Every year at this time, fans across the country are abuzz at the prospect of their chosen team's seemingly unlimited potential. Any team could hoist the fabled Lombardi Trophy, and that unbridled optimism drenches even the most levelheaded spectators in waves of hope. It's only after the weeks creep by that fans start to realize their team hasn't improved much in the months since it last took to the field. That cycle of dizzying expectations crushed by cruel reality is mirrored all too well in Madden NFL 12. The core action has seen slight improvements, making it incrementally better than last year's offering, and presentation tweaks do a better job of mimicking Sunday's biggest games. But those minor additions offer little incentive to plunk down your hard-earned cash if you already own a recent entry in the franchise. Madden 12 still offers the strategic excitement the series is known for, but the overall package is a familiar rendition of America's favorite sport.
The most noticeable change from Madden NFL 11 is the improved pregame presentation. Before each game begins, shaky camera close-ups give you an intimate look at your favorite players as they parade onto the field, and robotic cheerleaders who look as though they're sporting spray-on clothing dance to the delight of the frenzied crowd. The same exaggerated hoopla that an ordinary NFL contest uses to spike interest is used to ratchet up the excitement of this virtual offering, but it's ultimately a lot of frills without much payoff. The appeal fades away once you sit through the routine a handful of times, and the rest of the presentation still comes across as flat. Commentary does little to engender much enthusiasm. The duo of Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth returns, and they dole out the same tired cliches so often that they quickly overstay their welcome. Calls are frequently made so late that Johnson continues to hoot and holler long after a tackle occurs, which tears down the wall of believability the various pregame tricks tried to develop.
One other area of the presentation is noticeably lacking: instant replays. During the course of a game, replays are automatically cued up after big plays, just like in real life. Or, at least, that's how things should work. In reality, the plays you get to experience again appear to be randomly chosen with little regard for their overall impact. A key turnover or touchdown may be completely ignored, leaving you to wonder why this aspect of the presentation wasn't implemented in a more thoughtful manner. Even when a crucial play does automatically roll, the game fails to highlight the deciding moment. Replays are shown from a camera angle that gives the same weight to every element of the play, so a mundane handoff is just as important as a flashy spin move, and the commentators don't even chime in during such replays. Granted, you can always go to the menu and call up an instant replay yourself, but it would be nice if the game emulated real-life broadcasts more accurately. And if you're playing an online match, just give up any hope of rewatching the most exciting plays. You can't manually trigger a replay until the match concludes, and by that point, it hardly matters.
Sketchy replays have been a sore spot in Madden games for years, but that's not the only problem area that has been left untouched. For instance, ball physics too often clash with reality. Balls ricochet off of players at strange angles, and it's all too common to see a batted ball get magically sucked into the hands of a sprinting receiver. Physics and collision-detection problems are especially noticeable when you cue up replays. You may wonder why your perfectly positioned cornerback failed to pick off an errant pass, only to see on close examination that the ball passed clean through his hands. Other surreal aspects don't ultimately affect the gameplay, but they certainly feel out of place in this supposedly realistic simulation. During practices, quarterbacks can be lit up by aggressive defenders, something that is a serious no-no in real life. When you throw in persistent issues that have yet to be addressed, such as painfully sluggish menus, you're left rolling your eyes. Considering Madden 12 doesn't have any new modes, this would have been a good year to clean up these miscues, but sadly, this opportunity wasn't seized.
The basic gameplay benefits from some noticeable tweaks. The most important of these is an improved tackling system. Although the hits don't match the dynamism from last year's Backbreaker, they are still much more realistic than what you'd find in Madden 11. Players are no longer sucked into each other, which makes lining up a big hit when you're on the defensive side much more empowering, and evading an eager defender while on offense is even more satisfying now that you're rarely subjected to unfair takedowns. There are still some issues with gang tackling, especially when defenders converge from opposite sides, and the violent nature of the real sport is rarely conveyed in digital form, but at least Madden 12 has taken a few small steps in the right direction.
Off-the-field aspects in Franchise mode have seen changes as well. For those who get their jollies from destroying a digital player's dream, you can now cut players every week of the preseason, just like in real life. Deciding between axing an up-and-coming rookie or an established veteran takes a fair bit of thought, which gives you a taste of a real-life coach's experience. Free agency is now a fast-paced menu-navigating adventure. Every team bids for players in real time, and trying to decide how much you want to spend on a coveted prize while the clock is ticking is a neat addition to this established concept. Madden 12 also reintroduces the Weapons feature from Madden NFL 08, albeit with a new name and in a slightly different form. During the course of a season, players are automatically assigned certain titles. For instance, a wide receiver might be dubbed "Deep Threat" or "Fumble Prone," and that name has in-game consequences. It's another small change, but it's at least fun to scroll through the menus to see what titles your players have earned.
Madden 12 is an underwhelming entry in the long-running franchise because it offers few significant changes from last year's edition, but once you get over the feeling of deja vu, it is still an intense sports simulation. Years of tweaks have resulted in a highly realistic football game, and seeing your team come together is immensely rewarding. Taking control of your favorite team in Franchise mode (either online or offline) and building it into a perennial contender lets you exorcise the real-life demons keeping it from reaching hallowed ground. Although taking on the AI is even more rewarding this year, thanks to more believable opponents and the revamped tackling system, Madden 12 is at its best in heated competitive play. There are so many strategies at your fingertips that you never know how your opponent will try to attack you, which leads to volatile matches that are always exciting.
Madden 12 is one of the better games in this franchise, but it's not worth purchasing if you already own last year's edition. Many of the flaws that have plagued the series for years are still present--such as the effectiveness of scrambling QBs--and many of the new features are hardly noticeable. Just consider for a moment how slowly the Madden franchise is at adopting changes in the real game. In the 2007 NFL season, green stickers were placed on the helmets of quarterbacks to designate that they could communicate (via radio) with the sidelines. It took four iterations of the digital experience for this incredibly small change to be implemented. Progress comes at a snail's pace, making versions blend together so that they're barely distinguishable from one another. In real life, every player eventually hits a performance wall; players can only improve for so long before they start to regress. Madden 12 is the video game equivalent of a player at the end of his career. It can still dazzle you from time to time, but it's clearly showing its age.