No modern sports gaming franchise receives more scrutiny than EA's Madden NFL. By scrutiny, I mean laments, agonizing curses and loud complaints — from both fans and critics. It's hard not to focus on shortfalls, dashed expectations and forgotten promises when there's now no real football competition in gaming. (There's been no NFL-licensed market competitor in years, due to EA's exclusive deal with the NFL.) Madden NFL games can't even be awarded accolades only by comparison to other licensed NFL titles. For now, Madden is the only NFL title where you can get your game on. It's perhaps a brilliant marketing coup, yet it also makes the series a large, lonely target for the slings and arrows of sports gamers. Need to vent? Vent about Madden. Everything the game has done right over the years — and that's an impressive laundry list — is often marginalized.
Granted, Madden has indeed done its fair share of wrong, too. Every annual release brings a new set of glitches, quirks, preposterous simulation errors and carryovers from the previous years' mistakes. Some of these gaffes remain, and there are a few new ones to join the franchise's roster of blunders, but overall, Madden NFL 12 has vastly improved. The game includes a more flexible GameFlow play-calling system, Franchise mode dynamic player performance (DPP) AI, and user-editable ratings for existing or imported players, among numerous changes.
I don't feel like I'm playing the same, old sports series that's grown so long in the tooth. I'm excited by diving into long, long sessions of Franchise play. I'm again wolfing down microwaved meals sitting in front of my Xbox 360.
GameFlow, introduced in Madden NFL 11, provides a quick-pick system for novice and more casual players to keep the game rolling, avoid delay-of-game infractions and make the game more accessible to less advanced players. It also provides an attractive option for veteran players jumping into a Play Now or Franchise game without committing to total, lock-the-doors, close-the-blinds levels of focus and concentration. An ambitious feature, it was still overly restrictive. You could play GameFlow, or you could play the traditional Ask Madden and deep play-calling system. GameFlow presented an AI-designed experience with no user-definable options for preferred play style. Although the basic GameFlow option remains in Madden NFL 12, players can now make choices geared more toward passing or running.
Unfortunately, even in the standard GameFlow option, I often found play suggestions I swear are offered to give the well-voiced, context-appropriate commentary a chance to jab at your coaching acumen. Behind three points, out of field-goal range, third down and 11 yards to go, still enough time on the clock to win, or at least send the game into OT, throw that ball! You've got a quarterback with a wire-guided missile launcher hanging off his shoulder pulling down millions in salary, and GameFlow comes up with a halfback dive through the line for a couple or three yards? Have I mentioned quirky? This is where we have a lot of quirky.
Certainly, the player can ignore GameFlow and go with a play more suited to the situation on the field. Yet the whole point of GameFlow is to provide a smooth and at least reasonably successful play-calling indoctrination for gamers who don't happen to have the whole playbook memorized for every team. Reeling out clunkers at crucial moments promotes quite a bit of frustration. Perhaps worse, this AI perversity calls into question the wisdom of GameFlow at any time during a set of downs, offense or defense, even when it's not clearly a make-or-break deal. This is an issue that will resolve itself for players who already know something about football, put lots of time in with Madden NFL 12 and begin spotting GameFlow goofs worthy of phoning your friends about. Still, it's a notable wrinkle that should have been ironed out.
There are a couple of other conspicuous AI inconsistencies: one fairly trivial, the other more significant. I virtually always win the opening toss against the AI team. No complaints there. However, whenever an on-field ref's decision is reviewed from the replay, the box official always reverses the decision, going against my team — for some huge plays that easily affect a game's outcome.
If GameFlow AI behaves a little like a coordinator trying to call in plays from the moon, passed balls, formerly taking bizarre paths, are now firmly grounded on planet Earth. I can immediately see, most times live without using instant replay, where I mistimed my pass or foolishly threw into heavy coverage. Gone are the days of getting picked off by a mob of defenders who weren't anywhere near the quarterback's passing route to his chosen receiver. Downside, I can't blame the stupid game anymore. Way on the upside, I not only learn from my mistakes faster but I also learn according to how the real world behaves, without adjusting for an alternate game universe with unfathomable laws of physics.
The new Franchise mode DPP AI provides vast benefits. In past versions of the game, Madden AI players often took positions, covered zones, reacted to plays, etc., a lot like a snapshot of their real-world NFL counterparts. Although the old system was designed to have AI players do what you'd expect by doing the same thing time and again, no matter what strategy you were running, they became almost Stepford versions of themselves. The play style was robotic, not greatly influenced by how the season was going, or, more importantly, how the season was turning out for the player.
DPP incorporates numerous traits, some universal, others applied to specific positions; they dynamically change value as the Franchise mode progresses. DPP is well-rounded, too. It's not a one-way street to your franchise's success: Overconfident AI players might showboat or overplay close scenarios, creating big breaks for the other team. Franchise mode games don't play like carbon copies of one another, and that's a huge part of the high engagement factor in Madden NFL 12. Also, the really fun things, like underdog heroics and last-minute, two-possession wins, do happen more as they would in real football.
Madden NFL 12 adds some interesting new online features as well. This year, Madden NFL 12 will have official Online Franchise mode integration with leagueManager, already a top web destination for Online Franchise fans. By signing up with leagueManager, Online Franchise players will have deep access to franchise management data, including the ability to control some Online Franchise options from the web.
Another very fan-focused addition is the creation of Online Communities, which have an upward limit of 2,000 members per Community. Gamers join or create their own clubs for head-to-head play; Online Communities have their own leaderboards, and a Community can create special league rules for games played between members of that Community.
Graphically, Madden NFL 12 looks great. Stadiums are outstandingly detailed and beautifully rendered, night or day, rain, snow or shine. Madden has certainly not been a rough-looking sports title in many years, but the redesigned broadcast simulation, using an ingenious system to "motion capture" the angle adjustments of real NFL cameramen, brings a depth and breadth to contemporary sports title presentation I didn't know was possible. I'd thought, for the most part, we'd matched the just-like-watching-TV standard; the only improvement could come in future console generations that are capable of greater photorealism. Yet this is a whole new experience. However, perhaps as a side effect of the new system, sometimes the camera angle will end up right behind a standing fan, blocking the view of the field. That's fine, and even realistic enough, but the character model of the fan and texture applied to his clothing are very low resolution. Perhaps they're going for a zoomed-in, out-of-focus visual effect — the shot does quickly cut away — but what we get are the most impressive jaggies I've seen since the original PlayStation.
Likewise, audio is solid all the way through, splendid at spots. Broadcast announcement, smacks, slaps and crunches of heavy hits, grumbling utterances of players on the field, they all sound good. There's even coordinator audio, if you'd like to play with that option switched on. The music soundtrack is the typical sports title mix of popular hip-hop and harder-edged rock. If neither is your thing, turn it off. The only complaints I have about Madden NFL 12's sound are the infrequent hiccups during loading and on-screen presentation context changes.
Although Madden NFL 12 presents some new AI issues, it resolves many AI failings and gameplay shortcomings that have plagued the franchise for several years. On top of all the revisions and refinements, there is some genuinely new, innovative technology here — like the overhauled broadcast presentation design. After a long of time of shrugging every August at the launch of a new Madden edition, I wholeheartedly recommend Madden NFL 12 to gaming football fans, whether you intend most of your play exclusively offline or online, or tend toward a balanced mixture of both. Further, I'd suggest this year's Madden to anyone who's never really stuck with it, who's tried the series once or twice in the last few years and wondered what all the fuss was about. Well, this is what the fuss is about.
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