Even with a lockout that threatened to consume the season, and the growing concern about players’ head injuries and other controversies, there appears to be no slowing the National Football League. Sorry, baseball -- pro football is America’s real national pastime.
But a close second on the list could very well be the “Madden NFL Football” video games series, which has become so popular that its annual release date might as well be a national holiday along with the first two days of the NCAA Tournament.
At this point, EA Sports could probably release a new Madden game with ugly blocky graphics straight out of the NES version of “Tecmo Bowl” and it’d still sell a couple million copies. But thankfully, we’re not back to the days of being forced to pick between four different plays. Madden keeps getting slightly better every year and the ’12 version is no exception.
A Better Looking Madden
The first thing that leaps out about “Madden NFL ‘12” is the much improved television-like presentation from the “real” on-field cameras shot by NFL Films cameramen and a network-inspired broadcast graphics package.
Each stadium and team also has its own unique feel. If you play in Chicago, for example, the Bears’ Staley the Bear gets the Soldier Field crowd juiced up before Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher wave team flags and lead the defensive starters out onto the field. There are also plenty of other random broadcast moments, like stern words exchanged between a quarterback and coach after a three-and-out for the offense.
The sun also moves throughout a day game and you’ll notice subtle changes in the on-field lighting. Even the blades of grass on the field are now shown in enhanced 3D. Now that's detail!
Fully Stacked With Upgrades
But beyond the flashy visual stuff, a lot of the upgrades to Madden happen under the hood of the game with things like A.I. and animations. Defense has especially been upgraded and you’ll notice that cornerbacks and safeties (especially stars like the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu) are total ballhawks that no longer wait around for the ball to come their way. The computer is also smarter when it comes to picking defensive formations to stop more unconventional offense playcalling -- like when the Eagles use the Wildcat formation.
The controls have also been tinkered so that there is no real “Dive” button on defense. Instead, a “Tackle” button changes the type of tackle you try to perform based on the player’s momentum and the distance between himself and the ball carrier. It leads to a lot of different kinds of hits. You might see Clay Matthews smack an opposing QB for a sack a dozen different ways.
There’s also now something EA is dubbing “Dynamic Player Performance.” It’s a fancy way of saying that the players’ ratings and tendencies can change mid-game based on the on-field action. If your quarterback is splitting the D open with some quality passes, the game might give him a higher rating and say he’s on a “hot streak.”
The Franchise mode has gotten a bit of a makeover that enhances options for player contracts and the draft. The bonus modes from Madden ’11 also return -- and Ultimate Team, Be a Superstar and Madden Moments all get small improvements.
If you like butting heads with people online, the most noticeable upgrade you’ll notice is “Communities.” Playing sports games over Xbox Live or PSN can be a pain in the ass because of all of the rage quitters and idiots who want to practice their bad karaoke skills on you while playing. But in Madden’s communities, you can meet like-minded players that you can meet up with for head-to-head or online team play and avoid the people you want to stay far, far away from.
As much as we had fun with Madden ‘12 there are still some nagging problems. The instant replay function is all but broken, play-action passes can be impossible to pull off and sometimes quarterbacks throw passes out of bounds too frequently.
But even if this version of Madden won’t reach Hall of Fame status, it’s still a Pro Bowl contender that qualifies as a must-buy for even the most casual of NFL fans.
Follow Ryan Smith on Twitter: @RyanSmithWriter