Well folks, it’s gonna be a long year for Colts fans, what with Manning out and all. But he can still play in Madden 12! What's more is he can throw the ball to me! That’s right, Simon is a wide receiver for the Colts (6’2”, now with hair!). But despite indulging my adolescent fantasies (I live in Indianapolis for those of you not in the know), how does the new Madden play? Are we spending another sixty of our hard earned dollars on yet another series of roster updates, or has EA Sports actually taken steps to improve this stumbling (yet incredibly lucrative) franchise?
I’m not gonna waste time explaining how a football game works, but the Madden franchise pretty much set the bar. For the most part things remain as you remember them. But it seems to me that in the last several years this series has taken one baby step forward (usually in inconsequential areas) while taking two big boy steps back. What’s more, there are a great many issues that have gone unaddressed despite the vocal annoyance of their rabid fanbase. With Madden 12, EA Sports endeavors to address some of those concerns, but I’m not entirely sure their emphasis has been put in the right places.
For those of us who live for Franchise mode, there are several new options designed to make for a more realistic experience. Rookie scouting can now be done at anytime during the year, and you’ll need to pay attention as what you discover will play a more important role when you actually enter the draft. Expanded rosters is another nice addition, allowing you to properly play the role of the coach and cut players during preseason. Trading players and signing free agents is now more interactive, with bidding wars and timed sessions when you are trying to capture that key piece to your team’s puzzle.
All of the new additions to the franchise mode are nice, but at the same time, they are just kind of... there. Yeah, it's cool that there is now a better integrated free agent bidding process and rookie scouting, but it's not a revolution if you see my meaning. Plus all of these are really nothing more than menu driven mini-games. I’ve got no problem as such, but it’s mostly buried in poorly designed menus which make things a bit of a chore. Fortunately, if you’re not interested you can always simulate them, so no worries.
Notwithstanding all the superficial changes made to the franchise mode, on the field there are a couple of things you’ll quickly notice have been improved. First, the game seems to play significantly faster than last year. This is great on offense, but on defense it’s easy to overrun the play. And it’s on defense that has seen the most revamped upgrades. Linebackers play zone coverage more realistically. Be wary of corners and safeties jumping routes; interceptions are regular occurrences if you don’t play it safe and cautious. Sometimes it’s better to take a sack or just throw the ball away if you’re not sure about making the throw into tight coverage.
Speaking of corners, I found this rather interesting. “Dynamic Player Performance” is one of the key new additions to Madden 12. Basically, position players now have “characteristics” beyond standard attributes like strength, catching, acceleration, arm strength etc. We all know that some quarterbacks have big arms or like to tuck and run, but these basic play styles have been augmented... and apply to the whole team. For example, some cornerbacks are more prone to jump routes and be aggressive. What is clever about DPP is that if a corner jumps a route and gets burned deep, he will then be less likely to be so gung-ho for a while (or so they’d have you believe). This realistic reaction is a big step towards creating an authentic experience, even if it’s not smack-you-in-the-face obvious. It’s difficult to tell if it actually happens, but it’s a nice idea.
Most modern sports titles have “Superstar” modes where you play as just one player: you. I’ve always felt like this mode in Madden was just tacked on, but this year they have made an active effort to improve it. I played it as a middle linebacker just to try something different and found it pretty fun. You only play as “your” player (you can not control anyone else) and only take part in the plays where your player is playing... I guess that’s pretty obvious, but it does speed up the game quite a bit. Everything else gets simulated. You’ll get a little report card after each game where points are awarded based on your performance (and in my case, the performance of the defense as a whole, which makes sense). You can then spend those points upgrading the slew of attributes available, thus improving your avatar and making him a force on the field.
Drilling a receiver on a crossing route right as he catches the ball is incredibly satisfying, as is stepping in front and picking off the pass and heading the other way for six. Conversely, missing a running back who is running right towards you and jukes you out of your shoes is borderline embarrassing. I imagine it is in real life as well. With most sports sims striving for realism (hence the use of the term sim, as in simulation), I find this both impressive and cool.
Graphically, things are a bit of a mixed bag. I'm glad to see that the on-field animations look a fair bit smoother. What's odd is that the little, quick, cut shots of players on the sidelines or shots of the stadiums still look terrible. The brief interludes designed to add to "the TV experience" are bland and glitchy. A lot of the people in the stands or even the cheerleaders (which appear to be so many mannequin-esque Barbie dolls that ironic doesn’t even begin to describe them) look expressionless at best, or like slightly melted wax sculptures at worst. And don't even get me started on the aerial "blimp" shots. These look like they were made in LEGOLand. It's nice to see them making the effort for the fans, but the lack of polish makes it more distracting than anything.
There are also a noticeable number of technical glitches and framerate drops. It seems... jerky, even playing off-line. Even the menus seem to lag. It doesn’t break the game, but as I say, it’s difficult not to notice.
One of the more annoying aspects of sports games in general is the commentary. It takes a while, with returning talent, to build an active library of quotes that can then be edited together seamlessly. John Madden himself was iconic in this respect, but it seems like Cris Collinsworth just doesn't have enough varying lines in the script. As a result you'll hear the same stuff repeated ad nauseum. Eventually I just gave up, lowered the volume, and put Pandora online radio on in the background. For what it's worth, the rest of the soundtrack is excellent, as per usual with an EA Sports title. Also, the stadium specific sound effects are a nice touch.
Just so you know, I don’t play Madden online. Sure, I’ll play with my friends if they are online, but I’m not trying to jump in with those hardcore players... I know I’ll get eaten alive. However, for those of you who are so inclined, I’ve heard it performs fairly well, and there is a new matchmaking mechanic designed to get like-minded (and similarly leveled) players together.
In the end I still feel like the Madden franchise is probably the worst of the major sports titles (NHL, FIFA, NBA 2K, MLB: The Show). Or perhaps it’s more fair to say it has evolved the least. It's not a bad game as such, and there are veritable legions of avid fans out there who continuously make it one of the top grossing titles on an annual basis. But the developers seem content to be focusing on maintaining the status quo rather than actively trying to revamp the problems that have plagued the series. It's like they are afraid to rock the boat. I find this ironic. On the one hand they don't want to alienate their massive (and loyal) fanbase, but at the same time they seem to actively ignore the requests of said fans. I appreciate the efforts to add to the franchise mode, but those changes do feel like window dressing. The defensive improvements and dynamic player characteristics were welcome additions (and serve as a prime example of those baby steps) but the repetitive commentary and sketchy animations still seem to really limit the actual fun of playing the game. At the crux, that's the reason we are all here anyway. Ah well, at least it'll tide me over till FIFA 12. That's my Madden!
Score = 8.1 / 10