This has been an uncertain year for football, and Madden was no exception. The game itself was sure to come out, but the NFL was faced with a lockout that would have killed an entire season of football for the first time ever. It was an event that would not have destroyed Madden, but could have dealt it serious harm. Fortunately the lockout was averted and, even though the title had to be pushed back two weeks, the game released to fans who were gracious for football’s return.
Madden 12 starts off with a video of larger than life moments from the previous NFL season, backed by the instantly recognizable ‘Mind Heist’ from the movie Inception. In many ways, this introduction sums up the Madden experience very well. It has become spectacle, far evolved past the old mantra of ‘if it’s in the game, it’s in the game’, and is surpassed only by the sport it emulates. But away from the hype train, beneath the majesty and the mystique, troubling cracks are beginning to show in the foundation. If an ego becomes large enough, there comes a point where it no longer recognizes its own imperfections. Playing Madden this year, I think that the erstwhile series has stepped very close to a ledge with a long fall.
I don’t believe it was hubris that has brought them to this point; I think that Madden simply isn’t familiar with the concept of failure. Madden 06 through 09 were the closest EA Sports had ever come to that, due to missteps and half-baked ideas on the next generation consoles, but Madden 10 stepped back from the ledge and returned the series to the standard it had so long enjoyed. Madden 11 faltered afterward, featuring a microtransaction-encouraging, card-collecting mode that left longtime franchise players in the cold, a broken new play selection system, and an incomprehensible change to pre-snap adjustments dubbed the ‘strategy pad’.
The card-slinging Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) mode is still present, and is obviously here to stay. There’s nothing wrong with the mode in and of itself, but it’s become the vehicle by which EA can try to convince players to spend more money within the game. Prepare to see a great many helpful reminders for the new EA Season Pass, too, which makes purchasing those Madden Coins 20% cheaper.
An issue that MUT heralds is a lack of support for other modes that don’t have the extra monetary potential of MUT. It already happened this year: Online Franchise got skipped over entirely, and Superstar mode is a joke. And it wasn’t as if MUT got huge upgrades either, instead only adding the option to trade cards, and new legend and player cards. The mode is full featured, to be sure, and players that are collecting fiends with some extra money to burn will love it. A large contingent of players won’t though, and yet EA has positioned it to be one of the top two modes. So the writing’s on the wall, and all that.
Not to be completely doom and gloom, offline franchise and physics got a good amount of attention this year. Physics saw the same line-wide improvements that other EA Sports games received, namely that tackling and impacts have been freed from their animation bondage. Madden did feel strangely restrictive when compared to NCAA and NHL, but I saw it as an attempt to keep the image of hard fought NFL yardage (compared to the wide-open nature of the NCAA).
Offline franchise saw the addition of a free agency mechanic that turns the formerly boring part of the off-season into an exciting auction against other teams. A couple of other welcome new ideas are the ability to trade future draft picks, and cut days in the preseason. Future draft pick trading is self-explanatory, but cut days now mean that you start with an expanded roster of 75 players and use the preseason to evaluate them, and trim your roster to the league standard 53 players.
Other changes to franchise, like dynamic player performance and rookie scouting, were unnoticeable after a fashion. Dynamic player performance was supposed to demonstrate how players go on hot and cold streaks (both in a game and in prior weeks) and how that can affect their play, making an unknown player great, or a great player entirely average. The problem is that without actually looking at their skill levels (you’ll see pluses or minuses to attributes, depending on their performance) I never noticed a difference in play. Rookie scouting – which is done on designated weeks during the season – was a non-factor only because, when it came to the draft, computer-controlled teams gunned for every player I had scouted. This resulted in me always having to take players on blind faith, which defeats the purpose of having weeks and weeks of scouting. I would hope that occurrence is some sort of bug, but it’s inexcusable in any case, and happened two franchise years in a row.
There’s some other oddities that happened, like rain in every home game, or preseason games putting starting players into very odd positions after the first quarter (I had Andre Johnson line up against me at corner during a Jets vs. Texans preseason game), but I’m glad that offline franchise got any love at all. It would have made sense to transpose some of the new features from offline into the online version, but alas, no love for online franchise.