As the NFL lockout dragged all of the spring and much of the summer, Madden NFL 12 figured to be the only football coming to your TV this year, until a month before its release. From its conception, the game was meant to be a salve for the hurting hardcore fan, not a song for those who tune in only for Super Bowl commercials. Freed of the need to build features marketed to the indifferent, this was supposed to be the Madden for a lifer, if not a lifetime.
We didn't get that. Although it is consistently beautiful and occasionally brilliant, Madden NFL 12 repeats and even reincarnates the series' longtime disappointments, and lacks enough presentational polish to make you thankful the real NFL is kicking off on Thursday.
To date, we've looked in detail at the game's three principal modes—Superstar, Franchise and Online. This review is about how the game plays and looks. It's a mixed bag. Isolated in a single game, especially a multiplayer game, this is the best Madden you will ever play. Zone defenses play more realistically, both in defending their assignments and leaving open a space to exploit. With a refined collision system that doesn't begin an animation until contact truly is initiated, play along the defensive line is more engaging. Ball-carrying has smoothed out and improved for a third straight year.
Over the long haul, though, Madden begins to sag. In Franchise, thanks to a dynamic progression system, one bad game for your ballcarrier will send him into the eclipse of a funk and return the game to its old down-at-first-contact roots. You will still want to throw a controller when a linebacker uses The Force to swat down your pass on a 30-yard post route. You will stop and replay some absolutely what-the-fuck blocking assignments that seem designed to leave you with no good choice, either between the tackles or bouncing outside.
I began this review period in Superstar, the singleplayer career mode, and was astonished at how well I ran the football. Not only could I follow blocks, I could hold back and seemingly manipulate them, waiting for the tackle to seal off the end and then sprint around him. This was with the San Francisco 49ers, and life was good.
Then I went to Franchise, with an even better runner on the Oakland Raiders, and wondered what in God's name happened. My fullback would run into the only available gap and stop. My pulling guard wouldn't go fully to the end of the offensive line and if he did, made little effort to engage his man.
It felt like, in an effort to reduce suction-blocking—this is the situation where a defender gets locked into an animation with a blocker provided he's nearby and regardless of momentum—Madden nerfed linemen's ability to even engage a legitimate block. See this video at right for an example.
The new contact animations seem to be wholly between the ballcarrier and defenders. There, yes, you do have a feeling of momentum, of being able to move the tackle, fight for yards, and turn a a piddling three-yard gain in the old game into four or, with luck and Brandon Jacobs, a five-yard plunge up the gut.
But along the line and away from the ball, the only difference I can spot is that contact initiates later, and when it does, it's the same show as before. Your blockers still release inexplicably early, meaning a lot of running choices have to be made pre-snap. (Special teams blocking is still contemptibly shitheaded, and considering the NFL kicks off five yards closer now, just take the touchback and spare yourself the frustration.) Interactions between defensive backs and receivers are indistinguishable from previous years.
Dynamic Player Progression is meant to deliver a greater quality of performance realism, showing not only how a player evolves through a hotly contested game but also, in season modes, how his momentum carries from week to week. The problem seems to be in how the success, or blame, is spread around. Entire units, will see an attribute decrease after a bad game, though cold (and hot) streaks are capped at three games each. Looking back on my share of both, I equated easier running with my own stick talent and smart playcalling. I blamed all of the adversity on the background calculation working against me.
Although a great idea in concept, Dynamic Player Progression is most noticeable when it is working against you. That's a fear I voiced in previewing the feature and I'm disappointed to see it turn what is a beautiful running system into the old game of down at first contact, regardless of the truer animations. Still, in one-off play, especially online, I was shoving defenders to the ground and dragging them for a five-yard gain instead of the three-yard blowup I'd see with the same guy in Franchise.
In both modes, you will see frustrating barriers to breakout performances. Most notably is the primacy of throwing to the middle of the field. Against a team with strong pass blocking you can expect to get shelled there in any multiplayer game. Throwing a streak to the edges of the field is a waste of time unless you have either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. Against any of these, especially controlled by a live human, you can expect to have your hands full. Tight ends and slot receivers will have cartoonlike numbers. No. 1 flankers will have a big catch here and there but will earn their meal money on slants and quick outs.
The broadcast presentation is by far the most disappointing aspect of Madden NFL 12. There are many audio clips that sound like they should transition into some other piece of commentary and instead just hang there in silence. Pre-game commentary (also a weak spot last year) is unforgivably lifeless, repetitive and rarely differentiates between pre-season, regular-season or a playoff setting.
It's hard for me to pinpoint where this went wrong because I thought the decision to bring Gus Johnson to the booth last year was inspired and tuned to Madden's core demographic. This year, he and Cris Collinsworth—for my money the best analyst in the NFL—are constantly behind plays, and that's when they have something interesting to say. This game does not showcase either of their strengths—Johnson's instantaneous enthusiasm or Collinsworth's unvarnished, informed opinions. Madden desperately needs to interrupt itself, as NBA 2K is capable of doing, when something more important on the field is taking or has taken place.
The pre-game runouts are interesting to watch, but only the first two times. Again, this game and NCAA Football don't know what they want to do with their pregame, whether they want to put you in the perspective of a fan or a player at the game, or as someone watching it on TV, or both. This hybridization means you get an opening blimp shot and anthem and then broadcast silence, which encourages you to button through the sequence, not watch it. It's not to say the runouts are a bad idea or should be thrown out. But the game can still show all of this pre-game stuff in a broadcast format, narrated by commentary, because it's how millions of us recognize it to begin with. About the only thing I enjoyed from the broadcast presentation is the inclusion of the league's postgame advisory that any rebroadcast without express written consent is prohibited. Then it felt like Sunday.
All this is disappointing because the player modeling, the progressive lighting, the uniform and ground textures are impressive and lifelike. Aaron Rodgers improved from the raccoon-face of the Madden to a more recognizable player. Legends acquired through Madden Ultimate Team, for example Barry Sanders, are instantly identifiable. I have a quibble with the amount of flashbulbs going off in the crowd, particularly during the playoffs, but on the whole Madden NFL 12 is the best looking game ever, as it should be.
It says a lot that the saving virtue of Madden NFL 12 is its suite of multiplayer offerings. Online multiplayer is the heart of this game's robust replay value—the best in years—with design choices that speed matchmaking and allow users to find like-minded players, band together, and have an unspoiled good time.
It's both a good and bad thing. Good, in that you can pick up the game and find legitimate competition in prime time every night. The decision to hide a player's won-loss record at the matchmaking screen is commendable—I know I'd back out in years past if someone had just a huge number of results.
That's not the only way in which Madden's multiplayer masks the differences in experience, In multiplayer, the refinements to GameFlow—and fuck you, I still like this feature and think it is a transformative, commendably inclusive addition to Madden—help keep many contests in play down to the wire. In matchmaking where my host had turned off GameFlow playcalling and I was working in an unfamiliar playbook, I was at a considerable disadvantage. This year, GameFlow rides as an onscreen graphic offering you a choice of three plays-the GamePlan (dictated by the team's situational plays, or whatever you set in your custom playbook), a run or a pass on offense, or an aggressive or conservative call on defensive. You may always open the full playbook.
My only quibble is that when you cycle off of an option and then back to it, the play sometimes changes, which presents a pointless take-it-or-leave it decision that is hard to make if you don't recognize the play or if you want to explore other options before coming back to it. Also, on defense there was occasionally little or even no difference between aggressive and conservative play suggestions in obvious passing situations. On the whole, though, GameFlow's new incorporation made me a better and less predictable player when it was available online.
Critiques of Madden always trend harshly, even in good years. It's a difficult game to defend because so much of the criticism, from consumer and press alike, is tendentiously agenda-driven by a festering seven-year anger over the NFL awarding Electronic Arts the exclusive right to make its video game. Consumer idealism and distrust of a private business deal reads well on comment boards. Critics play to it in reviews, dismissing the actual improvements made every year. Praising these improvements risks looking like a shill.
Bottom line, this situation will not change. The NFL wants and gets—by virtue of its primacy among all professional sports leagues, worldwide—one licensee per product, whether it's beer, ballcaps or video games. Those who think a string of lackluster releases will make the league reconsider its licensee or its licensing policy are utterly naive. It's a money deal. The NFL expects as much risk-taking in Madden's design as it does in Budweiser's formula.
That neither changes nor excuses the fact Madden plainly slipped its traction this year, evidenced both in this offering and in the visible departures of staff that created it. The game's past two executive producers, its creative director, and the producers responsible for the gameday presentation and commentary all have departed. The entire football division has a new head, who came aboard in March.
This just wasn't going to be the year to get a revolutionary new Madden, whether for the turmoil surrounding the real league or the transition within EA Sports. It doesn't excuse the lack of polish or the lack of attention to areas that have long needed it. It doesn't mean its improvements don't make it, fundamentally, a better game, either.
Nor does it make it "best Madden ever," which is the honor this title seeks every year and is necessarily reserved for the game that truly delights. Madden NFL 12 doesn't. It does lay a very strong foundation for a development team that will be operating with more cohesion next year. For now, unless you are an enthusiastic multiplayer Madden gamer, or have always wanted to become one, you can sit out this series and await better field position.
Previous Madden Review Coverage
In the online multiplayer era of sports gaming, I have been a Grinch-like hermit, rarely venturing forth into it except to ragequit and rant that none of what they do reflects reality, and to get off my lawn. More »
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. More »
Simulation-quality sports video games all now ship with some kind of solo career mode, in which you create or control one player throughout his entire career. More »