I’ll always have an intimate relationship with the Madden series. Prior to playing the series for the first time back in the early days of the PlayStation 2-era I had almost no knowledge of American football whatsoever. Sure, I knew what a quarterback was and understood how to score a touchdown but other than that I was none the wiser.
However, I’m now an avid fan of the sport and follow ‘my’ New York Giants as religiously as I do my beloved Liverpool FC. And it’s all thanks to Madden.
Madden taught me the ins and outs of the rules, it taught me about the key players, it taught me about the importance of a balanced attack and an intelligent defence and it taught me that the sport is as much about tactics as it is about brawn. As a Brit trying to learn about a sport from a country a few thousand miles away it was an invaluable learning tool.
And so, like countless others, I await the annual release of Madden with genuine enthusiasm; eager to see how the team at EA have improved upon the last game. It’s for that reason that I feel rather let down by Madden NFL 12, the improvements are too few and those that have been made don’t go far enough. For many seasons Madden has been rather stagnant but this is the first time that I’ve been actively annoyed by the lack of progress.
It’s the curse of the annual release cycle, there’s just not enough time to change everything that needs to change. EA’s Fifa and NHL (as well as 2K’s NBA series’) all suffer from this same lack of yearly progress to a greater or lesser degree, but it’s only Madden that seems to have been defeated by it. I’ve been reviewing this series for four consecutive years now and, unfortunately, this is the first time I’m going recommend that you give it a miss if you already own last year’s game.
Immediately upon getting a game proper you notice that the graphics haven’t been upgraded in a meaningful way for at least three years. Character models, crowds, replays and the rest look aged and at times the animation is incredibly clunky. When you compare these to the leaps and bounds made by EA’s other sports franchises in the past few years (especially Fifa) it’s only natural to feel cheated. If the rest can show steady and constant improvement, why can’t Madden?
New to the presentation are pre-game shenanigans showing cheerleaders, flag team run-ins and close-ups of key players. Clearly designed to bring the game closer to the feel of a television broadcast, these moments are mildly entertaining for a couple of matches but very quickly lose their appeal and become just one more thing to skip through. In part this is because they’re mind-numbingly repetitious, but their predominant problem is that they just don’t look very good; the graphics not able to sufficiently induce the illusion of a television-quality broadcast.
The commentary also hinders the broadcast illusion. On far too many occasions the audio voice track is a good ten seconds or so behind the action, leading to comedic moments of excitement for a previous act running over to a mundane 2-yard run or botched pass play. Repetition is also a problem here, the same line being used so frequently that you just stop listening; the duo of Chris Collinsworth and Gus Johnson becoming mere background noise.
Collision detection still remains a bugbear for the series and, frankly, I’m mystified as to why this still hasn’t been sorted out given the importance of it in a game of this type. During replays it becomes abundantly clear that there are times when an inaccurately thrown pass will home into the receiver’s hands as if pulled by a magnet. Despite the obvious advantages of such a ‘feature’ when it occurs in your favour, the fact that it happens so regularly (at least once per game) serves only to destroy your suspension of disbelief and aligns things ever closer with the realm of fantasy.
Bizarrely, the opposite seems to happen with player to player collisions. Tackles that look to be right on the money are missed, the offensive player sporting a sudden burst of speed (read: teleporting) over the half yard required to dodge the defender or, most incredibly, shoulders of tacklers passing right through the ball carrier’s body with no effect whatsoever. I don’t know about you, but every time I’ve seen Patrick Willis crash into someone in real life they tend to hit the deck.
Although, despite the faults, Madden NFL 12 is still a Madden game. And, like all Madden games, the core gameplay is solid and fun.
The wealth of tactical options is exhaustive and will probably be overwhelmingly for anyone without an intimate knowledge of the sport and/or the series. This creates a wide open canvas for you to express yourself and test new strategies to defeat the toughest opponents (especially satisfying when playing online).
Player’s relative skill levels and unique attributes are also as realistic as ever; Plaxico Burress (back in the league at the Jets after a 21 month jail sentence) is as great as ever at plucking the ball out in thin air in the end zone, Tony Romo is wonderful at scrambling and avoiding pressure in the pocket and Darelle Revis is the very definition of a ‘shutdown’ corner. If you can use the right players in the right tactical set-ups you’re on a sure-fire path to success.
The big new in-game feature is a reworked tackling engine that makes big hits more difficult but improves their effectiveness (and brutality) when they connect. If it wasn’t for the dodgy collision detection then the new tackling system would represent a massive improvement, as it stands it’s merely an average one.
Madden’s bread and butter, ‘Franchise Mode’, has also seen a few additions which improve things but fail to wow fully. You’re now required to cut players from your roster during pre-season which adds a layer of strategy in that the decision usually comes down to selecting either an experienced (but old) pro or an unknown rookie. A new practise option lets you see your players in action in a comparatively controlled environment and a reworked free agency system sees you bid in real time against the clock for the signatures of the best players available.
If you were hoping for things in Franchise to stay the same then you’re probably going to be happy, everyone else will likely feel things are a little stale.
Perhaps more than any other long-running series that has featured on the current generation of hardware, Madden NFL 12 has that classic end-of-console-era feel to it. The team have seemingly stopped trying to improve the game in any major way and are waiting for the next generation to take things to the next level.
This may sound somewhat pessimistic and negative, but I believe the lack of competition in the NFL videogame space has allowed EA to rest on its laurels – safe in the knowledge that sales are going to come no matter they do (or don’t do). If only 2K’s NFL series was still kicking around…