Player lockout threats and league disputes have marred football's off-season this year. But one thing that never changes is the appearance of Madden at just this time of the year. With so much instability in pro-football, EA has been quiet about this year's iteration of one of the biggest game franchises in the world. But if you're worried that EA has fumbled among the rough and tumble of sports politics, relax. Madden NFL 12 is a solid, tighter football game, even though it's a largely similar one.
EA Tiburon stepped up its game with presentation. Madden NFL 12 looks fantastic. The revamped lighting effects shine new light on the stadiums. The sun actually moves and sets as the game progresses. It's not necessarily noticeable unless you're familiar with a particular stadium, but I've been in the Chargers' Qualcomm Stadium in the late afternoon nearly 100 times in my life and I can say that they f@#%ing nailed it.
The majority of improvements to Madden 12 happen under the hood. EA Tiburon focused on AI and animations for the most part, and it takes a while to really get a feel of the game. I'll admit that I was not impressed with the demo, or my first couple games, but the farther into the season I got, the more I noticed the improvements.
The AI upgrade changes nearly every player reaction. Dozens of different options are available ranging from how quickly a QB will throw the ball away, to whether a player performs better in the clutch, to how hard a DT hits. It's a simplified version of "tendencies" used in other sports games, and it adds a new level of depth to the game. Donovan McNabb will run if you give him an open slot, Troy Polamalu only gets more aggressive when he's losing. The defense is smarter and can recognize plays better. In addition the games consistency and confidence meters more accurately simulate inconsistently great players like Tim Tebow.
The real test for all these improvements comes in Franchise mode, and it boils down to one major thing: this is the hardest Madden game yet. All-Pro difficulty will kick your ass if you don't know what you're doing. Trying a simple rushing play against the Steelers will result in tragedy (with some bone crunching, awesome sacks thanks to the upgraded collision system). Madden NFL 12 makes you earn your Superbowl ring, and the Franchise mode provides new features to make it all more exciting. Additional scouting sessions, free agent bidding wars, and expanded rosters give you more control over your team, for the players that like the fine tuning aspect. You're given a lot more options, both within the mode and outside of it. You can customize the Franchise to exactly how you want to play it, and change those options mid-season if you feel like it, which I often do.
Disappointingly, the retry function from last year's game is gone, though Defensive Assist, which allows players to hold down A to have AI take over on the play, remains. It's fine, if you hate playing D, or if you want to take a break for the next couple minutes to drink a beer or check Twitter. But if you want to get those big interceptions, or out think your opponent, you're going to have to do it manually. I guess I like Defensive Assist, though it seems weird that Madden's big defensive feature is something that lets me not play the game.
All the extra modes from Madden 11 return for NFL 12. Ultimate Team, Madden Moments, and Be a Superstar get minor improvements, though the formula stays constant. You can finally trade cards in Ultimate Team, and earning skill points is more active in Be a Superstar. Fans are getting better, tighter versions of these modes, but it ultimately feels the same, and it's really a shame that EA Tiburon didn't add a new game mode. Be a Superstar finally gains ground on other sports game, and as a mode I love it's nice to see it more polished, but it has a long ways to go. Games like MLB: The Show and NBA 2K11 do an awesome job of putting players in the shoes of a professional athlete, and compared to them, Be a Superstar still feels lackluster. You're not given specific goals, the training sessions aren't different from just practice, and you don't get the full progression of your athlete.
Heading online, one major thing stands out: Communities. You can set up what are essentially clubs where like-minded players can join and meet up for heat to head and online team play games. It's particularly useful not only for finding players of a similar skillset, but also for weeding out assholes (which seems to be its primary function). The Online Franchise also got a makeover that gives players more options for contracts, and the draft, as well as the ability to manage the franchise via the website.