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. By far, this fantasy experience is most underserved by the football games. NCAA Football 12 made a substantial effort to upgrade its career this year, and although Madden NFL 12 does add some new features with "Superstar," it remains inexcusably neglected next to the rest of the product.
We're kicking off our coverage of Madden NFL 12, the 23rd edition of sports video gaming's glamour franchise, with a look at Superstar. 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 and other overall features, which stands as our final opinion of the game.
First up, Superstar, the career mode in which you control one player.
I always start with singleplayer career modes because it reintroduces me to the game mechanics without throwing all of it at me in immediate win-or-lose scenarios. I created a running back because I wanted to see how the rushing game works with the new animation and collision system. I played for a full season with him, then tested some other player types just to see how the game handles their jobs.
When you get started, you may create a player at any position, including offensive line, except for punter or kicker. (You may also import your player from NCAA 12's Road to Glory career mode.) Or you may select one of the actual rookies taking the field in the NFL this year (the highest rated overall are three defenders at 82; the highest rated offensive rookie is New Orleans' Mark Ingram at 79.) If you create your own player, you have the option of entering the draft and getting a random team assignment, or simply walking onto the roster of your favorite squad. I chose draft.
With that, the San Francisco 49ers spent their third round pick on my created player, Travis Shamockery, running back from Colorado State.
The game suggests that if you enter the draft you will get "a higher reward," but I couldn't see what it was. Created players get the same 1,500 skill point balance to start building, and those points are assigned pre-draft. From there, you go into a four-week training camp that gives you four practices and four games, through which you'll earn more skill points.
This is Travis Shamockery at the beginning of his second year. I keyed on leveling up his core running back traits, not so much the specialty sets. He's an 85 overall but totally maxxed on speed, agility and acceleration.
Spending skill points on speed, acceleration and elusiveness, Shamockery came in rated at 67 and, much to my surprise, was immediately the featured running back in the 49ers' offense. So long Frank Gore. Tests at other positions showed that no matter what, your rookie will start day one, even if you pick 69-rated Jacquizz Rodgers, he will start over Atlanta's 93-rated Michael Turner.
While the addition of a role-playing experience system is a long overdue, and badly needed improvement, the lack of an actual position battle is very disappointing, especially as Madden's NCAA sibling has incorporated this in some form in several years past. I can understand that it would be frustrating to spend a lot of time creating a guy only to have him cut in training camp, but the 100 percent job security neuters any sense of drama outside what takes place in the games themselves.
My biggest criticism of "Road to Glory" in NCAA 12 was how quickly you achieved superpowered ratings. Superstar proceeds a little more sensibly. With 1,500 points to spend, I entered camp rated a 67, left it about a 71, and did not crack 80 until late in the season. The core attributes cost progressively more, which means you have a very steep surge early in your career and then, presumably, a more gradual ascent. I still had 99s in speed, agility, acceleration and elusiveness by my second year. There should be caps on individual attributes, such that if you hit 99 in one, other skills top out at lower scores.
How you earn skill points to rank yourself up is clear to me in a big picture sense, but a little opaque in other areas. You will share in your team's successes. So in the 49ers' offense, which features a lot of short passes, I still got credit whenever Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree picked up a 7-yard square out. I also got dinged whenever Alex Smith got sacked, even if it wasn't my fault. And then any of my runs and big gains also went into the mix. A really good game would give me about 100 to 120 skill points. You also acquire skill points through your team's success in a 10-rep practice held every week. I'd usually come out of those with 60 to 90.
A typical practice in Madden NFL 12's Superstar mode.
I noticed that, trying to run my own passing routes or pass blocking was nowhere near as effective as just not touching the sticks and letting the CPU move me, thanks to the 99 Awareness rating every rookie receives on day one, which is a little silly. I didn't play as linemen or cornerbacks but I imagine you could have a one-button experience with either position and still succeed.
Shamockery quickly became a critical member of the resurgent 49ers' attack, tallying a couple 200 yard games as the team got out to a 5-2 start, including Dallas' only defeat in its first 10 games. I noticed that, when he got hot, the playcalling would start feeding him the ball every down. Get tackled for a loss and it was back to pass blocking.
You can't adjust quarter length, and the difficulty is governed by whatever setting you've chosen in the main game. [Correction: Quarter length is adjusted in the main profile setting, not specifically in Superstar.] The result of default five minute quarters is a lot of 14-7 game.
Fixed quarter length keeps you from cheesing your stat totals and reaping skill points, but it does make some of the results look silly. There is an option to control the team when you are not on the field. Otherwise, all plays in which you are not involved will be background simulated. There is no spectating.
Shamockery and the 49ers started hot, suffered a November swoon, but closed very strong to finish 11-4-1 and win the NFC West. In the playoffs, it was impossible to see how the rest of the games were unfolding. All you see is your team's next game, and that, coupled with the standings menu, leaves you to infer who won and lost. The 49ers defeated Atlanta and New Orleans, then got a home game against Philadelphia, who had taken out Dallas. I think. After winning that, San Francisco got Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, whose progression was unknown to me.
A regular season game in Shamockery's second year.
That's right, I made Alex Smith a Super Bowl quarterback. I didn't make him a Super Bowl winning quarterback, though. We lost, and still got to see the final cinematic, including the Steelers going to the White House to give President Obama a jersey.
And then that was it. No postseason evaluation, no awards, no new contract (or the ability to demand one) no nothing. Just show up for camp and do it all over again.
Though Road to Glory in NCAA 12 has its own snags and shortcomings, it is a profoundly more engaging experience than Superstar, which does absolutely nothing to entice you to keep playing after one season. It offers a new role-playing experience point system but next to no role-playing elements elsewhere in the game. You may request a trade to another team, that's it, and it is automatically honored. As a quarterback, you don't get to participate in the offense beyond implementing whatever play is called—you can't set audibles or pull something else out of the playbook. As quarterback you can, however, override a call with a stock audible every time with no consequence. I audibled every run to a pass in practice to build up my skill points there.
Sham looks good, but the inexplicable lack of broadcast commentary and some other presentational misfires undermine any sense of immersion.
Presentationally, there's a setting for the volume of the in-game commentary, but I never heard the commentary and can't find how to turn it on. Gus Johnson does cut in, jarringly, whenever there's a review of a call on the field. This year, Superstar will add in headset audio from the offensive coordinator, which is supposed to be audible over the TV speakers. I could only hear it if I was wearing a headset. That meant my audio was crowd noise and a P.A. who identifies players only by number, never by last name.
While I did have a great time running the football, and felt strongly connected to that experience, that is an attribute of Madden NFL 12 overall, not this mode. I understand that Franchise is the mode everyone plays, and is the one that needs the most attention, year-to-year. That doesn't excuse the neglect shown to Superstar, which remains a missed opportunity to broaden the game's appeal to new fans and strengthen its attachment with existing ones.
Our week-long evaluation of Madden NFL 12 will continue Wednesday with our impressions of the game's Franchise mode.