August 30, 2011
The most consistent yearly criticism of Madden is that it doesn't innovate, and it's 95 percent the same every season. New annual editions are pretty much just roster updates, the criticism goes, because EA Sports, without any real pro football competition, can rest on its laurels.
This year, the Madden people seemed hellbent on beating those critics back. They promised an overhauled franchise mode, all new defensive intelligence, an all new collision system, as well as a shiny new presentation that promises to make the game prettier than Brady Quinn(notes).
They talked a big game. Did they deliver?
I'll hit what I feel like are the important points here. You should know upfront that I'm a franchise mode specialist. I don't dabble much in online play, Superstar mode, or Madden Ultimate Team, so if those are your areas of interest, I can't help you much. If you're a Franchise person, buckle in.
I hate to start with a criticism, and I know it isn't fair to the rest of the hard work that went into the game, but the commentary here is a crime against the video game community. It's inexcusable. It is worse than anything else is good. And I feel justified in talking about it first, because it's the thing that stands out the most upon popping the disc in your console.
I can't overemphasize how bad it is. The game commentary in Madden '12 is the worst in any sports video game since this happened. It's inexplicable that this happened in 2012. They might as well have hired this guy to do the commentary.
Gus Johnson will sound completely different from one statement to the next, with his soundbites clearly having been recorded at different times and at different levels. One sentence will sound like he recorded it clearly in a proper studio, and the next will sound like he smoked seven packs of Marlboro Reds and then recorded a cell phone call underwater. It's jarring.
And not only is the execution bad, but so is the theory behind it. Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth are not the right choices for this. Gus yelling works perfectly well in a real, organic, exciting game situation. In a video game environment, where you're trying to artificially match Gus' enthusiasm to what's happening in the game, it doesn't work. It's too hard to get right.
As far as Collinsworth goes, his style isn't right, either. The long, meandering thoughts are great in the NBC booth, but when you apply them to a video game, and you're hearing the same long things, said the same exact way, again and again and again, it makes you want to stab Cris Collinsworth in the throat.
In four straight games, he said the exact same thing about Antonio Gates(notes). It's a long season. I'm not going to keep listening to that. And when he broke out the "Listen, I would never, ever want a block a d-lineman" paragraph that I heard 892,947 times last year, I was done.
I turned the commentary off. I've never done that before in a video game. I can't imagine how the game developers let this happen.
The pregame camera shots and in-stadium player intros seem like something the Madden people were really proud of this year, but to be honest with you, they have failed to move me.
It's not that they're bad. They're not; in fact, they're really good. But when you're playing the game in franchise mode, and half your games are in the same stadium, it just loses its appeal really quickly. It's nice, but how many times can you see it before you're skipping through it?
I'd probably complain if they hadn't changed it, either, but it's my own opinion that that time could've been better spent elsewhere.
The Franchise Mode Improvements
This is the milkshake that brought me to the yard. I play almost exclusively in Franchise mode, and I felt like I was owed an upgrade here. EA promised a significant one, which they haven't had in quite some time.
I don't feel like I was shortchanged. There are changes, there are upgrades, and I like them. They're maybe not as polished as they should be, but they're there, and for the most part, they work. Each big franchise change gets its own section.
The first thing you'll see is that you start with a 75-man roster at the start of each preseason, and you've got to cut players before each preseason game. If they're rookies, you will not know exactly how good these players are. You get more information as you progress through each preseason game, but not enough to make a definitive call. You end up having to choose between cutting a serviceable veteran backup and a young guy who is probably going to suck, but might not. It forces you to make some decisions, which is what a new addition should do. I approve.
There's kind of a way to game this little system, if you happen to not like it. During the free-agent bidding system (more on that in a second), you can just sign 16 or 20 guys with ratings under 50 to one-year deals with no bonus, and you can cut them in the preseason with no penalty. It's not sporting, it kind of defeats the purpose, but it's a way around it, if you want it.
But I like the cut days, and I'm slightly ashamed of myself for thinking of a way around it. I'm going to work on forgetting that.
Scouting System / Draft
The news isn't as good on the new "scouting" system. There's not much to it, it doesn't ask a lot of thought of the user, and it doesn't leave you with anything rewarding. Swing. Whiff.
When the draft rolls around, you don't just see a list of players and their ratings. You see a list of guys, where they're projected to be drafted, and that's about it. Now, drafting is an inexact science, so I get the idea of pumping some mystery into the proceedings, but here's the problem: You can scout as much as the game will possibly let you, and when draft time rolls around, you'll have the complete rating on, at most, five players. You can have a few of the attributes of 20 or more guys, but those numbers aren't particularly helpful.
I'm chalking this up in the fail category. It was a nice try, and you can see the idea behind it, but I just can't get behind a system that leaves you so frustratingly short on information when draft time comes around. If you haven't scouted a guy, you don't have access to anything -- his 40 time, his bench press reps, his cone drill, nothing. It's like scouting in 1872, before the Internet, fax machines or even phones. You only know how good a guy is if you happen to be his neighbor.
Swing. Boom. Maybe not a home run here, but a solid double. The off-season free-agent process you were used to is gone, and in its place is a system that's faster, more exciting, and more fun.
It's nothing that gets anyone any closer to realism, but that's fine -- I think we're at the point now where things have gotten so close to real that it's time to shift back towards things that are fun, whether or not they mimic reality. Many times, reality sucks.
When you start the free-agency process, you get a list of guys who are available, and the second that you or anyone else bids on someone, the clock starts. Two minutes later, the highest bidder will own that player. What makes it tricky is that every player is being bid on at the same time, and that can be a dozen or two dozen guys. If you get caught poking around looking for something in particular while you're bidding on multiple players, the Vikings are going to step in and railroad you at the last second.
Think of it like this. You need to buy seven different things on eBay, and with each thing you need, there are two or three different options. Every single auction ends within about two minutes of each other.
It forces you to have a plan heading into free agency. If you need to upgrade multiple positions, if you go in and wing it, you're probably going to get burned.
It feels like there's room for improvement here, too. I don't mean this as a complaint, but it definitely feels like the first year for this system. Which it is. But it's a good system and a quality addition, and it's got room to grow with some tweaks and little additions for next year.
Player Improvement/Degradation in Franchise Mode
A player's ratings will jump or slide way more dramatically from year-to-year than they ever have in the past. Before, a guy would improve a little each year until he was about 26, stay in his prime for about five years, then start a slow decline. In Madden' 12, you might have Chad Ochocino at an 84 overall in 2013, and in 2014, he's a 72.
A guy can make an eight or nine-point jump, too. If he was riding pine before, and then he suddenly shines in a starting role, his ratings will jump. It better mimics the frequent breakout stars or immediate, Favre-ish slides into sucktown that we see in the NFL from year to year.
How The Game Looks and Plays
In a word, brilliantly. The game looks and plays brilliantly. After pounding NCAA Football '12 into the ground for a month, it took a slight bit of getting used to, but that's fine. That's the way it should be. I want them to be two different games, and they really, really are.
The player movement, and the individual ways that different guys do different things is outstanding. Philip Rivers'(notes) weird from-the-shoulder throw is as different from Michael Vick's(notes) cannon in the game as it is on your television. Even running styles and strides are different. You could spend days going through all the little variations and nuances in individual player performances.
Tackles and collisions are smoother and more natural than they've ever been, by far. You'll play game after game and not notice a ton of repetition in the way guys are tackled or the way they fall. It seems like there are countless ways for one player to hit another, and it makes it really gratifying to have an aggressive, hard-hitting defense. I'm all for the player safety measures in the real NFL, but in the video game world, I want to make Wayne Gretzky's head bleed for superfan #99 over here.
There's also a new little gimmick in the game called "Dynamic Player Performance," wherein a guy's rankings will go up and down in any given game. It's noticeable, and it adds an enjoyable wrinkle to the gameplay. You'll notice that quarterbacks can get hot against you. You'll also notice that if you're beating them into the turf and maybe you force an interception or two, they will turtle and cry and not want to play anymore, at which point, you'll just destroy them.
I'm sure there's more to the Dynamic Player Performance than that, but the effect on quarterback play, to me, to this point, has been the most noticeable. I've also had a punter on a cold streak who couldn't drop a ball into a specific area if he was playing bocce on sand.
Let me say this again before I start in with a few gameplay quibbles: The game plays magnificently. I'm trying to avoid letter or number grades here, because I don't think those are fair, but if I had to, I'd give the action between the whistles an A. It is challenging, fun, smooth and nearly hiccup-free.
Nearly. There are still times when a fullback or pulling guard will run right past someone they should obviously block. This is officially now Madden's longest-running feature. I am convinced that the CEO of EA Sports personally hates all fullbacks and wants them to look silly and has vowed to make them run right by potential tacklers in Madden every year until he is dead. It's the only way to explain why this is still happening.
Also, replays and challenges don't seem to work as well as they do in NCAA '12. In dozens of challenged calls in the college game, only once or twice has the reviewed call not been accurate to what actually happened on the field. In Madden, the first two I saw were blown.
I don't think player faces are where they should be. Most guys bear a solid resemblance to their real life counterparts, but too many of them look like evil versions of themselves.
Every middle linebacker in the league has the vertical leap of Dr. J.
I'm glad we can trade future draft picks now, but the rest of the trading system remains in 1994. I can't get a counteroffer? I can't get some kind of feedback? The other GM can't tell me if I'm close, or if he suspects me of drinking heavily before I make these calls?
The musical selections, I'm pretty happy with. There are two or three songs I really like (Tribe!), two or three that are just ridiculous, and a handful on which I am neutral. You can't really expect much more than that. I also really like the two or three words that aren't censored in the Lil' Wayne song.
All incoming rookies seem to get a giant set of shoulder pads. I don't know why. It bothers me.
The first few times I tried it in Franchise mode, importing a draft class from NCAA '12 worked perfectly. Then it stopped working.
All in All
There was a real effort to change and upgrade this year, and that's good. They didn't nail everything, but I'd rather they swing for the fences and pull it foul down the line than stick with the safe, conservative bunts that we usually get.
If you've got any interest at all, it's worth a purchase, or at least a rental. It doesn't redefine the genre and I don't think it will win any sports game of the year awards, but you can have fun playing this game. It's smooth enough and has enough new stuff that I believe it will have a better-than-average replay value.
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