In researching my review of Madden NFL 12, I decided to go back and re-read portions of my previous Madden reviews over the course of the last decade. As I read those reviews, a trend emerged, revealing a pattern in the developers' goals that went in a cyclical fashion. One year, the offense was the focus. In another, defense. In one year, casual players were targeted, and in another, the more hardcore set. One year saw major graphical improvements, while another worked on the audio presentation. It's a seesaw effect that, while not directly year-to-year, amounts to a sense of perpetual unrest. Certainly this is true of any game on a yearly development cycle, but with Madden, that cyclical pattern often runs counter to the notion of "yearly progression." If anything, it creates just as many years of depressing regression. With Madden NFL 12, this year is such a year.
This year is a "hardcore" year. It's also a defensive year, and a graphics year. Put those together, and you should have a game with great new defensive controls, tons of mode tweaks and balances, and stellar visuals, with some glaring issues left unaddressed in the realms of offense, interface, and audio. I can say the latter is true. Not quite as much the former.
If anything, Madden NFL 12's upgrades are less obvious. It's telling that the only videos EA Sports included to explain to the unread masses what they just paid $60 for pertain to the franchise mode. Simple menus dictate the changes to superstar mode, and the back of the box touts the merits of an all-new collision system and a new Dynamic Player Performance system. Some of these become noteworthy in playing Madden NFL 12, others less so.
The franchise mode, which has clearly seen the lion's share of attention this year, is certainly more robust, if not necessarily finely tuned. Among the host of additions to the off-season modes are player cuts, free agent bidding, and rookie scouting. The player cuts emulate the NFL off-season, with weekly cuts required to get your roster down to the proper number of players as the season begins. This also properly emulates the way a team uses these cuts to evaluate younger talent, as you'll often learn more about a rookie's abilities as they're given more play time throughout the pre-season. Scouting those rookies ahead of time also does this, though it only matters if you actually get to draft the players you scout. Oddly, information is often completely obfuscated for rookies you don't choose to scout. This includes basic combine information like 40 times, strength tests, and whatever else, so you really don't have a frigging clue if a rookie you never bothered to scout is worth a good goddamn.
Just beware the computer. Whatever tasks you assign to the CPU, it will do poorly. Granted, it will do them poorly with aplomb, almost excitedly, in its effort to screw up your best-laid plans. Do not let the computer sign rookies, for it will sign none of them. Do not let the computer scout players for you, for it will largely choose to scout positions you have no apparent need for, and spend most of its time digging up the most minute details on players that will go on to have great careers fixing air conditioners and moonlighting in the UFL. If you choose to avoid the free agent bidding system--which now has you putting in bids for free agents against all other teams at the same time, with two-minute countdown clocks emulating the hours of thought that go into a player's decision to either be paid as the star receiver on a terrible team like Miami, or win a Super Bowl as the decidedly less-paid third receiver in Philadelphia--you will be screwed.
So in that regard, Madden NFL 12 is perhaps a touch less casual-friendly than last year's title. Still, these changes are far and away the best thing EA Tiburon has done to this mode in ages. Sadly, they seem to have come at the expense of any noteworthy additions in other areas of play. The Ultimate Team mode, Madden's answer to card-battling and absurd opportunities for microtransactions (through card packs you can buy for your team, using actual money), now allows you to trade cards with other teams. Also, there are legend players to collect, ensuring that anyone who actually decides to drop a bunch of cash on this mode will effectively build an unbeatable team. Otherwise, it is conceptually unchanged.
And Superstar mode? It's still Superstar mode, in that it is still a fairly dull waste of everyone's time. So there's that.
This being a graphics year, you would expect to be dazzled by Madden NFL 12's visuals. You may be dazzled by the upgrades to the game's concept of deterioration--in any other industry, that sentence would sound ludicrous--with improved dirt, muck, and other junk messing up player's uniforms over the course of a game. You will likely be less wowed by the still-creepy-looking player faces, semi-broken idling animations, and periodic bouts of incorrect players popping up during highlight reels.
That's especially an issue given Madden NFL 12's greater emphasis on a "television" style of presentation. More frequent cutaways to highlight "impact players" join new camera angles designed to mimic a TV broadcast. Unfortunately, these changes are of little use. The new camera angles aren't useful at all in the context of playing Madden, and too often the announcers will call out the wrong players, or choose an impact player that is playing horribly. Yes, Jason Campbell, with his three interceptions and two fumbles, may in fact be the impact player of the game, but not in the way these announcers seemingly intend him to be.
On the subject of the announcers, they are awful. The team of Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth is still a good one, but there are too few lines of dialogue, and too many generic statements among them to endure. You will hear Collinsworth use the same lines about punt returners three times per-game, if not more. You will hear Johnson simultaneously use excited and pacified tones through awkwardly stitched-together pieces of dialogue. For his sake, I really hope that's the designer's fault, and not a sign that he should see a doctor.
And then there is the realm of gameplay. The collision system, designed to eliminate suction between players during hit and tackle animations, and allow for greater "point-of-contact" freedom in laying out opposing players, mostly does these things correctly. Players do not magnetize to each other with such frequency as before, but the trade-off is tackling animations that often feel less impactful. While gang-tackles and other such purportedly exciting animations have been added this year, the actual sense of laying out a receiver or running back with a well-placed hit feels strangely muted. In some ways, that's a fair enough trade for the sensation that you are actually controlling the player all the way through their animation, but I can't pretend I didn't miss the feeling of absolutely obliterating some dandy receiver with a barely-legal hit.
While hitting has seen a downturn, the offensive game has seen no turn at all. GameFlow, introduced last year as a play-calling system for people who hate play-calling, has seen a minor adjustment in its presentation, with a new option to scroll through plays called up according to your pre-designed gameplan (or the one you let the computer design for you), while also adjusting to plays that represent a more aggressive or conservative stance. It's a fine concept, albeit one that obfuscates what calls you're actually making by not showing you any of the play art by default. Straight up, Ask Madden is still a more useful feature for easy-going players uninterested in the greater complexities of the game, even if John Madden doesn't really talk to you anymore--a loss that doesn't get nearly enough eulogizing, if you ask me.
One might argue that the new Dynamic Player Performance feature is a significant gameplay change. This system, which assigns star ratings to players based on qualities like consistency and confidence, puts players on hot and cold streaks based on performance within a given game. This is most specifically something you'll notice within the game's franchise mode, but it's something you can see come into play during regular games too. If you're playing a shaky rookie quarterback who suddenly makes a great play, his confidence will rise, and you may find yourself with a boost in overall performance. On the opposite side, throw a costly interception, and your QB may suddenly find himself in the company of Vince Young at the local bar, drinking your troubles away. Not literally, of course. Nobody at EA Sports has time to render a CG bar. They did have time to render a CG White House for when you win the Super Bowl, though. Barack Obama is there to congratulate you, too. So that's great.
While these Dynamic Player Performances do add a bit of realism, they don't do anything to address any concerns one might have about whether Madden NFL 12 is any fun or not. None of these changes do. What even translates to "fun" in a Madden game at this point in history is almost a useless question. If you're a casual player, that likely means going through a few seasons of franchise, playing your buddies online, perhaps joining an online league (a mode which has seen no significant changes from last year's game), or one of the new communities set up for players to find game types of their own particular liking. Those players will find a game that, by and large, feels a lot like last year's, in that it is competent, competitive, and generally plays the game of football as you would like it. For the more dedicated set, the ones who will pore over Internet forums for the next six to eight months looking for information on slider fixes, patch updates, and desperately in-depth stat adjustments for second- and third-string players, you already stopped reading this review ages ago, because it didn't tell you enough about what sliders to fiddle with or where the roster inaccuracies lie. Essentially, I'm talking to myself right now.
That Madden NFL 12 feels like a less passionate endeavor than even other yearly sports titles, less a labor of love and more a labor of necessity, is a criticism that likely won't mean much to either type of player. It's still video game football in a competitive and compelling environment, especially when played online with friends. It has more content than you will likely ever touch over the course of the next season of real football. In some ways, Madden NFL 12 is a better game than its predecessor. In others, not. It has significant flaws, and it has significant strengths.
In short, Madden NFL 12 is fine. See you next season.