A Franchise Star Anchors the Newest Madden

Previewed this spring, the list of Madden NFL 12's improvements to its Franchise campaign read like a letter to Santa written by the hardcore football fan. Wished-for features like draft-pick trades, custom playbooks and training camp cut days join new concepts like a fast-paced free agency period under the hood of Madden's most popular mode. But do they assemble into an engine, or are they a collection of useful parts?

We're continuing our coverage of Madden NFL 12, the 23rd edition of sports video gaming's glamour franchise, with a look at Franchise. This is not the review of Madden NFL 12. It just looks at one of its modes and critiques qualities specific to it.

The reason is sports video games now ship with at least three distinct modes of play, and many who play them spend most of their time in just one of them. Reviewing all modes, all at once, either doesn't go into enough detail on each, or overwhelms the reader with an extremely long writeup.

So this week, Kotaku will break down each game mode on its own and will cap it off next week with a summary review examining gameplay, presentation and other overall features, which stands as our final opinion of the game.

Today, Franchise, the mode in which you manage a team and play a campaign stretching one or more seasons.

What I Played

On All-Pro difficulty (one rung below maximum) I broke my usual tradition of playing as the San Diego Chargers and took their rivals, the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have a strong running back in Darren McFadden and a very good defense with a deep supply of that treasured Raider trait, speed. I play a very casual defense, usually rushing with a linebacker and switching off to my defensive backs once the ball is on the way to a receiver, and I felt like the Raiders suit that. Quarterback Jason Campbell, despite his reputation as an underachiever, is actually a fairly accurate passer at close range and I appreciate that as a fallback.

How It Went

While there will be some gameplay commentary here, Franchise mode is about creating the story of a season, and Madden NFL 12 adds several features to Franchise to deepen that experience. Roster limits have expanded to 75 in the pre-season (under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, they'll be higher next year). This allows you to evaluate the undrafted free agents and journeyman camp invitees whose drive to make the team gives this period its intrigue.

That means you will be required to cut players to get down to the opening-day limit of 55. Anyone with NFL service is fully rated; all rookies have question marks and wild guesses as to their overall value and potential. As they progress through camp, more of this becomes known. If they survive to the end, you will see all of their ratings.

A Franchise Star Anchors the Newest Madden

For that reason I cut my rookies last. I also knew a guy like Kyle Boller was going to get no time in my offense, and so he was gone the first week. Ditto Michael Bennett, coming to the end of a 10-year career, trying to crack a deep backfield. When you cut a guy, you get a menu message that's usually him complaining about being cut. I got the sense that if a guy vowed to beat me in the playoffs it meant he still had some talent I might have overlooked.

Cutting someone is a decision that usually considers several things: his overall rating, the size of his contract, how old he is, how many others you have at his position and how good they are. Working within the depth chart and clicking the right stick button for player details I could find that information but I still found myself using pen and paper to work out pros and cons. It was reasonably accessible here, but in Franchise, simply put, you will spend a ton of time jumping around in menus. By about the second day of this I'd deactivated all of the menu soundtrack.

In the regular season, Madden NFL 12 has added talent scouting as a way to keep you involved with the player-management aspect of football. Trades in the NFL are not as common nor as impactful as they are in other pro leagues. Teams are improved by the draft and free agency. Scouting sets you up for the draft.

Scouting talent is another menu-only activity. At random weeks throughout the season you'll be able to scout 15 NCAA prospects. Their common attribute ratings—stuff that isn't a core trait of the position—are exposed here. I tried identifying prospects by their projected draft position and my assumption of where I would try to draft for their position. This involved a lot of offline paper and pen as I examined the depth chart and which spots could support young talent, and where they'd just be wasting time.

But the process itself wasn't particularly interesting; it was, literally, checking 15 boxes and pressing start. Also, the game doesn't tell you you're not scouting every week. So in week two, when the option to scout players was grayed out, I thought either the game had glitched or I'd done something wrong. The point is to keep it periodic and not predictable, I guess.

A Franchise Star Anchors the Newest Madden
A fast secondary makes the Raiders' defense one of the more fun units to play with in Madden.

In terms of actual games, the Raiders started 4-2, including a win against the Jets. One unfortunate glitch I only noticed yesterday was that all of my home games up until Thanksgiving were played in the rain. Weather is predetermined for Franchise games (you can manipulate it in Exhibition and multiplayer modes), and EA Sports wanted to give the game more variance in weather, especially later in the season in snowy climates. An EA Sports developer acknowledged the glitch in this forum post, but after testing it across a dozen franchises I could only confirm Oakland, Miami and Cleveland as being affected by this problem. Then, inexplicably, on the last week of November I was playing under sunny skies again.

Disaster struck in week nine when I lost my starting right tackle, Khalif Barnes, for the year with a busted tailbone. Two weeks later, I lost my starting right guard, Cooper Carlisle, effectively for the year with a partial ACL tear. Then Darrius Heyward-Bey, the underachieving wide receiver, but still marked as a "Deep Threat" in Madden's new system of player roles, was lost for the year with a broken fibula. As a Deep Threat, Heyward-Bey provides a modest background boost to Campbell's deep throw accuracy. Other player roles provide boosts (or nerfs to the opposition), or govern how a team will manage the draft and free agency.

I'm a bit concerned that so many injuries were immediately season-ending. I didn't see any one- or two-week visits to the disabled list; it was all at least a month. But it did give me a chance to use the injured reserve list, which kept me from cutting a player in order to bring aboard his replacement. Though the right side of my offensive line was getting plundered, and Darren McFadden's rushing suffered as a result, I plugged the absences with others on the depth chart, and signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh out of free agency to replace Heyward-Bey.

McFadden barely cracked 1,000 yards for the year, as his runs increasingly became a game of first contact. The Raider offensive line isn't spectacular in the first place. It's not terrible, but I was seeing some terrible blocking that wasn't so much overpowered as it was releasing early, or inexplicably double-teaming someone to let a linebacker through. It was dispiriting to see that given how crisp the running system is, even with lesser backs, elsewhere in the game.

I attribute some of this to Dynamic Player Progression, the new player performance engine that's supposed to reflect the real-life ups-and-downs of the NFL. In truth, I didn't perceive it that much, other than to see that Campbell and McFadden had the snowflake icon denoting a cold streak for much of the last half of the season. Streaks are capped at three games, but as soon as they came out, it seems like they went right back on. My defense, which really saved the season, was nearly always hot. Kevin Boss, the tight end, was also easy to heat up with several consecutive short passes. Picking up Houshmandzadeh was probably a mistake as Campbell really doesn't have the arm to hit him, and interceptions and overthrows to his side of the field sapped Campbell's effectiveness.

Midway through the year, disaster struck again, this time my fault, when I exited without saving the Franchise file. I lost about four games' worth of work and had to simulate them. Three turned out to be losses. The good news is the rest of the AFC West was pretty bad, and after righting the ship with three wins out of my next four, The Raiders clinched the division with two games to go, which I simulated.

This is the pre-game presentation for Madden's playoffs. I was a bit disappointed not to hear much playoff-specific commentary from Gus Johnson. In fact, I can't remember hearing any. There's an error in my title card, too. The Jets finished 12-4.

In the playoffs, McFadden roared back to life with an outstanding 90-yard performance against the Jets, including the Raiders' only touchdown, as we won 13-6 in the slop. Some of this had to come from his Offensive Playmaker role, which gives him a boost on third downs late in the game. It was a very satisfying victory, especially as I sacked Mark Sanchez four times, and McFadden salted it all away with four very big runs to eat up the last 2:45. Presentationally, you can see how the playoffs are handled in this video. You get a flyover and a gigantic flag ceremony, and at the end your coach gets a Gatorade bath but the rest of the game, including the commentary, unfolds as a regular season game would.

After getting killed 34-17 by the Colts in the next round, I went into the offseason. Personnel management was broken down into three phases: Re-signing anyone at the end of their contract, scouting more players, and taking a closer look at some, and free agency. While everything you need to make an informed decision is available in the menu (the upcoming free agent pool, for example) the game doesn't give you much of a tutorial for free agency. And the fact it comes after pre-draft scouting means you may find out too late you can solve depth problems with free agency rather than the draft, wasting workouts on prospects you no longer need. In re-signing, after finding that nearly every one involved acceding to the player's demands, I just had the CPU take care of it.

Free Agency is a new auction-style system in which players sign with the highest bidder, period. Your bid comes in fixed increments, all you do is click a button to get the clock running on him. When it runs out, the winning team signs him. With plenty of cap room to spare I went after linemen and a linebacker, sneaking in the final bid in two cases to nip the CPU at the finish line. The computer will compete with you for the top two or three at each position. Lower than that, and you can land the guy with one bid.

Here's my first choice in the 2012 draft. I like to think I put a lot of work into it.

In the draft, by now you should have scouted a ton of players and worked out five of them privately, exposing all of their ratings to you. As you can see in this video, I was pleased when my No. 1 target was still available where I was, with the No. 25 pick. We had scouted him fully and found him rated 75, which could make him a starting defensive tackle on some teams. Instead, he will add depth and likely take over when 10-year veteran Richard Seymour retires or gets to the end of his contract. The rest of the other picks were crapshoots, unfortunately, but I'd like to think that by prioritizing my needs and adjusting my expectations out of free agency, I got exactly the pick the Raiders wanted and needed.

After the draft, it was back to training camp, to start the process all over again.

How It All Felt

Personnel management is not something I particularly enjoy in any sports game, and as a fan I would rarely do much beyond simulating all the roster moves and re-signings. Madden NFL 12 makes it, if not necessarily "fun," much more compelling and meaningful to me, and connects me to the strengths, weaknesses and needs of my team.

The free agency auctions are the best part of this. While you can't control the money or the length of the contract, I don't have a problem with the simplified nature of it, as I rarely think too deeply about that in the first place. Though scouting talent was kind of dull in the regular season, the payoff I got for being diligent and for really integrating it into my team's overall plan was very rewarding. I graded an A in my draft and took a lot of pride in that.

The drag on this is the amount of time you spend going back and forth between menus, from the injury report to the depth chart to the free agent pool to the depth chart again, for example, making sure that you really will use that $1 million mercenary for the rest of the year. After a season or two, I suppose most players will have a more innate understanding of their teams, but in the first year, I was constantly double checking.

That doesn't even begin to touch custom playbooks, which are available in Franchise mode. As I play with GameFlow (sue me, I like it), I did not fool with them beyond just paging through and seeing what my third-and-short plays were, and zeroing out any screen passes, which I never seem to get right.

Franchise's depth, and its incorporation of player management devices that go much deeper than the trade-and-sign model, brings it up to speed with another engrossing campaign mode, NCAA Football's dynasty. It is the game's overall strength and where I will spend most of my time when I revisit the game after this review week.

Our week-long evaluation of Madden NFL 12 will continue Friday with our impressions of the game's multiplayer modes.


You can contact Owen Good, the author of this post, at owen@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.