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Madden NFL 12 box art

Madden NFL 12

In a Nutshell

  • Graphics: 83
    Images are generally crisp and smooth. 3-D grass is an unnoticeable novelty, and stadium exteriors often look like plastic toys. Nice effort though.
  • Gameplay: 71
    Smoother animations and a better sense of control don't come close to making up for poor receiver play, abysmal special teams, and a complete lack of double team pass blocking. When will officials ever get their corporeal bodies back?
  • Production: 65
    A lot of presentational adjustments and significantly improved Franchise mode make this one of the most complete feature sets in a Madden game on the current generation. General gameplay and strategic options show a complete lack of effort or innovation.
  • Sound: 10
    Commentary is still as bad as last year. All the NFL Films music is gone, leaving only a miserable collection of modern rap, hip hop, and pop rock.
  • Value: 65
    Having to pay extra to play the game online if you buy used (or rental) will hurt the game's long-term online appeal, but the added depth in the Franchise mode may keep some players coming back to single-player throughout the fall.
  • Overall Score: 59

Once again, this review is exceptionally late. The football season is almost over, and Madden has already sold its bazillion copies for this year. So anything I say here is kind of moot when it comes to helping people decide whether or not to buy this year’s game. But maybe – just maybe – my critiques will help the developers provide us with a better game in the 7 or so months that they have left to make Madden 13.

Table of contents:

It seems like all the real inspiration is going into the NCAA game

After being thoroughly disappointed with last year’s Madden game, and not being won over by either the new demo or the gameplay in NCAA 12, I didn’t rush out to buy Madden 12 on day one. I waited till September and bought the game used. This also contributed significantly to the tardiness of this review.

Overall, Madden still just seems uninspired, even when compared to EA’s NCAA Football game. All the same gameplay enhancements go into both games each year now, but NCAA has at least taken some efforts to better represent its sport. Setting up “linked” plays is simplistic but was a start towards a better representation of football strategy. Integration of the No-Huddle offense into the game is a bit clumsy, but is a major component of modern college football, and is thusly represented in that game. Requiring the QB to “read” the defense on option plays doesn’t work as well as last year, but it’s actually an important part of the option strategy. The ability to make in-game adjustments (such as changing zone depth, telling running backs to hold onto the ball instead of risking fumbles by breaking tackles, etc) has been de-emphasized the past two years, but at least makes an effort to allow the player to custom-tailor their style of play to counter what their opponent is doing. The collegiate look and atmosphere really looks and sounds like Saturday afternoons, and the ESPN integration is actually pretty slick at times.

In trying to differentiate itself from Madden (so that people will buy it), the team working on NCAA has actually pushed the envelope of football video gaming slightly further by trying to better represent the unique strategies and schemes of college football; whereas, Madden has just been sitting on its laurels for about 7 years, refusing to really innovate. This entire hardware generation has been completely squandered by EA when it comes to making football games. Madden still just feels like 11-on-11 NFL Blitz without all the smack-talking and over-the-top hits that made Blitz fun. EA hasn’t tried to implement any of the advanced strategy that is involved in football or incorporate any of the intricacies that go into gameplanning and play design on a week-to-week basis. The most advanced “strategic” features available in Madden are the defensive assignments, package substitutions, and the expanded rosters – the first two of which were already included in football games almost 10 years ago, and one of which is almost completely nullified by the new GameFlow feature introduced last year.

So why's it so bad?

Even though Tiburon took some strides in improving the on-the-field gameplay by reducing suction, warping, and other issues that have plagued the game, Madden is still overly dependent on the arbitrariness of its scripted animations (or lack thereof) and its lazy AI system.

PRO-TAK is gone, and consecutive hit tackles are in

The PRO-TAK system that tended to completely ignore momentum and which kept certain players from interacting with the play at all has been completely scrapped in favor of a collision system more similar to NFL 2K5 and earlier versions of Madden (’09 and prior). This may seem like a regression, but it’s actually an improvement. The PRO-TAK system seemed promising when it was introduced in Madden 2010, but after 2 years, it just didn’t work, and EA has apparently also decided that it’s a bust. They’ve supplemented this change by significantly reducing the frequency and severity of player suction, warping, and sliding and introducing “consecutive hit tackling”. This allows defenders to hit the ball-carrier even while a tackle animation with another defender is in progress. This is a technique in football called “wrap up and clean up”, and it works in most situations in Madden 12.

This is probably the best addition to the on-field action this year. You don’t always have to wrap up the ball-carrier to bring him down. You can now slow him down or throw him off balance and then follow-up with a tackle from another player. Sometimes, these consecutive hit animations can be comboed together to great effect, but it’s rare.

Madden NFL 12 - jumping catch in traffic.

Madden NFL 12 - jumping catch in traffic.

[LEFT] Consecutive hits give the player a greater sense of control on defense. [RIGHT] Tumbleweed tackles still show up with alarming regularity, but fortunately they've been cleverly disguised as failed lunging tackles.

But there are still instances in which players “tumbleweed” and just fall to the ground next to the ball-carrier instead of actually contributing to the tackle. The “tumbleweed” animation is much improved this year, though, and has been cleverly camouflaged as the defender lunging and missing the tackle.

No wasted movement wastes the game’s potential

Removing suction, sliding, and warping seems to have also exposed numerous other problems which were previously obscured by the suction, sliding, and warping. The most obviously noticeable issue is that the game doesn’t punish runners for excessive lateral movement – or “wasted motion” as it is called by many commentators and analysts. Excessively fast players (like Chris Johnson) have too much of an advantage because they can change direction too easily and don’t have to slow down for anything, giving them too much break-away speed. That is, unless you turn the speed threshold up in the options, but that’s cheating and just causes players to run in place or hit imaginary walls to slow them down. As such, I set the speed threshold to zero for a more realistic experience. This was supposed to have been fixed last year by the “locomotion” system, but it didn’t fix it then, and it doesn’t fix it now. Was the locomotion system ditched in addition to PRO-TAK?

This is further exacerbated by the default game speed seeming too fast. Players can move halfway across the field in the blink of an eye and zig zag all over the place. Runners also have an irritating habit of “pinballing” between defenders. Sometimes, tackle animations aren’t triggered even when the runner comes into contact with a defender. In these instances, the runner just bounces off the defender and keeps going as if nothing has happened. When running up the middle of the field, this can sometimes result in the runner bouncing back and forth between two, three, four, or more defenders without any tackle animation ever being triggered (or at least a missed/broken tackle). It looks ridiculous.

Pass blockers need to learn to double team

Blocking has also been significantly changed by the removal of suction, sliding, and warping. On the upside, it is now possible to squeeze through small gaps between defenders who are being blocked, instead of the defender suddenly sliding off the block and bringing down the runner. Defensive linemen are also now much better at getting into the backfield and pressuring the QB because they don’t get warped into blocks from offensive linemen that are clearly being beat.

I’ve also noticed that with the proper tuning of the fatigue setting, offensive linemen will tend to get flagged for Holding and commit false starts more often when they are tired. This is a subtle little thing that I’ve never noticed before, but which stood out while playing Madden 12.

But like with running, there are still significant (almost game-breaking) problems. Defensive linemen will still be pseudo-warped into blocks by turning around to engage blockers even if they are already past the blocker. Ugh. It’s also very difficult to control the line of scrimmage because defensive linemen don’t have any animations allowing them to reach through or around blocks to try to grab the runner. So runners can run right by any defender engaged in a block with virtually no threat of being tackled or even slowed down.

Madden NFL 12 - pass blocking.
Pass blockers can't double team defenders. So when if you keep extra guys in for additional protection, and the defense only rushes three or four, you get guys standing around doing nothing.

The biggest problem with blocking is the lack of double-team blocking on passing plays. This was never really noticeable in previous years because of all the suction involved in blocking animations. But now that most of that suction has been eliminated, the lack of double-team blocking has become a big problem. Each defender, therefore, only has to beat one blocker in order to get to the quarterback. The number of pass-protectors that the offense can actually utilize is essentially capped by the number of pass rushers that the defender uses. Keeping extra players in to block (like tight ends) only serves to pull these players out of being able to run routes because they just end up standing around doing nothing.

This also hurts play action passes because defenders get too much penetration and easy sacks due to the inability to double-team pass block, and the large amount of time it takes for QBs to complete the play action animations.

Psychic defensive backs and passive receivers ruin the passing game

But the lack of double team pass blocking is not nearly as big of a hinderance to the passing game as the two other major issues that have really bothered me for years: psychic defenders, and passive wide receivers. Receivers do not fight for the ball or play defense if the defender is in a better position to catch the ball. Sometimes, the receivers even fall to the ground with their arm wrapped around thin air as if they caught the ball, even though they didn’t. And while the wide receivers are completely oblivious to the defense, the defensive backs themselves are far too aware of where the ball is. Defensive backs can make blind, leaping catches without ever seeing the football. 

And they don’t need to ever look at the ball, QB, or receiver in order to make plays. This seems like a trivial thing, but trying to squeeze a pass in to a receiver while the defender isn’t looking is a key part of strategy in many team’s passing attacks. It’s absolutely critical to the Green Bay Packers’ success with the back-shoulder passes. If the QB sees that the defender has his back turned, then he should be able place the ball in specific places on the field where the receiver can react to it and the defender can’t, putting the defender out of position and giving the receiver a chance at a big play. Alternatively, QBs can try to force pass interference by underthrowing the ball to covered receivers while the defender’s back is turned. But you can’t do this in Madden because the defenders can just turn around in a split second and knock down or intercept the ball.

Madden NFL 12 - jumping catch in traffic.
That annoying David Tyree jumping catch-tackle is has thankfully been removed in favor or more consistently-believable jump catches in traffic.

Zone defenses were supposedly improved in this year’s game, but it mostly seems superficial. Defensive backs can be seen “handing off” receivers to other defenders. Zone coverages are generally tighter, but a lot of zone plays end up being way too shallow. Short, drop-off passes are almost impossible to be successful with. It’s not as bad as in NCAA, which has completely removed WR screens as a viable play. But screens are still a crap-shoot in Madden anyway. They have been for years. Sometimes they work, but they just aren’t the “safe, easy completions” that they are supposed to be. The play takes too long to develop. Linemen don’t slow down pass rushers at all, leading to too many sacks, and when they do get to the outside, they don’t even touch any of the defenders in the shallow zones or in man coverage against the screen’s intended receiver. It’s way too hard to hit the screen receiver while he’s in motion, so he usually has to stop and come back to catch the ball, leaving him open to be blown up by the defensive linemen. Screens do seem to work considerably better after a few patches, though, but they are still a much more risky play than they should be.

Just watch a CPU team try to execute a screen pass to see just how messed up these  plays are. The CPU QB will often get stuck trying to scramble and get sacked because there’s too much pressure. But this is intended as part of the design of the play! The QB shouldn’t have to scramble on a screen pass!

And in the end, it’s really the AI issues like this that really hurt the game from a simulation stand-point. The game’s AI is so bad, that in order to give the appearance of being competitive, the game has to “cheat” in order to add challenge. It has to force players to behave in defiance of their attributes and tendencies. It allows players to make plays completely blind with no knowledge of what’s going on around them. And many situations just feel too scripted and lack dynamicism. 

I also really miss the ability to double-tap a receiver’s icon button in order to pump fake to him. I don’t remember if previous Madden games allowed this, or if it was just in the NFL 2K games, but it works a lot better than Madden’s current control. In Madden 12, you have to hold the L2 button and then press the button of the receiver in order to pump fake to him. This requires a little bit more dexterity (especially if you want to pump fake to the L1 receiver), and it also requires that you have the pump fake pre-planned. With the double-tap control, you have a valuable last-instant opportunity to effectively “cancel” a pass and pull the ball down if you realize that the receiver isn’t actually open.

Will special teams ever be fixed?

Another area that hasn’t been touched at all in years is special teams.

Oh wait, they did add the gimmicky surprise onside kick, and they changed the kick meter back to one similar to the PSX and PS2-era kick meters (for better or worse). I don’t like this new [old] kick meter because it’s too easy, and I really liked the analog-stick-based kick meter in previous PS3 Maddens and modern NCAA. The camera angle has also been changed to look more like a broadcast angle. It makes it very difficult to aim your kicks. Most people will probably just change back to the old camera, but since there’s a button that we have to press to make kicks accurate, why don’t they just draw the entire kick trajectory?

Other than that, special teams is unchanged, is a complete mess, and it has been for years. CPU punters punt the ball too high and shallow to allow an opportunity for returns. Changing the special teams “Punt Power” sliders in the options (which is strangely not available in-game even though the offense and defensive sliders are available) only seems to make human punters more powerful and doesn’t seem to affect AI punt depth. Punt return blockers run too deep (sometimes deeper than the returner), and then don’t block anybody anyway. They get awefully close to where the ball hits the ground, so if your returner lets it bounce, you always have to worry about whether or not they’ll accidentally touch the ball. In addition to the “fair catch” button, there should be a “get away” button to tell your blockers to run away from the ball so they don’t accidentally touch it like morons.

And why can’t we audible when punting the ball?! Whenever the player picks Punt Block on defense, the CPU automatically lines up in a Max Protect formation. The human player, on the other hand, gets no indication that the AI is going to run a Punt Block, and since you can’t audible to Max Protect, the only way to protect yourself is to call a timeout. Not that it matters, since punters punt the ball way too quickly anyway, so punts are virtually impossible to block. Field goals are also virtually impossible to block without exploiting the game’s AI, since defenders aren’t aware enough to reach their hand up and block the kick if they actually do get penetration, and defensive linemen’s height and arm length doesn’t even seem to come into play at all. And the field goal block formation still lines up a nose guard directly over the Center, even though that is now illegal in the NFL!

Ball physics are also suspect. The ball never bounces backwards on punts and kickoffs, which makes pinning a team down inside the 10 very hard, as you have to place it perfectly along the sideline in order to prevent it from bouncing through the endzone. It also makes squib kicks useless.

I also don’t understand why there aren’t any more complex choices in special teams plays. There’s no wall returns, no designed hook-and-ladder plays, no reverse returns, no overloading one side of the field goal blocking scheme in an attempt to block it, etc.

Furthermore, you can’t set depth charts or formation subs for special teams (in fact, formation subs still aren’t in the game at all despite being in NCAA). So if you want to use your 3rd string QB or a running back or punter as the field goal holder, you can’t. If you want to specifically assign your backups and rookies to play kickoff and punt coverage, you can’t. You’re stuck with whatever default special teams rosters that the game decides to give you. You can figure out what backups in which positions are used in special teams, but why not just have a screen allowing you to set this manually? Or better yet, bring back formation subs!

Madden NFL 12 - reverse field goal.

Madden NFL 12 - field goal menu.

[LEFT] The camera angle on field goals reverses if you pause the game, but the controls stay the same. Also notice that the selected player (the nose guard on the blocking team) is lined up directly over the offensive long snapper. Last I checked, this has been illegal in the NFL for several years. [RIGHT] Oh, and they stopped showing wind speed and direction in the play-call screen.

Depth and simulation are sacrificed for the casual player

There’s other really irritating problems with this game that make it almost unplayable from the standard of being a simulation of the sport of football.

Once again, the CPU quarterbacks snap the ball way too quickly when they’re on offense. It’s not as bad as NCAA, but it still leaves the player with virtually no time to make pre-play defensive adjustments. Oh, but they wait like 10 seconds before snapping the ball on field goals and punts. Probably so as to prevent the user from jumping the snap to get a free block. There also isn’t an “Original Play” audible for defense. So if you accidentally audible or hot route and screw things up (happens rather frequently), you can’t go back to the play that was originally called without burning a timeout.

Speaking of not having enough time, after injury timeout cutscenes, you only have about 20 seconds to pick a play, line up, and get the ball snapped. This leads to a lot of delay of game penalties after injuries when I am on offense. In a real football game, the coaches would be able to plan out what play they’re going to run while the injured player is evaluated. In Madden 12, you can’t. The playcall window doesn’t appear until after the cutscene of the injury has been completed.

The challenge mechanic is also fundamentally broken (has been for years). You don’t have the ability to select which specific element of the play you want to challenge. So if multiple questionable events happen, it’s entirely random which one you’ll end up challenging. For example, I once had a play in which my running back fumbled. The ball was picked up by a linebacker and returned 80 yards for a touchdown because my 20-points-of-speed-faster wide receiver couldn’t catch up to the linebacker. I challenged the play thinking that the runner was down by contact. There wasn’t an instant replay, so I didn’t have a chance to see the player first. But instead of reviewing the fumble, the game decided to review the spot of the ball – whether or not the defender crossed the plane of the endzone – even though he was untouched. The play was, of course, upheld.

Even worse, I went into the instant replay afterwards to see if there actually was a fumble. But I couldn’t see it because it took the linebacker more than 10 seconds to run 80 yards for the score, so the fumble itself was not captured in the 10-second-limit that the instant replays are given. Maybe this element of the play wasn’t reviewed because it wasn’t captured in the replay?

The game is very inconsistent about showing instant replays, so it’s hard to decide whether a play is worth challenging to begin with. I assume that if the game doesn’t show a replay, you should probably assume that there’s no need to challenge, even if I think the call on the field was wrong.

Clock management is also still an issue. The AI sometimes runs the hurry-up, and then just sits at the line of scrimmage running out the clock. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it really breaks the immersion. But what really bugs me is that the Accelerated Clock is disabled during the last two minutes of a half. I realize that EA did this so that players don’t complain about the game taking time away from them in crucial situations, but the two minute drill is the time in the game when the accelerated clock makes the most sense! It’s too easy to just hop into the play call screen and quickly call an automatically-selected play, then be lined up without taking any time off the clock. Simulating the time it takes to huddle up and call a play would make proper use of the no-huddle offense much more valuable.

It would also make QB kneel down situations go much faster.

This could be easily resolved by just adding an additional setting to the Game Options: “Accelerated Clock inside 2 minutes: On | Off”. That way, players who want it can use it. While players who don’t want to be “screwed over” can turn it off.

Lastly: why are officials still inanimate objects? Sure, they are rendered on the screen, but officials can’t make physical contact with the players or the ball – they just go right through each other. The referee does not have to re-spot the ball after plays (which would also help make the 2-minute drill more realistic). And they don’t actually throw flags on penalties. These may seem like minor, nagging things, but they aren’t. The officials are on the field. Interacting with them is part of football! Receivers in real football use the referees to “pick” defenders in coverage, and runners often try to use the refs as an extra blocker. But you can’t do any of these things in Madden. But what really grinds my gears here is that you could do these things in previous versions of Madden – going all the way back to the PlayStation ONE! Yes, on the PS1, the refs were physical entities that can be run into, knocked over, get in the way of players, or be hit with the ball. On the PS1, there were actually animations of the refs picking up and respotting the ball between every play.

Franchise gets some fan-requested attention

Last year’s game made absolutely no improvements to its Franchise Mode since the previous year. It was embarrassing. This year, EA tried to make up for this by introducing a handful of “fan requested” features to the Franchise mode. The developers even go out of their way to remind you in the load screens that these new features are “what we [the fans] asked for”.

Madden NFL 12 - loading screen hubris.
We asked for it! I guess EA deserves credit for finally starting to listen to the fans, but do they have to shove it in our face that their crappy product is "what we asked for"?

Players can now go on hot or cold streaks if they perform exceptionally well or horribly bad in a given game. These streaks cause a temporary increase or decrease in ratings and can persist through several weeks before the ratings are returned to default. This is a cool addition, and helps to improve the ebb and flow of the season.

The in-franchise practice mode is also back, and the injured reserve now works properly by freeing up a roster space to sign a replacement player without having to cut the injured player.

Those are both just the return of old features or bug fixes, so I’m not going to get too excited about them.

The big new change (for me) is the inclusion of expanded pre-season rosters. You can now go into the pre-season with a roster of 70+ players and must cut a certain number of players each week before returning to the 53-man roster requirement at the start of the regular season. This adds a bit of intrigue to the pre-season, as it allows you to evaluate and develop young talent. You can actually play a few games with your newly-drafted rookie to see if he’s worth holding onto before you release a veteran player to make room for him.

I was disappointed that you can’t maintain a practice/scout team though. When you cut players, they are removed from your roster and go into the regular free agent pool. You can’t stash them away on a practice squad to use in case you need a replacement for an injured player later on down the road. This isn’t a big deal though, as you can usually just re-sign the player to a one-year contract if you end up needing him later on to replace an injured player (assuming the injured player goes onto the IR) or if you want to try him out again next pre-season.

Pre-season substitution logic is a little bit better than in previous years too. Starters are now rotated to the bottom of the depth chart at halftime, instead of just being swapped with the second-string players. But this leads to some new problems. Since the game fills lower positions on the depth chart with the best player available (including sometimes players from another position), you can still see starting running backs being subbed in as third or fourth wide receivers, starting safeties being subbed in as nickel and dime corners, or starting outside linebackers being subbed in as a 3-4 middle linebacker, and so on. Starters will also still frequently get subbed into special teams. In a pre-season game between the Bears and the Titans, my kick returners kept getting tackled by Chris Johnson, as he had been subbed into the kick coverage team.

I applaud EA for changing the way that the sub logic works. This approach was actually something that I have been suggesting on forums for years! Although, in practice, it turns out that this suggestion still doesn’t quite work as I had hoped. I’m a big enough boy to admit when I’m wrong. So this idea needs a bit more fine-tuning. Perhaps starters need to be marked in some way as “starters” and be completely removed from the depth chart at halftime. Even though it’s still a bit rough around the edges, the expanded rosters is a fantastic step in the right direction for the series, as it adds a small new wrinkle to the game’s strategic depth. I hope to see EA continue to expand on this idea next year.

In fact, the expanded rosters are probably the first attempt at true innovation in the game’s Franchise mode since the introduction of “Weapons” in Madden 08. A variant of that mechanic has returned this year, called “Player roles”, in which players can have various characteristics that affect their on-field performance. These range from “Franchise Quarterback” to “Return specialist” to “Underachiever”, and affect both the given player’s performance and the performance of his teammates and opponents when he is involved in a play.

Madden NFL 12 - player tendencies.
Madden is finally trying to emulate the specific play styles of individual players! Now if only they could do the same for coaches and organizations as a whole...

A new player tendency system is also a big step in the right direction for the series. Every player now has a set of tendencies that attempt to better represent how that player performs in games and to differentiate players with different play styles. These tendencies will control different elements of players’ on-field habits such as whether or not a quarterback prefers to step up in the pocket or scramble, how prone a runner is to fumbling the ball, whether or not a kicker is “clutch”, how frequently a defender delivers a big hit, and so on. These tendencies are subtle, but effective, and you will notice a difference between a player like Jay Cutler and a guy like Drew Brees. I just wish that these tendencies would also include what kinds of injuries players usually succumb to. For example, it would be nice if the game would specify whether a given player tends to suffer small, nagging injuries like bruises and sprains; or does he tend to have to sit out the rest of a season with broken bones or concussions?

Recruiting fails to live up to its NCAA counterpart

In-season scouting has also been changed. You now uncover certain ratings for scouted players over the course of the season. Every player starts out with a “?” in all their ratings (even overall rating and potential). When you scout a player, some of these ratings will be revealed, and their overall rating will be adjusted based on the ratings that were scouted.

This new scouting feature had the potential to be a very involved and fun coach-like activity for players to perform in between games, but the implementation really causes it to fall flat on its face. You can only scout players at certain points during the season instead of every week, and you can only scout each individual player one time during the course of the season. Each time scouting is done, a different set of ratings is revealed for the players that you have chosen to scout during that session. But the game doesn’t list exactly which ratings are going to be scouted (only some examples of which ratings will be scouted); nor is there a screen that tells you what stats are going to be unlocked during each phase of the year. The game also doesn’t bother to notify you that you can only scout each player one time. So if you didn’t do your research to understand how the mechanic works in advance, you might end up scouting the wrong players at the wrong times and getting completely irrelevant results and never be able to re-scout them when the relevant ratings are being evaluated.

Also, you still have to import your NCAA 12 draft class into Madden at the start of the regular season, meaning that if you’re playing both games, you need to have your NCAA Dynasty be at least one full year ahead of your progress in Madden’s Franchise. Which is irritating.

“GamePlanning” feature doesn’t actually involve any game planning!

The GamePlanning feature from last year’s game has now been integrated into Franchise Mode as well, although not as deeply as I had hoped. You can now access your GamePlan from the Franchise menu, and custom playbooks have been added. So you’d think that this must be a really deep, useful, and strategic feature, right?

No. Not really.

There are some improvements. The GameFlow menu between plays now shows the opponent’s personnel package when you’re on defense (mostly), and it now shows what play is going to be called next and even gives you the option to toggle between different types of plays. On offense, you can chose from a normal GamePlanned play, a pass play, or a run play. On defense, you have the choice between the normal GamePlanned play, a conservative coverage play, or an aggressive blitz. You also have the option to jump to the full play-call screen if nothing suits your fancy or you have a specific play in mind.

This is also something that I specifically recommended to EA as a way to improve this feature last year. Kudos to them for listening to me. But the managed to screw it up.

First of all, the GameFlow menu doesn’t show you what formation your Gameplanned plays are in. So if the CPU offense is showing you a 4 WR set, you don’t know if you’re conservative “Cover 2 Man” Gameplan selection will be from the Nickel, Dime, or (worst case) basic sets. You also can’t see the jersey numbers of the opponent’s players on the field like you can in NCAA’s play-call screen. The normal GamePlanned play also doesn’t list whether it’s a run or a pass, so if you don’t recognize the play by name, then you might get confused. The menu is also really irritating in that every time you toggle between plays on the GameFlow menu, the plays change! So if the normally Gameplanned play is a Quick Slant, and you want to toggle to the running play selection just to see what was selected, but then decide that the Quick Slant call was a better choice, when you go back to the normal GamePlan play, it will have changed to something else! Why would the game do that?

Once again, special teams isn’t very well-thought-out. When you select “Go for it” on fourth down, you are given a blind GamePlanned play without any idea what it’s going to be. There’s no “Go for it” sub-menu that lets you see what play will be called and pick another one if you don’t like it. The GameFlow menu doesn’t even bother to show you wind direction or speed in kicking situations either, so it’s a little bit harder to decide whether or not to try for that 53 yard field goal on 4th and 3, or go for it.

The GameFlow widget also sometimes glitches and doesn’t even appear until after the post-play cutscene is over, at which point you only have 2 or 3 seconds to make your selection or else the game decides for you.

The thing that bothers me most about the GamePlanning feature is that it does such a poor job of emulating real football strategy, especially in Franchise Mode. And this is truly the biggest beef that I have with EA's football games.

Game planning in the NFL isn’t just about chosing which plays work for your team and then using them to the exclusion of all other factors. The strategy of football is more complex than that. It’s about personnel, matchups, and (most importantly) tendencies. EA has made absolutely zero effort to incorporate these ever-so-important elements of football strategy into its games in the seven years since 2K introduced the awesome VIP profiling system. Strategy and play-calling in Madden is still stuck in a PS1 level of sophistication, based almost exclusively around down and distance. There’s some new bells and whistles (such as package subs and new formations), but it’s all still based on down and distance.

When it all comes down to it, even though Madden has a feature called “Gameplan”, you aren’t actually the one who gets to do any of the game planning. You just have to execute the pre-defined gameplan that the Madden devs assigned to your team. And that game plan is the same in every single game of the season, regardless of your opponent, or the rate of success that you’ve had with that game plan. You don’t have to scout your opponent. You don’t have to rewrite your game plan based on personnel changes or opponent tendencies. You don’t have to practice your modified game plans or your opponent’s favored plays with your team before a game. You don’t have to do any of the interesting coach things that need to be done on a weekly basis in the NFL - and at every level of football! And most importantly, your AI opponents still don't learn or adapt to your gameplan. You can run the same exact plays in the same exact situations in every game, and the AI will never make the necessary adjustments to stop you.

Yeah sure, you can change your GamePlan between games, or alter your custom playbook, but the game doesn’t provide any tools to help you plan out what you need to do in a given week to beat your opponent. The playbook customizeation is very limited in the possible plays that are available, so even if you want to adjust your GamePlan to accommodate a specific opponent, you might not be able to. For example, if you are going up against the Eagles (with Mike Vick as QB), you have to know in advance that Vick is a very fast scrambling QB. The game doesn’t tell you that. But assuming that you know that already, if you want to adjust your defensive playbook and gameplan to include more QB spy plays, you still can’t do it. The base 4-3 and 3-4 formations only have one QB spy play in each of them. Other formations, such as Nickel and Dime, don’t have any QB Spy or DE Contain plays available at all! So you’re stuck having to use the defensive hot routes on every play in order to manually tell one of your players to stay in QB Spy. So much for game planning.

You have no freedom to really adjust your scheme if the playbook editor just doesn’t have the appropriate plays for the scheme you want. There are very few QB Spy and DE Contain plays in defensive formations. There is a serious lack of mixed man/zone coverage plays in defensive playbooks. Some offensive formations don’t have any draws, play action passes, or screens in them at all. The Wildcat formations often only have 3 plays in them total, so if you want to run the Wildcat, but want to do things with it that no other team is doing, then too bad, so sad. And so on. There just isn’t enough variety in any of the formations to really warrant bothering to make a custom playbook – especially a defensive one!

GamePlanning also completely ignores package substitutions, which is quite possibly the best thing that’s been added to the game from a strategy standpoint since formation audibles and hot routes. Game plans in the NFL aren’t just about having a play for a given situation. They are also about having the right combination of personnel in that play for it to be successful. Madden’s GamePlanning features completely neglect this aspect of the game. You can’t set specific package substitutions for specific plays in your custom GamePlan, nor can you toggle between different packages in the GameFlow menu. So if you want all your WR bubble screens to use your super-speedy rookie WR who’s currently 5th overall in your depth chart, then too bad. Going into the Depth Chart menu before picking the play in the GameFlow menu won’t even work, because when you unpause the game, the GameFlow menu will change the selected play anyway. So I guess it’s back to using the conventional play-call screen and going through the tedious motions of pausing the game to sub my intended personnel into a specific play via the depth chart screen.

Madden NFL 12 - main menu.
GamePlanning doesn't do justice to the real strategy of football (at any level), and the "strategy" features that are included are half-assed or completely broken. For example, using the "Defensive Adjustments" option in the "Coaching Strategy" menu on the pause screen to assign specific defenders to cover specific receivers will often break your other coverages, resulting in linebackers covering outside wide receivers (pictured) even when another Cornerback or Safety is available.

I could chose to just not use the GameFlow feature at all, but even then, the play-call screen has been dumbed down anyway because all the attention is going to the GameFlow method. I understand the value of the GameFlow feature for casual players and people who don’t know football very well. But the fact that we simulation fans are losing depth and strategic functionality to accommodate the ignorance of the “casual market” is absolutely intolerable!

Lazy presentation

Madden 12’s presentation is also horrible. There are a few small improvements to the game’s interface, and some new broadcast-influenced camera angles and cutscenes, but overall, the game looks lazy and sounds even worse.

The Strategy Pad from last year’s game is back, but it’s been significantly improved in this year’s game. You no longer have to push a button to bring it up, so once you have all the new controls memorized, it’s just as fast to use as the old control scheme. But if you need it, the option to switch to Madden 10 style comes in the game from the start.

The commentary is absolutely abysmal. We still don’t have any kind of pre-game, half-time, or post-game analysis. The extend of the pre-game analysis that we get is usually about home-field advantage and how hard it is for the away team to win on the road. Collinsworth talks about this before roughly 90% of all the games. It’s irritating because a lot of the new features are ripe for having accompanying commentary!

EA could have easily included some pre-game conversation about how player X is hot or cold streak. They could easily have been given a few lines of dialogue about certain players being fumble prone or interception prone to go along with the new player tendency feature. They could have easily included talk about position battles or evaluating players, especially in pre-season games. And so on.

But they didn't. Because they're lazy.

So instead, we have to listen to the same lines of dialogue every single game. Snore…

I honestly wish that EA would just drop Online play completely

That’s right. I said it. I wish EA would drop Online play.

Playing Madden online is a complete crock. The online community is full of cheesers and there’s really no room for simulation football fans to really fit into the game. Those of us who want a “chess match” with a human opponent are usually stuck having to play against Hail Mary-tossing, nano-blitzing, rocket-catching, hurry-up-offense-using brats who just want a quick, 20-minute pick-up game of “football” and who whine and quit at halftime if they’re losing by more than 14 points.

Madden NFL 12 - main menu.
All you have to do is look at the game's main menu screen to see what the developers actually care about. It's all about casual players who want quick pick-up games. That's why "Play Now", "Online", and "Ultimate Team" are the first three options on the menu, and "Franchise Mode" is tucked away underneath a submenu that's listed third. It's a sad time to be a simulation football gamer...

Allowing online play has seemingly caused a complete halt in the progression of single-player game AI. Despite the increased power of the PS3’s multi-core processor, and vastly more memory than was available on the PS2, CPU AI doesn’t seem to have advanced much at all. After all, if most of your players are just playing 20-minute pick-up games online, why bother creating innovative, new AI algorithms?

But as if encouraging a lazy single-player design isn’t bad enough, EA’s online gaming strategy is even more offensive.

EA is still using the “Online Pass”, in which you must put in a unique passcode in order to unlock online play. This code is provided on the instruction manual of new copies of the game, and once redeemed, it is no longer valid. This is intended solely to prevent people from buying the game used and still be able to play online. If you’re code isn’t active, you have to pay $10 in order to receive a new one.

The game is overpriced as it is. Either return online play to being completely free, or just drop online play altogether and focus on making the single-player and career mode experiences really shine.

Since there’s no way (that I could find) to download rosters other than to attempt to start an online match, people who buy the game used, lose the code insert, or don’t bother to activate the Online Pass will be unable to get roster updates. There’s a free, 2-day trial, but it’s a joke. I guess EA doesn’t trust their own game’s quality enough to give players more than 48 hours to think about whether it’s deserving of extended online play. Nope, gotta hook ‘em early. After all, who plays this crap past October, anyway?

Nitpicking

I also have some genuinely nitpicky complaints that I want to throw out there:

  • Players’ hand towels still sometimes hover in the air during cutscenes.
  • Some player faces just look horrible (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Stafford). Fitzpatrick look plastic and lifeless, and Stafford has giant, bug-eyes.
  • Player models still can’t be given tattoos.
  • The 3-D grass texture only looks 3-D when really close and at a low angle, otherwise it looks just like the old flat texture. And after about 7 yards, it just blurs into a fuzzy, pixilated mess anyway.
  • The scoreboard widget at the bottom of the screen sometimes glitches and disappears during post-play cutscenes and doesn’t reappear for several plays or until the game is paused and unpaused.
  • When you create or edit a playbook/gameplan in Franchise, there is no option to set that playbook/gameplan as the default for when you’re in Franchise. You have to either set it as the default for your profile (which also affects Play Now and Online games) or manually select the customized playbook/gameplan from the game setup menu before each Franchise game.
  • After pausing the game during an extra point, the camera flips around 180 degrees to be facing towards the kicker. I actually like the angle, but the orientation of the controls remains the same as it was before.
  • Can’t chose what the snap count will be or call “No play” to try to draw the defense offsides. Every time you try a hard count, you run a larger risk of drawing your own players into a false start, rather than causing the defense to jump offsides.
  • Can’t set injury status for players from the Roster editing screens. So if you wanted to, say, start your Franchise with Peyton Manning being hurt, too bad. The developers gave us the ability to change player ratings (even during Franchise), so why not also let us set injuries? Especially considering that there’s a “Use pre-existing injuries” option in the Franchise settings. What does this even do? Are there any players on the game’s default rosters that have a pre-existing injury set? Has EA ever actually used this option that’s been included in the game for as long as I can remember?
  • And even though roster updates are “free”, we never get Gameplan updates from the developers. So when Denver eventually ditched Orton in favor of Tebow, Madden players may have gotten the updated roster, but we didn’t get the new option-heavy Tebow gameplan to go along with it.

Conclusion

When it all comes down to it, I can’t play through an entire game of Madden without becoming infuriated and wanting to shut the game off due to the AI’s constant cheating tactics, lack of control in many situations, and overall poor representation of fundamental football strategy. Quarterbacks throw 6 interceptions a game because defenders are psychic and receivers are oblivious to where the ball and defenders are. Teams give up 9 sacks in a game because offensive linemen can’t work as a unit and AI quarterbacks refuse to go through progressions or check down. Running backs break 80 yard touchdown runs in every game because defensive linemen who are engaged can’t do anything to slow down the back going through the hole, and defensive backs take horrible angles and miss tackles left and right.

EA seemingly has no interest in representing NFL football. Madden isn’t football. It’s a casual, super-charged facsimile of the sport it’s supposed to represent. But unfortunately for people like me (who want simulation sports games), a casual, super-charged facsimile is exactly what the casual, online player wants. So it sells. And that’s all EA cares about. They don’t need to spend the time and money necessary to make a football game that adequately represents football because what they are offering makes money. Especially with no competition except for the other EA-developed supplement to Madden.

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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