Iím going to admit straight off the bat that I have been, for almost all of my life, a massive Madden videogame fan. I owned every copy of the game from its very first iteration on the Mega-Drive all the way up to Madden 2008 on the PS3. It was only when real life got in the way that I finally stopped purchasing the yearly updates. After a three-season break itís been interesting taking a look at where the series has gone. I can say that without a doubt the presentation is better than ever, on-field it plays much as it did back in í08, while the menus (where any hardened Madden Franchise mode vet spends plenty of time) are worse than I remembered.
In terms of on-field additions kickoffs have now been moved to the 35-yard line (as the NFL implemented this year), but unlike the NFL your kicker will struggle to put it deep in the endzone. Quarterbacks now have distinct throwing motions, based on their real life action. Tackling animations have been improved, and there are a bunch of new gang-tackles that make the action more realistic.
One cool new thing you can do is kick an onside kick from a regular kick formation. This appears to be limited to once per game which is a shame, but perhaps makes sense given itís open to abuse in online matches. In terms of presentation games now start with team mascots leading players out from their tunnel, with cheerleaders cheering them on and all the other flashing lights and confetti that goes with it. The intros do look good, but impatient people like me will just hammer the X button to get to the game quicker.
Thereís added depth in some off-season tasks this year too. During the pre-season you carry up to 75-players on your roster just like real-life teams, and before every pre-season game you have to cut a few hopefuls from your team. All rookie players have question marks next to their overall rating, and their ratings change from game to game meaning youíre never quite sure how good a rookie is until after the pre-season. While both of these elements add a bit of intrigue to roster decisions, in reality neither element is particularly exciting and I can imagine many people simply simulating them after their first pre-season.
Free-agent signing is more dynamic now, with CPU controlled teams bidding vigorously for the best players on the market. When a player receives a bid a timer starts counting down, giving you a limited amount of time for you to place a bid yourself. The timer doesnít refresh with every new bid or at least, not always. This works well because, unlike past seasons, you do occasionally miss out on a player youíre interested in.
Online play is thoroughly supported in Madden NFL 12. As well as the ability to play exhibition matches and full-on Franchises with up to 32 players you can also join a community or play Madden Ultimate Team. Communities are places where like-minded people can hang out and chat, as well as set their own rules for each game played between community members. Whether youíre after a hardcore league of All-Madden difficulty and fifteen-minute quarters, or a total noob just looking for fun there will be a community for you.
Madden Ultimate Team is a game based on cards. Youíre given a deck of cards when you first start comprising of a bunch of the lowest-rated NFL players as well as a coach, stadium, uniform and playbook. This is your team and you use it to play games against other online players or a CPU opponent. You earn coins for your performance in games (how many rushing yards you gained, how many yards you allowed, points scored etc) and you use those coins to buy more cards. If you feel like taking a shortcut you can buy coins with real money instead. New this year is the option to trade cards between users, or sell them in an auction.
Another online mode is Madden Moments which lets you take control of some of the best moments in the 2010-11 NFL season. There are five moments to choose from currently, with EA promising more moments based on the current NFL season as it progresses. One of the current moments asks you to take control of the Philadelphia Eagles and overturn a 21-point deficit against the New York Giants with just a few minutes on the clock. Thatís extremely tough, but luckily that is the hardest of the five available challenges.
The online experience was extremely smooth in the time I spent with it. Matches against human opponents were pretty much seamless, with no lag or unexpected dropouts. There is never a shortage of online players to test your skills against either - the game sold 1.4m copies in its first week on sale in the US, so this is no surprise. You can download up-to-date rosters (which is a must Ė the lockout had a big effect on the accuracy of the starting rosters here) and slider settings too, both of which are very handy.
Whatís worse is that the menu system has been set-up for the biggest klutz in the universe. Whenever you start or finish a game you need to select the option three times before youíre allowed to proceed. Youíd think hitting ĎExit Gameí would indeed exit the game, but instead it takes you to the option to exit. Hitting the next ĎExit Gameí prompt brings up an on-screen confirmation Ė ĎAre you sure you want to quit?í By which stage I am belligerently smacking the X button in the vain hope EA wonít suck any more seconds from my life.
Whatís worse is that the system isnít infallible. After loading a Franchise game I hit circle to take me to the menu screen, forgetting that these days you have to press triangle. The result was a quick trip straight back to the main menu (no Ďare you sure?í prompts in sight), followed by the need to re-load the Franchise and another couple of minutes wasted in the menu screens. These issues may sound small, but when you spend a long time sifting through information in Franchise mode the time quickly adds up.
The developers have pushed a one-button play-calling system onto us (though you can still choose your own play if you want to), but the plays selected for you are extremely bland, often repeating the same play over and over throughout the game. Defensively the game isnít smart and frequently calls the wrong types of plays; defending the pass in obvious rushing situations and vice-versa.
There were also a couple of issues unique to Superstar mode. Sometimes the scoreboard you see when your superstar is off the field is different to the one you see on the field, causing some confusion. Also, there are times when the clock is ticking away when it shouldnít be Ė like the first play of a drive. These are the kind of minor bugs you expect in games with a lesser budget, not when youíre playing Madden.
Graphically the game is impressive. The new tackling animations add more realism to the action, and itís great to see a hard-running half-back require multiple defenders to take down. The new pre-game animations with mascots and cheerleaders donít add a whole lot to the game, but they look just fine. The default camera view now lets you see the whole field, which is handy, but at the same time players do look small this way. The old standard view, now called Ďzoomedí makes for a much better-looking game, though the tradeoff is losing sight of some wide receivers and defensive backs. Itís a shame that the better-looking view comes with such a compromise, but thereís not much to be done unfortunately.
Gus Johnson is the other commentator and to be honest I am not a fan. He injects passion and excitement to the game, or at least tries to, but for whatever reason I find him a chore to listen to. I consider him a chore in real life too, so if you like him outside of the Madden games youíll probably like him here. The commentary descriptions of certain plays are often wrong (youíll be told how a player got beaten for big yardage on a two-yard TD toss for example), but such mistakes are easy enough to forgive if not forget. The sound effects are all fine, much the same as they have been for years now.
Giving any new games in the Madden series is a bit of a challenge. Thereís no doubt itís a fine game of American football, but should we judge it based more on the improvements since last season? After 23 years are customers entitled to expect something bordering on perfection? I donít have answers to these questions. I do know that seeing a game with some of the same AI issues it had four years ago is off-putting, and the menu system feels like something from the dark ages. However Madden NFL 12 is still a quality game of NFL football, and the number of different modes that let you play the game in different ways makes it a deep and engaging package. If you have Madden NFL 11 I donít see any reason to upgrade to Madden NFL 12. If itís been a while since you played then youíll likely forgive the small issues and relish the return of football for another year. Hopefully next year EA works more on the gameplay wrinkles and less on the bells and whistles.
Review By: Michael Allison