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Since gaining the exclusive right to portray NFL properties in 2004, the Madden franchise has been marked by gradual improvement. With no direct competitor, the only thing pushing its development forward is the enjoyment of the consumer. As long as people can say, “well, it’s better than last year,” EA has succeeded. Unambitious as this is, it does mean that the game does improve every year. As such, Madden 12 is a little better than Madden 11. That’s it though. Nothing about this game will blow you away.
The most important element is gameplay, and that has improved. The game looks more realistic, and plays that way as well. The graphics are a reasonable copy of real-life telecasts, and the animations are getting there as well. There will occasionally be a strange pass or an awkward tackle, but for the most part the physics of the game feel real. The game itself plays with the ebb and flow of an NFL game, and the statistics and scores will mimic what happens in real life.
With that said, the controls feel awfully simplistic. For ball carriers, the most effective technique is simply “stay away from defenders.” Hurdles, stiff arms, and spins are occasionally effective, but they don’t feel responsive enough. Combined with the removal of the turbo button, it feels like players have little control over runners when they have the ball. It’s almost arcade-like in its simplicity, which creates a strange dichotomy with the game’s otherwise impressive realism. The controls are more complex for defenders, but it also often feels like the user’s contributions to the defense are negligible. How can I take credit for a three-and-out if I was a defensive end who didn’t get near the ball on any of the three plays?
There are a few technical problems that really shouldn’t be problems at this point. Most notably, the instant replay system is terrible. That would be fine if this was something the franchise had struggled with in the past, but the system was perfect five years ago. The mechanics haven’t changed since then, but the timer has. The time frame for replays is so short that any attempt to relive a memorable play will end in disappointment. A replay of a kick return, for example, might start when the return man has broken free of the pack and is on the opponent’s fifteen-yard line. This effectively renders replays moot. What’s the point of having them if they don’t replay the important part of a play? On a larger level, all of the game’s menus are terribly slow. At this point, everything in the game should be instantaneous. Over time, this lag really adds up.
There are some fun wrinkles for aspiring general managers. Instead of bidding on free agents in the static set-up of years past, this year there is real-time bidding. Each free agent has a timer until they sign, with dozens of timers ending at the same time. This wonderfully system is a fantastic approximation of the stressed on real-life general managers, and it can be terribly nerve-wracking.
In another fun addition, you can now design a custom playbook with plays from all 32 NFL teams. I have been advocating such an addition for years, and it does offer the ability to create a perfect playbook. Unfortunately, while it is fun to create such a playbook, the design doesn’t quite work. Because of the sheer number of sets and formations spread across the whole league, it is possible to wind up with eight nearly-identical plays in your playbook. However, because they start from different sets and formations, they are not grouped together, so eliminating such redundancies is a true pain. There is no option to see similar plays and streamline the playbook. This is a great addition in theory, but could still use a little more work in practice.
Technically speaking, this is the best Madden game ever, but is that really saying that much? Madden 11 could make the same claim, and Madden 13 will be able to as well. The game keeps getting a little better, but at what cost? The issue with casual improvement is that there’s no reason to buy the game every year. If you wait two or three years, you can be the recipient of the improvements that have accumulated over that time, improvements that should have been included in a single year. If you buy Madden this year, you probably won’t have to next year.