.
MB: Yeah I saw more slightly more variety in the 50-50 balls in my lone hands-on game, but if neither player won possession outright and the result was a deflection, the ball still seemed to gravitate toward another nearby player rather than continue in its unpredictability. The controls certainly fit like a well-worn glove, so I didn’t have any major praise or criticism. Maybe that’s a good thing at this stage in the console cycle when the previous results were solid, but I would like to see more ambition from the developer. I know the devs mentioned wanting cross-platform play, something as a PS4/Switch owner I would absolutely love. But that requires Sony to loosen up a bit, and the Fortnite developers can tell you how responsive the publisher has been to those types of overtures.
MK: Given that sports games this console generation have hit their groove, is there anything at E3 you were surprised about, good or bad?
MB: Yes, NHL 19. We saw a private demo behind closed doors and got some time on the sticks, and I walked away extremely impressed with the new skating system. You can read my impressions here. I was also somewhat impressed with the strides that NBA Live 19 is taking this year. They are smartly doubling down on The One, the MyCareer style mode that lets you play online or off. Getting rid of loot crates is a positive step forward for player expression (no more ill-matching YMCA looking dudes in pickup games), and the team spent considerable time improving systems to punish ball hogs and make off-ball play more competitive in versus games. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near NBA 2K just yet – which has a far more interesting suite of modes – but I like seeing a contender rise.
MK: Do you think the bubble has burst with the NBA 2K series – people were pretty mad last year about the VC – or is that just people being angry and then they go back to pumping in hundreds of hours into a game they still like?
MB: The conventional thinking for yearly titles is the newest game pays for the sin of the last game. The blowback about microtransactions and the lack of transparency with the community was real, but we won’t know how bad the damage is until we see what shakes out this year. It didn’t affect everyone; I’ve never spent a dime in microtransactions in these games and still got my money’s worth across the various modes. But the hardcore competitive online people seemed to be the most turned off, and their chorus definitely changed hearts and minds. The game kept selling well beyond the early controversy, so perhaps people already got over it. But if I were Visual Concepts I would make sure that NBA 2K19 had several good faith gestures positioned front and center so the disgruntled fans know they’ve been heard.
MK: Going back quickly to NHL and NBA, do you want those series to get story modes like FIFA's The Journey and Madden’s Longshot? Personally, I wouldn’t turn one down for NHL, while I feel like NBA with The One almost doesn’t need one. Plus, it feels like story modes are starting to run their course. After all, NBA has already cycled through various stories since they’ve been doing them.
MB: In short, no. I have played both chapters of The Journey and Longshot, and find them to be well acted but ultimately vapid. I would much prefer a story-based mode that still gives players a taste of professional athlete’s life behind the scenes, but is more flexible in the stories that it could tell. Let me experience what it’s like to be a detestible pest like Brad Marchand, a disengaged scorer like Phil Kessel, or a lovable goofball like Brent Burns. Build an engine that tells multiple stories, not just one. I realize this takes considerable manpower, but that’s how you change the trajectory of sports games. Filming some cutscenes with actors isn't going to cut it.
MK: It’s interesting you mention that, because when I was talking to new Madden creative director Mike Young about how the series should give players more contact options, he went into this longer spiel about how these kinds of granular things have become part and parcel of a “normal” fans understanding of the sport. He went on to talk about how he definitely wants to present those kinds of things in interesting ways. So the impression I came away with from his comments was that he would love for his game to embrace things like a new way to negotiate contracts, but do it in a cinematic or more interesting way than moving numbers around. I mean, me personally, I don’t mind moving numbers around, but I think that Young – as the co-writer of The Longshot – would be able to come up with a cool way to nest in more of those “pro sports” experiences. Kind of like what you’re talking about, where there’s no line between a story mode and franchise mode anymore.
MB: I’m 100-percent on board with that. Anything they can do to shine a light on the drama behind the scenes of our favorite sports should be explored.
MK: One more thing: I was a little surprised that we didn’t hear a Switch announcement of some kind from EA. Are sports ever going to really take off on the system? And what do you make of Madden going to PC?
MB: Madden to PC is LONG overdue. I never understood the hold-up, especially after EA launched Origin. And I agree about Switch. The system is selling well, so why not port Madden (with cross-platform support please)? I know NHL operates on a much smaller scale than the other sports games, but NHL Threes is a natural fit on the system as well. Instead, all EA has brought to the platform is FIFA. It’s a big disappointment.
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week