Madden NFL 12 is pretty much the definition of the glass half-full/half-empty game. Your feelings about this latest in EA's annually-updated American Football sim will depend on whether you want to dwell on the much-improved presentation and franchise mode, or the genuinely awful commentary and often inadequate user-interface. I'm guessing casual fans will take the former view, while veterans will zero in on the latter.
But as flawed as Madden NFL 12 is in some ways, there's no denying that it's a big improvement over its predecessor. The physics are tighter and the A.I. is quite a bit nastier than in Madden 11. Suction blocks are a thing of the past now, and the result is a much more robust pass rush. In general, the defence is tougher than it's been since Madden '05, which should be music to the ears of fans who have tired of beating the CPU 95-7 every single match.
If anything, it's made me realize that I've developed some bad habits in playing Madden 11. I constantly underestimate the new and improved zone defence, which was more or less useless in last year's edition (with a few notable exceptions, of course), and the result has been a ton of picks. I'm not complaining though, because it's forcing me to be smarter and play "real" American football -- as opposed to the arcade game that was Madden 11.
These were just the sort of changes that Madden needed, and that's on top of the fact that the presentation is now much closer to a genuine football broadcast. Every game starts with a lovely exterior shot of the stadium -- it's finally possible to tell that it's a night game in a dome -- then pans down to the field. I promise that the effect is dazzling the first time you see it.
Sadly, the seams begin to show a bit after the effect wears off. Madden NFL has long been like the dress that looks dazzling from afar, but upon closer inspection, is threadbare in spots and maybe unwashed as well. Madden 12 is no exception.
As it turns out, those lovely new broadcast angles are a bit of a double-edge sword, since the crowd looks worse than ever. Rather than hide the fact that they're little more cardboard cutouts though, the camera will often swoop across the stands, revealing them for the pixelated cardboard cutouts that they are. Compared to almost any other sports franchise on the market today, the effect is laughable.
Also dragging down the presentation is the fact that the commentary is notably awful this year. I mean, it's never great, but the lockout has apparently thrown off their timetable to the extent that the lines are generic, repetitive, and more often than not, inaccurate. Throw a two-yard touchdown pass, and you'll get Chris Collinsworth going on about the corner getting burned for a huge gain after trying for a pick. It's just not very good.
Next page: the devil's in the details
A lot of this stuff is down to detail, which is so important in a sports game. There's been a notable lack of attention to detail since the franchise's move to the current-generation consoles, which is one reason that we still have cardboard cutout crowds and wildly inaccurate commentary. The strategy pad also remains inadequate, particularly in comparison to the easier to understand and much more comprehensive NCAA system. And the user interface for the custom playbooks -- an important new feature -- is an incomprehensible mess of dropdown menus with no preview function.
A shame really, because when Madden 12 gets it right, it really gets it right. The Offline Franchise mode in particular is a substantial step up, and apart from the improved physics, is one of the game's biggest selling points. It could still use a facelift -- NCAA Football 12's Dynasty Mode is both more attractive and features neat extras like dynamic news stories -- but the nuts and bolts are in place, at least.
For one thing, scouting has been completely revamped. Once the offseason hits, ratings can be gradually unlocked by attending Pro Days, the Combine, and finally, holding Individual Workouts. It's the latter that is the most important, because that's where you find out what their overall potential might be. And let me tell you, there's nothing more satisfying than snagging an A potential in the sixth round.
I mentioned earlier that the Madden franchise has a problem with the details, but that's really not as much the case in franchise mode. Preseason cut days and the addition of traits and tags like "Quarterback of the Future" offer a level of minutiae that will certainly appeal to veterans, even if it will likely prove intimidating to newcomers. Thankfully, most of the functionality can be capably simmed by the computer, though I ended up with an abnormally high number of injuries in the preseason (with the result being that Percy Harvin was labelled as a "disappointment" by the game after he was injured one too many times -- unfortunate).
One other point that I'd like to address is the Dynamic Player Performance. The idea behind this system is basically that players will get hot or cold, which will result in a corresponding stat increase. Not a bad idea, but it really has a disproportionate effect on the gameplay. Once Christian Ponder goes cold, for instance, his accuracy and throw power seems to drop like a stone, and interceptions start to come in bunches. I'm the last one to complain about a game being overly difficult -- Demon's Souls was my Game of the Year in 2009, after all -- but it would be nice if EA eased up a bit on the death spiral that comes with the cold streaks.
Much as I criticize though, there's a part of me understanding the monumental task faced by the developers. Madden NFL has been the equivalent of a dilapidated house for years now -- the roof has been leaky, the furnace has been loud overly loud, and it's in dire need of a new coat of paint. Given the time allotted, the developers opted to fix the roof -- the tackling physics, the defensive A.I. and the overall presentation -- and I believe that was the right decision, even if there's still plenty of work to do.
So, like I said, it's up to you whether you're feeling optimistic or pessimistic about this year's edition of Madden 12. You can either focus on what a great idea it was to introduce Online Communities to filter out the game's infamous trolls, or you can focus on the fact that the SuperStar Mode is still way behind the likes of NHL in its simplistic presentation and complete lack of goals. Either way, Madden NFL is as gratifying and frustrating as ever.
As for me, I'm taking the long view. After years of claiming that they have to get the "gameplay right" before moving on to other issues, it seems that Tiburon has, for the most part, done just that. So, the foundation seems to be in place, but as with the Detroit Lions, Madden 12 is probably still a year away (sorry, Lions fans). But take heart: it'll be a good year nonetheless.
Madden NFL 12: Specs
- Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 Age rating - 3+
- Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 Age rating - 3+
Big improvements to offline franchise play and the physics get much needed fixes, but terrible commentary, fake crowds and an inadequate Superstat Mode sour the deal.