The NFL season came dangerously close to not happening as a result of the lockout. Thankfully that was averted. Madden NFL 12 was scheduled for release whether it happened or not. The pressure of possibly being the only way to get a football fix for the next several months forced the developers to really buckle down and deliver. The result is not a huge departure from last year’s game but rather a highly refined version. There are a lot of small changes that affect the way you interact with the game but not quite enough to dispel a stifling sense of redundancy.
Some of the gameplay changes have to do with NFL rule changes put in place for this season. One of the most obvious is the movement of the kick-off to the 35 yard line. On the default settings this led to a much higher frequency of touchbacks and kicking past the end zone. That is not to say exciting returns are impossible; it just wouldn’t be Madden without big hits and the occasional break for a touchdown during the kickoff.
Madden NFL 12 boasts a lot of additions fans have reportedly been requesting for years. In Franchise mode this includes Cut Days during the pre-season and the ability to trade future draft picks. Cut Days are not nearly as exciting as they should be. During the pre-season, each week comes with a required number of cuts that need to be made to the roster. Using the players’ performance as a gauge you select who you want to cut and said player pleads for another chance in one line of text before you make your decision final. There are also the more interactive addition of more scouting sessions and free agent bidding wars. Dramatic or not, these new features add depth to the, at times mechanical, Franchise mode.
On-field changes include the new Defensive Assist option. With the press of a button you can have the AI step in to handle the defense. I personally did not get much mileage out of the feature because I personally enjoy playing defense quite a bit, but for those that don’t, it takes over effectively but at the cost of further removing you from the actual game. Play-calling has been further simplified since last year’s introduction of Gameflow. Now called Gameplan, you are given an easy-to-navigate window to call plays without going back to the full playbook. You have control over the types of plays to choose from, making this a very useful tool in preventing the loss of momentum.
Player performance now affects the player confidence and consistency meters. Making big plays, such as catching a deep pass under pressure, will increase a receiver’s ability to make impressive catches in the future. Conversely, making mistakes, such as throwing multiple interceptions, will cause the QB to fall into a rut where it is more likely he will be punished for going to the air. This is apparent not only within a game but across an entire season. This, along with the improved AI, complements the game’s difficulty well. All-Pro difficulty provides a real challenge for veterans that have become complacent with the feel of past games; the defense can read and anticipate your strategy.
Ultimate Team benefits from the new ability to trade cards, but otherwise stays true to the old formula. Be a Superstar mode features more active ways in which you can earn skill points for your player. However, this mode still doesn’t convincingly put you in the life of an NFL superstar - other sports games provide depth and put on some sort of show in their player modes, something which Madden needs to take a page from.
Online is still a good source of entertainment, and there's the introduction of Communities. You can now make clubs so you can play and interact with like-minded and similarly-skilled players. Online Franchise can now be managed from the website, which is good for those who want more comprehensive ways to interact with others online, but personally I enjoy more casual online relations. The game is nearly unplayable with lag, which may lead to frequent requests for Friendly Quits (don’t you hate those?) and you have even less control of replays when playing online. Other than that the online offerings are as strong as they were last year.
The graphical improvements have a lot to do with animation and lighting. Sure, the player models have been upgraded as well; there is a real sense of mass and detail given to these formidable athletes. The upgrades from last year’s game are subtle but there is an apparent injection of earthier tones which gives the game a slightly more realistic palette, as does the realistic progression of the sun over the course of the game. The small touches like attention paid to each player’s unique gear or how they all wear pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month aide immersion. Unfortunately, some questionable ball physics and glitches having to do with hit detection temporarily shatter that sense of immersion.
Not much attention is paid to the crowd, which is probably for the best, but I still find it strange how rarely the camera focuses on the fans for reaction shots. The presentation during the game has a more stripped down feel. You have an up close shaky-cam point of view on all of the pre and post game rituals. EA Tiburon show that they have learned from past mistakes though; during half time there is no overly dramatic and sloppily produced half-time show, just replays. It is a shame that the replays seem to be rather randomized, however, with key moments sometimes being ignored in favor of more basic plays, and the announcers provide no commentary as this happens. You can, of course, initiate instant replays yourself, but it would have been nice if they were better organized.
The soundtrack is quite strong. Zack Hemsey’s “Mind Heist”, the song familiar to many from the movie Inception, plays over the start-up cinematic. This choice seems jarring yet it's strangely compelling once you get used to it. Aside from the addition of dubstep, which this reviewer personally finds loathsome, the list of licensed tracks is diverse and complementary to the experience Madden strives to deliver. Other songs come from popular artists like Chiddy Bang, Foo Fighters, A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, and many more.
In his sophomore outing with the series, Gus Johnson does admirably in his role as commentator. He brings great charisma and delivery, whether he is commenting on a dominant defensive play or just saying the name of NFL superstars with his own unique inflection (say it with me: EE-LIE-MAN-NING!). I cannot even find the words to describe the elation I felt at hearing him say, “He’s got getting away from the cops speed!” during an explosive 93 yard run with my FB. That being said, Chris Collingsworth is still a deflating presence with his predictable utterances, but it is no worse than his performance in the last few games. There are other issues with the commentary that are more technical in nature, such as how some rote observations prevent the commentators from acknowledging exciting on-field actions.
Even though Madden 12 is enjoyable overall, there aren’t enough significant changes that make it feel any different from Madden 11. Sure, you could adjust your interaction with the game to make use of all the small changes, but you could just as easily ignore them and keep playing as you have been for years. This being the case, I do not recommend Madden 12 for the more casual players out there. Skipping over this entry will at the very least make the changes to come in Madden 13 seem fresher for those who want a more drastic upgrade. Hardcore fans should find enough content to keep them content. It is Madden, after all, and no matter how much nit-picking and complaints fans may levy against it, it's still a deep simulation that is great to experience with friends.