Madden NFL has returned! While this NFL season wasn't guaranteed, the emergence of another Madden NFL title was and shall always be a guarantee year end and year out. Much like the new labor agreement that the players have established with the league's owners, Madden NFL 12 brings in some new things to the table. The question is, will that be enough for gamers to get excited about this year's edition?
Come find out.
I rarely start out with talking about presentation in games, but EA Tiburon and EA Sports have tried to continually improve how the series looks and feels. One of the first things I noticed when I popped in the game this year was how good the uniforms, especially the helmets, looked as the players took the field and began play. Getting closer and closer to visual perfection, the players looked like they should look. Gone are the stumpy, disproportionate days of players. Players look like they should look and move like they should move in this year's edition. For example, when my Browns were playing against the stinking Pittsburgh Steelers my guys kept Roethlisberger on his ass for three straight plays. You could see his frustration reach its zenith by the third hit as he slapped the field seemingly yelling at his O-line for being incompetent boobs; simply priceless. In all seriousness, it's what you would expect from your visuals after breaking up someone's offense in three consecutive plays. And it just wasn't the 'slapping the field' that was impressive. You could also see the frustration in his face. While the faces in Madden NFL 12 still sport that kind of creepy, robotic feel to it for them, this was the first year where you can see brow movement, proper mouth movement and generally correct expressions.
The presentation doesn't stop there, though. One of the biggest elements that EA has been trying to get right for years is the collision system in the game. The Madden series started making some real strives two years ago to make player-on-player contact better, and more importantly more accurate. When a defensive player catches a wide receiver in mid-air and slams them to the ground then there should be a 'C' curve of the body and a whip of the neck when they hit the ground. Madden NFL 12 does this really well. You will have a couple of moments where you’re shouting,”JESUS!” It looks and sounds just as good (or bad?) as it probably feels if you were watching it on television. EA Tiburon really put some hard work into making the collision much better, and for the most part they did a great job. There is little to no clipping in the animation. There’s also the absence of oddly placed magical space between defender and offensive players when they collide. Even if you look up close during an instant replay you’re going to see full, well-placed contact between the players.
The only time where you will see clipping is when the player is forced out of bounds and runs into his bench. Players will happily run through their benched brethren. It’s perfect on the field, but not so much off the field.
As for the rest of the visuals, the stadium models are all done well. Detailed as hell, especially the fields within. As silly as it sounds, you get some great 3D grass detail on the field that makes the stadium a bit more realistic, especially during replays. I have to say that I'm very disappointed that Chicago Bears' field didn't come apart at the seams during play, or that Heinz field didn't become the unplayable sandbox it has been known for when the rain was coming down. That might be something for EA Tiburon and EA Sports to consider in next year's edition of the game. If you ask any players about those specific fields during specific weather they're going to tell you how much it affects the play of the game. Another small detail about the stadium, and this isn't something I noticed on last year's version, is how there is added activity on the outside of the stadium as you get that beginning bird's eye view. You will see cars and what not on surrounding highways, which again make the feel of the stadium a tad bit more realistic.
Having said that, I think the crowd still needs to be improved badly. You get the same robotic fans that you see in every Madden title that alternate in cheers. I griped about this during my NCAA Football 12 review and I have the same solid gripe with Madden NFL 12. Get some work on the fan animation, make it feel like you're at home or on the road with rowdy-ass fans; let them beat against the stadium walls during intense moments of a game and just bring the experience of being a fan at a game to the series. This hasn't been done... ever. One of the biggest reasons to pay $100+ to see an actual NFL game is to be among fellow fans and scream like hooligans. It's a huge reason to go to any sporting event (ask soccer fans about that one). It's simply not enough to hear fans in Madden NFL 12; they need to be seen. Right now, they are just robots with very good audio, which isn't enough anymore for this gamer.
In hindsight, the fans are a small drop in a very full and rich visual bucket that EA has created. They're damn good visuals, but they still need some improving and additions.
Shifting gears, let's talk about the audio and commentators. The audio has been vastly improved in Madden NFL 12, as you get very rowdy and loud crowds. If your team is doing well in another team's stadium then you're going to get very tamed, more silent audio. If your team is getting the crap kicked out of it on every down in your opponent's stadium then expect the crowd to continually get loud. The audio is done really well.
As for Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth commentating, it's good, but not great. I think this is the first time I've noticed how much repetitiveness happens with the commentating during the game. Gus Johnson, who I love when he commentates NCAA Basketball games, does a commendable job as our lead guy. Having said that, if I hear him tell me that Ray Lewis is called the 'Land Shark' one more time after Peyton Hillis breaks a 7-yard run on him, I think an audio change on the television will be in order (helllooo, Spotify). Johnson's enthusiasm is well placed in Madden NFL 12, but it feels like he wasn't given enough material to keep it all fresh. The same goes for his counterpart Cris Collinsworth, whom I have grown to enjoy for some strange reason. His insight into the specifics of on field play just performed provides an adequate compliment to Johnson's excitement. Again, the biggest problem with them is that they just didn't have enough material to keep the conversation fresh.
The presentation in Madden NFL 12 is vastly improved overall, but there is still more to be done for next year's (please, please, please work on the crowds and the fields first).
The gameplay in this year's Madden has been upgraded. One of the biggest pluses has been the improvement of AI. EA Sports has toted their ‘Advanced Defensive AI’ as something new and improved. I agree with them to a point. I think that the defense is locked down and eerily difficult when it comes to the passing game. While you can blame this on Colt McCoy’s talent if you want (I have plenty of faith in the man), I had the hardest time getting a consistent passing game going because of the defense. For example, when I was playing against the Ravens their safeties and cornerbacks were pretty much knocking down or intercepting everything that McCoy was throwing (the Browns won 9-7 during that game). In the past, Madden NFL always had some loophole that could get a consistent passing game going that the defense couldn’t figure out. This is not the case this year. I was on default difficulty in the game, so I know the AI was definitely a lot wiser to my ways than in past editions of the game.
Now with that said, Peyton Hillis pretty much destroyed any line. He had nine touchdowns by the end of the second game of the season (*UPDATE: He had over 20+ by the end of the season). He had 11 real touchdowns last season in his debut for the Browns. So you can see how absolutely ridiculous that is for him by the second game. In a sense, EA has always strived to improve their running game over the years, but this seems to have switched places with the passing game from the past. That’s not to say that the defense isn’t going to ‘once-in-awhile’ call the right audible to stop the run, but over the course of the season in this year’s game no defense could consistently stop Hillis without the change of the overall difficulty of the game. Running back happy fans of the series are going to absolutely torch the competition this year, and the AI of the defense.
Another new addition to this year’s title is the ability to do custom playbooks, which works really well. For hardcore fans of the series they will get an absolute kick out of creating said playbooks. For casual gamers this might be a try once sort of thing. EA Sports put this in there as a nice option, but honestly I didn’t use it too much. Keeping the purity of your team’s playbook intact adds to the illusion that you’re controlling the actual team you know and love. Still, it’s an interesting option that is purely for the hardcore Madden fan.
One of the more interesting parts to this year’s title that I think has been updated and improved is the ‘Be a Superstar’ mode. If you're not familiar with the mode (and you should play it) it's like what you’ve seen in games like MLB The Show or NBA2K; this mode allows you to create a player of your choice and put them through the wringer in preparation for a lucrative NFL career. You’ll be able to choose any type of player position you want (QB, LB, RB, etc.) and cultivate them from rookie to starter. At the beginning of it all you’ll have to go through training camps. I had chosen a QB position (it was either that or a kicker – yeah, I’m that lame) and named my guy Darn Tootin’ (again, I’m that lame). Tootin’ went through training camp, got some reps and then was brought in periodically in pre-season games. The neat thing about this mode is that you get to see the missteps and the things that your player needs to work on. Tootin’ had a lot of trouble rolling out of the pocket and running/passing. Even though he was on the Chargers, who have a great TE and WR, he just couldn’t get the ball in their hands. As the season kept going he slowly started getting better and better at these things. By the time I moved on to another portion of Madden he was hitting Gates on the run. Each time you do well you earn skill points, which help to improve your superstar.
Is 'Be a Superstar' mode fun? I found it intriguing. Having the ability to live the life of a newly drafted rookie and go through the motion of learning life in the NFL is a neat choice. EA Tiburon has certainly made the mode more interesting with a point system and kept it real with players only getting a certain amount of reps in training camp, and limited time during real games. This is how rookies generally live in the NFL and it's accurate. It adds a bit more depth and value to the overall Madden NFL 12 package.
Speaking of value, EA has also added some real value with their Franchise mode. You now have the ability to be a bastard and cut players from your roster, while scouting and adding rookies. You can basically play God in Franchise mode and get a bit more control over your team and shaping them to your every whim. While not every gamer will be attracted to this amount of detailed control over their team, it is a nice option for the hardcore Madden gamers. Heck the game now features a hot/cold report before, during and after games on players on you team. It makes it easier to decide who is the lame duck and which one needs a raise.
Staying on the hot/cold subject, one of the stronger, more definitive portions of the Franchise mode this year is having a player 'actually' progress as the season goes on. For example, if I run 80% of the game with the Browns, and more specifically Peyton Hillis, the running game gets more and more powerful (again, specially Peyton Hillis). On the flip side to that, I ignored Colt McCoy for about four games and his passing game became a damaged limb on my team's body. After all the running from Hillis (and ignoring of McCoy), I couldn't get McCoy to make a quick slant pass correctly. Over time, once I started playing them both on a more even basis then both became more consistent, and my offense became a helluva lot more powerful. This is wonderful in the game, but when I decided to simulate a couple of very winnable games at around the seventh or eighth game of the season and the dynamic player performance didn't translate over to the sim. EA should probably make sure that the numbers up to that point are taken into consideration when a gamer chooses to simulate a game. I simulated the Cardinals (3-4) game and lost by double digits despite the Browns toting a 6-1 record. Again, this is something that needs to be improved for consistency.
Anyway, the Franchise mode certainly has improved for the better and has gotten a little deeper. One note of caution, if you choose not to participate in rookie scouting during Franchise mode then it will not be done automatically for you.
As for the online portion of Madden NFL 12, things have gotten better... much better. Gone are the days where you are basically grouped together with random people. EA has created online communities for gamers to join. This provides you with a stable group of online friends who you know aren't a-holes and that don't cheat. It's great stuff, as you can create and thrive through these communities against other communities. The possibilities of this are endless and the creation of this is brilliant. Much like online first-person shooters, rules can be set for communities and permissions can be given to members. It's like having a mixture of Halo and fantasy football. EA Tiburon did a great justice to Madden fans by including this in Madden NFL 12 and I personally can't wait to see where they take it from here.
Before I close out this review, another cool thing that Madden NFL 12 includes is the ability to have and trade cards in the game. In the Madden Ultimate Team mode you can earn cards of players, coaches, playbooks and legends. You can buy/auction/trade these cards to other gamers of the world. If you haven't tried or heard of this before then it might be worth checking out. It makes complete sense to have the ability to move your trading cards in any way, shape, fashion or form. It's just another feather in the cap of EA Tiburon for this year's Madden.
So at the end of all this is it worth your time and money for Madden NFL 12? While there isn't an enormous difference between Madden NFL 11 and this year's, there's enough tweaking, tightening and additions to make it worth your while. I think that EA Tiburon has certainly made some very strong strides to give gamers the most well-rounded Madden experience, but there are still some improvements that need to be made. If they can improve upon the smaller parts of the game that I mentioned above in the review (crowds, field, a little more balance in the defensive AI) then they will produce the strongest Madden game ever. Until then you should enjoy what they did with this year's version of the game and comfortably know that it's as good as it has been the last three years.