The Madden franchise has been around for a long time, some would say too long. There's nothing inherently wrong about keeping the name or releasing a new product annually, assuming that improvements have been made, but Madden has nearly always gone against this logic. The core of the game has remained virtually unchanged for years, and Madden NFL 12 has continued the tradition of releasing annual updates for the sake of sticking a new number on the box. When you play games like NHL 12 and NBA 2K11, you really begin to appreciate the subtle additions and how they add so much to the overall experience. Madden has never been like that, it's like trying to solve algorithms in the hope that you'll discover something wonderful.
American Football breaks down like this; you receive the ball and push forward. When play comes to a halt, you have three chances to gain ten yards, and the cycle repeats itself between teams. If you can reach the end zone, whoop-dee-doo, it's a touchdown. The rest is fairly self explanatory. For the most part, Madden provides the experience that you'd expect it to, but the lack of change is more evident now than ever before. It's a shame because it does so much so well, as you're about to find out. But as we all know, a new lick of paint just doesn't cut it anymore. There needs to be more refinement, more of a revolution. Madden appears to be afraid of change, and maybe this is signalling the beginning of the end.
The sport itself is over the top, exaggerated and hyped up beyond the norm, leaving you with a ridiculous spectacle where the players present themselves as kings. If you like that sort of showboating and outrageous presentation values, then Madden 12 has you more than covered. The opening sequence to every match it top notch, hilarious, but impressive nonetheless. Visually, it's almost impossible to fault either and some of the facial animations are among the best seen in sports games. You'll often feel as though the animation is too similar between players, and that's a justified complaint, but most of these guys are built like tanks and move in strict patterns anyway, so it's certainly not a major problem. From the genuinely breathtaking music (taken from Christopher Nolan's Inception, remember me?) to the sensation of being right in the centre of a sporting phenomenon, Madden 12 ticks all of the boxes until...
...the cracks begin to show. The first bad signs can be found in the menus (hello Electronic Arts, wakey wakey, it's this problem again) which struggle to keep up with simple player inputs. Upon starting up the main franchise mode for the first time, the game completely froze up and required us to restart the console. Something like this shouldn't ever happen. Another moment of sluggish unresponsiveness frequently arises while selecting teams for a regular match; when we swapped sides to select what teams would be playing, the game froze up for several seconds each time. Back and forth, pause, back and forth, pause, you get the idea. It's frustrating and unacceptable. The menus certainly look pretty, but they don't work particularly well; time to get those priorities straightened out for next year, eh?
While those issues might come across as being harsh and unjustified, take a step back and literally fu- ...sorry, we didn't mean that. Our point is that yearly installments should, at the very least, be technically sound and Madden is anything but. On the pitch, you'll notice something else - the commentary. It's terrible. Within five minutes, dialogue was already being repeated and it's usually a fairly robotic and unnatural affair. It's nice to hear some background information on key players (e.g. where they're from and what college they played for), but it's the generic calls that are weak and repetitive. Madden 12 looks the part, most definitely, but it's really dragged down by all of these niggling concerns that detract from what's an otherwise impeccably crafted atmosphere and sense of excitement.
Admittedly, most of the people reading this review are only concerned about what happens on the pitch. Take a wild guess - exactly what happened last year? Bingo! Well, that's not entirely true. The physics engine has been tweaked, much like what happened with NHL 12, making for some of the most brutal tackling seen to date. There's still a great feeling when you pull off the perfect tackle and drag the opposing quarter-back to his knees. Naturally, there's an abundance of plays and tactics to try out (you can even create your own), but most of us will never be able to appreciate the effort. Instead, the trusty 'Ask Madden' feature is always at your disposal. That's another problem with this series, it almost feels too easy and that's compounded by the new ability to let the computer play for you. Yes, no joke.
During defensive passages, you can select your player and hold down on the A button, essentially relieving you of all duties, giving you enough time to skull a beer. There's no logic behind this, what next? A new peripheral that presses the buttons for you so that you can focus on the analogue sticks? Seriously, it's a ridiculous idea. Purists won't be affected and will likely ignore the feature, and rightly so, but it does make you wonder what was going through the minds of the developers. "You know what's a really cool idea, Mickey? No, what? Get this...a new feature where you can play the game with one button, it's genius! Yeah... alright buddy, whatever you say, we've got nothing else to do for twelve months so chuck it in."
The kicking system has also been simplified into a bare bones, follow the meter type system. If anything, Madden 12 has taken more steps backwards than forwards this year. The remainder of the gameplay is as unforgettable as it is solid and functional. So little has changed that there's almost no reason to explain it. You pick your play, you throw the ball or you run, and that's it. There's very little, if any skill involved these days. Now, you're probably thinking "oh but that's how American Football works". And you're right, that's exactly how it works, but it still needs to be entertaining. EA has one of the most dramatic sports in the world to play around with, but when you're playing Madden 12, you never get the impression that what you're playing is the most authentic realisation possible. Kinect functionality, which was previously promised, doesn't appear to have been implemented anywhere unless it's hiding. As far as we're concerned, it can keep hiding because it wouldn't affect the score either way.
Then again, as we've always said, if you expect a revolution with something like Madden 12 then you're bound to be unimpressed. Generally speaking, that's the correct way to approach these things. But since when has Madden ever followed the rules? Not only has it received a slaughtering from regular gamers, but now it's reached a point where even the hardcore fans are venting their anger towards a series that was once considered the best in sport. Madden 12 won't change the opinion of either demographic, so it's impossible to recommend unless you haven't already purchased a previous version within the past few years. New animations, new cutscenes, not even the improved 'Ultimate Team' mode is enough to salvage what is one of the most uninspiring sports games of the year. Online, you say? Sure, but you could do that last year too.
As negative as that may sound (damn right it's negative), Madden 12 is still good at delivering a tried and trusted formula that certain people still love to play. From a gameplay perspective, nothing is broken and in fact, you could even go as far as saying it's one of the best looking sports games ever made. Unfortunately, that's not good enough and Madden has been overly reliant on the same principles that brought it to greatness in the first place. Those principles need to evolve if Madden has any intention of challenging the great sports games of recent times. EA has the famous name, but lacks the balls to bring this franchise up to where it should be after all this time. And until that happens, Madden is going to be strangled by its own stagnant self.