STAFF REVIEW of Madden NFL 12 (Xbox 360)

Sunday, September 11, 2011.
by Matt Paligaru

Madden NFL 12 Box art EA?s Madden football series has been around so long, John Madden himself still had color in his hair when the first one was released, and he?s been grey for over 20 years. If you?re old enough to have played the first few games of the series as it came out, you?ve seen the ups and downs, and trials and tribulations of the football giant. The Super Nintendo games, for example used to regularly blow the Sega Genesis games out of the water, and once EA implemented cutesy Mode 7 graphics into the SNES versions, all bets were off. Then came commentary. The now retired Pat Summerall lent his voice to some of those early incarnations, and a plethora of football names have come and gone through the ranks since then.

Time and again, Madden?s presentation looks nothing short of breathtaking. Graphically, Madden is one of the best looking sports games, period. The playbooks are so comprehensive, you swear EA?s downloading updates to your system while you sleep because you?ll see something new every time you play. The games are easy to get into and easy to enjoy but hard to master, which is what every sports gaming enthusiast or newbie craves. Marketing is fantastic as well, as Madden Nation rolls strong online through Facebook and Twitter (#maddennation,) even though the man who the series is named after has long retired.

The only complaint I have with Madden each year is its Play by Play. This has been the only sticking point the last few times out, and Madden 12 already had the possibility of failure attached, bringing back Gus Johnson and Cris Collingsworth for yet another spin around the sun. Both men are great football commentators in their own right. In fact, I?d go so far as to say Johnson is possibly the best LIVE football play by play man out there in terms of the way he goes about building excitement. However, that doesn?t translate well when you?ve got a microphone in front of you with no game to call where your comments are pre-recorded and spliced into random parts of the game. It?s nothing against Johnson himself. It?s just that very few people have that ability of overall transparency in their voicework that makes this sort of thing effective. Johnson?s voicework didn?t translate well last year, and I hope that he was done a better service this year.

This year?s Madden Curse nominee..err...Madden Cover Boy is Peyton Hillis, who won a final poll against Michael Vick of all people to adorn the cover. Seriously? That might be the first poll in the history of anything online that didn?t need to be rigged to get the intended result. Peyton Hillis, who prior to this game I thought was the name of an upscale suburb in Southern California, walked away with almost 70% of the votes and will hope not to tear or blow anything out this season for his willingness to appear on the haunted cover of the Madden series. Good luck Peyton.

EA gave fans the choice to buy one of two versions this year. The Hillis version, and a Hall of Fame cover featuring recent NFL Hall of Fame inductee Marshall Faulk. The special edition also comes with a one of 4 autographed Faulk autographed cards, a shiny embossed bronze cover, a pack of Ultimate Team cards which make a team so good it would probably take years to compile naturally, and a $90 price tag, which all things considered is worth it if you play the game more religiously than the once a week your favorite team?s on. The Limited Edition is also limited to 125,000 copies, and one lucky 360 owner will also find a golden ticket of sorts - A solid gold 18K Faulk trading card. It?s not known yet whether the card was inserted into the box itself, or was a redemption. Panini has been issuing their NFL and NHL Golden Ticket cards as redemptions in packs of their ?Contenders? sets this year because they come encased in an unbreakable Beckett Grading capsule, and as such would be too large and bulky (and easily searched) in regular packs. It may be weeks or months before we find out which way this ended up, but there will be one fan that wins more than a cool game cover.

This game, like all other EA Sports games follow the online pass system. In other words, either buy the game new, or expect to have to pay the purchase price + $10 for the online pass if you want to play on XBox Live. This is really nothing new. Since UFC Undisputed 2010, it?s been common practice in the sports gaming market to do this. If you want to test the waters, you?ll get the option of a 2 day trial.

The first few Madden games had ridiculously sized menus. They would be multiple pages with numerous options. This expansive sprawl has been trimmed year after year, and I?m a bit relieved to see the menus simplified into one page again. Menus are easily to navigate through and you get to where you want to be quicker than ever before. One thing I noticed, however, and this may be my hard drive acting up (though I did just replace it a couple months ago) is that this game suffers from the same hang time and lag a lot of EA Games started seeing last year once World Cup was released. An EA employee I spoke to said it was due to the amount of content the system was attempting to load at once, but I?m used to experiencing weird lag BEFORE menus, not during them, which I had here time and again. Making matters worse was the amount of time it took for the menus to show up to BEGIN WITH. By the time it confirmed EA Online Pass, and my settings, and asked my parents permission to play, I swear it was time for Madden 13. I can only see this getting worse as you continue to build your EA Passport, and it has to scroll through a ton of games to get point totals and things. Something?s got to give, and I hope this is being addressed in future games (I realize it may be too late for the ?12? games, so I won?t criticize it too harshly for this year?s games from this point on.)

As usual, the presentation is out of sight. I don?t know how many hundreds of hours of game tape were studied going into the mere presentation of this game, but it gets everything right, from the camera angles of the tunnel huddles to the peeks behind player shoulders behind the benches during TV timeouts. All of the stadiums look great and the fields look better than they do in Madden ?08, which I thought had the best field layouts yet. Unfortunately, mixed in amongst all the majestic beauty, the player sprites don?t seem to be in full HD and are animated a bit chunkier than past years. This may have to do with one of the main changes made to the gameplay engine - Enhanced collision detection. As was the case with all previous sports games, damage was enacted by a pre-determined animation which wouldn?t always cooperate with the ball. A system of collision detection based on where you acted was piloted in last year?s NHL game, and has now made its way into the other games. Welcome change for sure, but it comes at a bit of a sacrifice this year.

The one thing that doesn't seem to change year after year is pass animation, and pass AI. It's not surprising to see nearly perfect pass AI. No matter what difficulty you play on, somehow the AI will always anticipate who you're passing to and you'll find yourself throwing into double or triple coverage into jumping defenders. Making matters stranger is the fact that the pass animations don't appear to have changed much, and already annoyed Madden fans might not be so happy to see David Tyree's famous catch is still being re-enacted at the most inopportune times. Tyree retired. This pass animation can too.

Player performance in game is hugely impacted by the momentum they generate throughout their play in-game. Nervous and shaken quarterbacks will be more likely to throw erratic passes, however, confident QBs will throw crisper passes. A confident running back may be the most dangerous weapon in the game, often able to break coverage like nobody's business. One particular game I played featured a Rashard Mendenhall that was so unstoppable, it was Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl-esque. Defensive players carry this same momentum. Sacking a quarterback, providing good coverage or hitting big tackles will bolster their in-game ratings as well.

Positive changes do abound in this game, and I will give EA huge accolades another big thing - They appear to have incorporated the lockout rule changes already. The lockout changes were announced at a time when a game is normally ready to go into finalization or production, and I applaud the foresight to put these changes in, rather than providing an inaccurate experience. Reasons like this are why the NFL should continue to take solace in their decision to have one yearly football game flying its flag.

Franchise Mode is strong as always, with few changes necessary, and little ones made. As a GM, you now have to bid against other general managers for free agents, and can learn to expose loopholes in collective bargaining yourself. You must now make proper roster cuts each week (in fact, there's an achievement for making a last day cut,) and you shape your final roster out of a larger one. One thing I noticed when making a trade as well was that you could trade your players for draft picks, which I don't recall seeing in previous years. There isn't much else to say about Franchise Mode to be honest. It is what it is. I continue to like the fact that you can transition your characters from the NCAA games too. It adds that little something that links both games, and makes them both worth picking up, or at least trying out.

Making another appearance this year is the Ultimate Team Mode. This mode debuted last year in an attempt to close the gap between video gaming, fantasy football and collectible card games. In it, you create your dream team by use of strategic card purchases, purchasing packs, and renewing contracts with cards as well. It?s not for everybody, but it is definitely worth playing if you did not get the chance with previous EA games, or just want to rise to supremacy again. The game within a game is almost like a CCG. You start with a group of average players (and maybe one or two superstars) and work your way up the ladder from there, playing other mock teams both offline and online. Madden NFL Superstars on Facebook was the introduction to this game last year, and it runs strong alongside its console counterpart, though they don?t interact together (maybe something that could change for Madden 13?) This is an easy time sink if this type of thing interests you. I?ve met people that spent more time tooling their teams together and wheeling and dealing than playing the actual game itself last year, and this mode is a definite touchdown (no pun intended) in the Madden bag of tricks. I've heard Ultimate Team referred to as a cash grab of sorts, which I disagree with. Really, it's a game that's asking you to invest your time into it rather than take the easy way out, though if you don't have the time to do that -- Well, there's the easy way out. This is no different than going on eBay and buying loot for MMORPGs rather than taking the time to earn it.

So how does Madden 12 stack up in the final ratings?

Graphics: 8.5/10. Let's face it. This isn't Madden's best game graphically. EA Sports has already proven that they can bend the 360's graphics processors to its will and create masterpieces. The players look a tad out of place at times because their quality of animation is so much different than the fields themselves. It's like characters from a Georges Seurat artwork sitting down at the bar in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. I think most of the graphical capabilities have been reached already, but since we'll probably have 1 or 2 more Madden games on the 360 before its end of life, polishing animations are about all that needs to be done at this point.

Sound: 6/10. Sadly, Gus Johnson still just does not fit in this year. I don't know what you can do to fix the commentary problems. I'm beginning to think this is long running more toward the game of football itself and the way it plays on a video game system. As I said earlier, some play by play commentators have a voice and style that can transition well into any medium, including video games. Jim Hughson was one, Pat Summerall, Bill Clement (for hockey,) Marv Albert. These guys all have fantastic all purposes voices. I'd even go so far as to say Cris Collingsworth is fine too. All of these guys probably work out because of the reserved nature of their voices. THQ found a way to make the oft excited voices of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan work for UFC Undisputed. I don't know why it is Gus Johnson just doesn't work for Madden. It might be the fact that his brand of excitement doesn't translate out of real time. It could be that you just don't "feel" the commentary in amongst the ambience Madden provides. I can't really pinpoint it, but Gus Johnson and Madden really aren't a healthy marriage. Speaking of the man himself, John Madden's "Ask Madden" mode is still available in the playbooks, though his voice no longer guides or justifies why you should be taking a play.

The other sound effects are fine, though I'm a bit disappointed about the fact that the whole experience doesn't provide as great an ambience that I'm used to in EA games. NHL, Fifa and World Cup last year did a ridiculous job sucking you into it, making you want to wave towels and paint your face. From an audio standpoint, Madden feels for all the world like a video game, and not an experience. There's not a lot of stadium bumping music playing between downs, and there's not a whole lot extra going on between possessions. This is really the only place things could change a lot for the better.

Controls: 8/10. The controls for this game have always been pretty simple to figure out, though my experience and things I'm used to keep wanting me to look for a turbo button at all times. This may be more an observation of the way things are laid out on an Xbox controller, but it feels like everything is a bit too scrunched. You really feel it when you're playing on offence too, where your right hand has to find a way to push through coverage, stiff arm/juke/jump and protect the ball, often simultaneously. My poor fingers weren't meant to bend in some of the ways the controller asks you to move. It'd be nice to see something from that combination (like protecting the ball) move over to the left side next year.

Gameplay: 9/10. It's amazing what a giving a series a different lease on life can do. It's hard to remember back to when all the EA games carried "Arcade" and "Simulation" modes since both modes have sort of congealed themselves together over the last few editions. Gone are bashing turbo buttons, or crazy 100 yard hail mary passes, or field goals so long that they make NFL Blitz look realistic. Added are realistic elements - Players properly convey the speed they're supposed to. Hot routes and plays are played the way they're supposed to, and if you don't comply, you pay the price. It's next to impossible to block punts and kicks rather than turboing your way into the ball every second play.

I will say default gameplay won't be for everybody, so I would encourage Madden vets to stop and go through options before jumping in. There's a defaulted playbook feature that drives me crazy. You get 20 seconds on the play clock by default, and get "best" plays predetermined for you. Sounds good right? Not so much. If you want to select your own plays, you have to opt out of that screen, select your play and hike the ball within that same period of time. Add to the fact that it takes around 5-8 seconds for your players to line up in a proper hike, and you've basically got 12 seconds to look through your entire playbook after you opt not to choose a pre-determined play, choose one and go forward. If you like having a bit of control and time to pick your poison, I'd disable this mode lest you comply with numerous delay of game penalties.

Oddly, the best saving graces aren't in the football gameplay itself. Ultimate Team Mode and Franchise Mode always add diversity to the expansive Madden experience, and it's no different this year. Since that strange jaunt into NFL Head Coach 3 years ago, EA decided to stick to what they did well and they've spun the extra modes into something special for football fans. Madden is also known for its ridiculously easy achievements. This year is no exception. On my first spin through Madden ?12, I unlocked 6 achievements without even looking at the list. Upon looking at the list, it appears everything can be attained offline, and in a few hours. That isn?t to take away from the game this is of course, but Madden?s achievements each year are a complete 180 from NHL and Fifa, which take forever to attain.

We now come to the age old question. Is the retail version worth your 60 bucks again this year? If you're going to pick this up casually throughout the year, and already have Madden 11, it?s hard to say. I probably wouldn?t bowl other gamers over to get it. Is the collector's edition worth your 90 bucks this year? As a sports card collector, and lover of all things shiny, Yes. A thousand times yes. I don't normally go out of my way to recommend anybody buy collectors editions, especially when they cost 50% more than the retail edition, however, the value of what you receive far surpasses the price of admission. Marshall Faulk wasn't a notorious signer during his football career, and Panini still has not released that many of his autographs. These are the best looking of any Faulk autographs I've seen, and an efficient way of obtaining his autograph. The Ultimate Team is also just as clutch as Faulk himself. While I'm not really a huge fan of giving the farm away like they've done here, it's hard to say no when it's being offered like that, at a fairly inexpensive price. If you can spare the extra 30 bucks over and above, head to the store and pick it up. This game isn?t THE must get in the history of football games, but it?s still a very good one, and I?m sure you?ll enjoy it if you need your NFL gaming fix this year.

Like the review? Hate the review? Think I?m the best or worst game reviewer in the history of ever? Give me an earful on Twitter @paliontology. See you soon for NHL 12!

Just one of these years, I'd love to see the CFL finally cave in, and I'd love to see Canadian fields, and CFL teams incorporated somehow. My fingers are stiffened from crossing them year after year hoping we can get the Canadian game, its giant ball and its 4 mile long, 3 mile wide field in the game. Year after year, I'm disappointed, but feel I might be expecting too much. I'll keep dreaming.

Overall: 7.9 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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