By Dylan Moran
"I’ve paid my dues. I’ve bought my fix of Madden this year.”
This was me, talking to my friend as we fired up for a game of Madden 12. It’s a pretty apt analogy – since the Xbox came out, I’ve owned every Madden title. The naysayers come out every year and say “it’s just a roster update”.
They may have a point, as player movements and ratings based on the previous season’s performance make up the bulk of each title.
But in recent years, they’ve upped the ante. Previously, the team at EA would resort to some extreme measures just to make the new game look or play a bit different without actually touching any of the problems.
The best example of this was Madden 07, which incorporated the now-infamous ‘QB cone’. As well as the QB cone, the Chargers were unbeatable as any player worth their merit would just select an off-tackle pitch to LaDanian Tomlinson and spin their way to an 80 yard touchdown like the Tasmanian Devil.
This came out at a time when online play was in its infancy, and one could suspect EA have been forced to fix the problems with gameplay – last year’s title being the first major overhaul I can remember in recent years – however, every time the team changes one thing, others break (such as play action and the run game now being more a case of ‘if we do it 30 times a game eventually we’ll break through’ instead of rewarding great play selection).
Madden 12 does not take the opportunity to shore up those new faults, but it does take the logical next step from last year and re-imagine several core modes within the game.
This comes off the back of Josh Looman’s appointment as senior designer for the Madden franchise, a move which has reaped great rewards.
The majority of the build team’s attention has gone into franchise mode, and this is a logical move as most players spend about 90 percent of their offline playing time controlling a franchise.
Looman and his team have been blasting their trumpet about how they have ‘listened to the community’ for this year’s game (about time) and brought in a lot of functions we’ve wanted for a while.
New features to write home about include the all-new free agency market, where each player is given a time limit from the moment a team first bids on them. This outstrips the previous method, where all you needed to do was put the highest bid on a player and advance to the next day.
It’s very rapid-fire and while there are still ways to exploit and cheat the system, it adds a great feeling to actually signing a Troy Polamalu or Peyton Manning to the Cleveland Browns after wallowing in the depths of a 3-13 season.
There is also the new cut feature – rosters have been expanded in pre-season and after each game, you have to evaluate your team and cut a few guys to get your roster ready for the regular season.
As you select each player, they’ll have a little quote – a final dig – ranging from ‘I’ll win a Superbowl one day’ (no you won’t, you’re a 29 overall cornerback) to ‘what am I going to do if you cut me, design Madden?’ (I now imagine Madden HQ populated with discarded NFL players bashing keyboards) to the baffling ‘I didn’t want to play for you anyway’.
Cut days work in well with the new rookie scouting feature. Basically, like last year, a rookie’s rating is simply ‘??’ when you sign them. As they play in the pre-season, their rating will be guessed (for example Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Dontay Moch showed up as '99?' after his first game) and each game will further finalise their rating (Moch’s final rating was 48 after pre-season).
There are a couple of problems immediately arising here though. For instance, when I traded my 2012 first round pick to the New Orleans Saints for their 2013 first round pick (another new addition though it only lets you trade one year in advance) and rookie running back Mark Ingram, Ingram’s overall rating showed up immediately. The same thing happened when I traded for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
So that took a lot of the enjoyment out of the new scouting feature, though I suppose its main purpose is in rewarding those who make it through seasons to the new draft.
Something Looman has re-introduced to the game and a feature which had great potential but was probably under-utilised is player roles. Several big-name players on your team will have roles assigned to them. These roles are things like ‘QB of the future’, one of the more annoying roles as it bars your franchise from drafting a new quarterback or replacing the current one with a higher-rated player in free agency.
When you’re dealing with the Bengals, you’re talking about 71 OVR rookie Andy Dalton and while he may grow into a great QB, every player wants success now.
Not every player gets a role, but every player who does is impacted by it, and often others are too. For instance, if your defensive end is classed as a ‘run stopper’, his teammates get a boost in their stats while the opposing running-back has his ratings slightly reduced. The same for ‘shutdown corner’, and ‘deep threat’ increases that player’s receiver ratings and gives his quarterback a slight boost.
Another new addition I haven’t quite figured out yet is ‘dynamic player performance’. On paper, this rewards players who do well in consecutive games with a small stat boost and penalises those who do poorly.
However after signing Terrell Owens out of free agency and trading for Michael Crabtree from the San Francisco 49ers – giving me a receiving corps of 85 OVR (Owens) and two 80 OVRs (Crabtree and Bengals rookie AJ Green) and leading each to at least 70 yards per game over the first three weeks, they’re all on cold streaks.
The performances you need to put in need to be more clearly defined, as just like real life it ties into more than just the player. If I lean toward the run for a game against the hapless Broncos, with linebackers in the high 70s and defensive lineman with the same range, as opposed to throwing at their cornerbacks who include 97 OVR Champ Bailey and 86 OVR Andre Goodman (who both have man defence ratings in the 90s) why should my QB and WRs be penalised heading into the next game?
However, I appreciate what EA and Looman are trying to do and technology can only allow you to pull off so much.
Superstar mode has been incredibly neglected since Madden 08, as though the team was quietly trying to phase it out. I always found this confusing as every other sports title on the market is pushing the ‘my player’ modes.
In Madden 12 Superstar finally gets its refurbishment. It now has an interface which ties in with the rest of the game, and takes on an RPG-style feel as every game you play earns you points to level up.
And yet, some things are bizarre. I can understand why I’d lose points when my 86kg running back misses a block and my quarterback (I got drafted to the Panthers, so Cam Newton) gets annihilated, but why do I lose points when Steve Smith fumbles the ball 70 yards upfield? Why do I lose points for sticking to my checkdown route perfectly and Newton throws an interception?
But far and away one of the biggest problems with Superstar is one which has been there from its inception. When you are picked, you go to the top of the depth chart. My 60 OVR RB was starting ahead of 89 OVR DeAngelo Williams, 81 OVR Jonathan Stewart and 74 OVR Mike Goodson. In fact, Goodson was the only other player who got snaps in my rookie season, on third down run attempts.
This is incredibly annoying and I want it sorted ASAP. It’s existed since day one and it’s really not a mode the player can get into and enjoy if they don’t see it as true to life.
Other than the fact when you request a trade it’s immediately granted, there’s not really anything else wrong with Superstar, it’s just that the things that are wrong ruin it completely. It’d be nice to see the superstar camera return too, but that’s no major.
It’s another solid Madden outing. There are problems galore, some big, some minor, but there’s a great amount of new features which distract you from the things which are broken.
There are far more positives than negatives and it’s a solid building block for when Looman wants to finally fix the broken gameplay mechanics on an already legendary franchise.