If you’re like me, you use reviews in one of two ways: either you’re trying to decide whether to buy something or you’re trying to see if other people feel the same way about something you already bought. I think Madden reviews tend to fall in this second class. The people who buy Madden every year already know they’re going to get it, and they’ll check reviews just to see whether or not they agree with the critics. For me, the small iterative changes to the series need to pile up for a couple of years before I’m motivated to buy the latest version. So when I heard about the new feature list for this year, I looked at my copy of Madden 08 on the shelf and thought, “It is time.”

Overall, the series continues to raise the bar in a number of minor ways in the hopes that the sum total of all these smaller changes will result in a substantially improved experience. When game publishers send games to reviewers, they usually include a sheet or two that highlight the new features. For Madden NFL 12 we got dozens of pages highlighting each and every change: The ball is 20% smaller now, which finally brings it to the correct scale; QBs can now pump fake to psyche out defenders; managers can make use of cut days during training to refine their rosters during the pre-season. Taken individually, these changes might not seem significant; taken together, they can move the series in a significant new direction.

For the most part, the improvements do work and do make the game both more realistic and more compelling. The new collision system and the animations enhance the look and feel of the game. Players seem to be making real contact with each other and, while the developer’s claims that the new system eliminates warping and binding, where players defy the laws of physics, might be overstated, it does feel more like real football now. Hits are hard and players can reliably lock down linebackers and receivers without the action feeling fake or forced, at least in the default view during the plays. During some of the replays, you’re bound to notice some stiff, mannequin-like animations whenever players have to interact with each other or the ball. There’s also still some slipping and clipping here and there, which can be particularly unsettling when players walk through each other and the officials between plays.

That said, the play itself feels very natural. The AI is much more difficult than in the previous versions of Madden, which means the opposing team’s defense actually defends now. From sacks to swatting down passes to diving after runners, the enemy AI generally makes smart decisions, which can keep the scores down to a more realistic level than has been seen in the more recent versions of the game. It also means that this version of Madden is hard. On offense, players will have to make smarter calls and be able to reliably read the defense on each and every play. Those deep zone defenders aren’t shy about getting in the way of your passes. I tried using the new pump fake to shake them off, but they must be smarter than I am. The one weak spot is that you can still take a blitz-heavy defense and demolish all but the most skilled teams.

For the last decade or so, sports games have been inching closer and closer to recreating the full broadcast presentation style, and Madden NFL 12 pushes the ball further towards that ideal. 3D grass and accurate stadium exteriors might not mean much to you in the midst of a play, but the game includes loads of small details like this to improve the overall context of the game. Each team has a unique entrance that mimics what you’d see on game day. The Cowboys have their cheerleaders, the Vikings have their longship and the Ravens have their … well, their Ray Lewis.

As dynamic as it all is, the presentation breaks down in a few keys areas. First, the announcers’ commentary is usually spot on, but you’ll occasionally hear them praising or criticizing a play that’s already been overturned on a field. In one game I played, they went on and on for a full minute about this great touchdown after the touchdown had already been taken away by the officials. Second, the mechanism that selects what the replay camera shows seems not to understand what’s actually going on in each play. You might pull off a spectacular catch and the camera will just show the QB standing around after the pass. Or worst of all, it may simply show an empty patch of grass. Professional cameramen from NFL Films apparently helped select some of these angles, but there’s obviously some kind of miscommunication between what they want and what the game ultimately shows you.

Outside of the experience on the field, Madden NFL 12 offers a robust franchise system, where players can take on management duties, deciding who to sign and who to cut. Player performance can vary much more this year, so you’ll want to decide whether to put your faith in more reliable players, or less consistent players who might deliver game-winning performances or who just might choke. And if football isn’t enough like Magic: The Gathering for you, this year’s Madden also includes a collectible card game fantasy version as well.

As in previous versions of the game, Superstar lets you create and develop your own individual football player and then lead him through one or more pro seasons. This time around, the RPG elements are more fully developed, so you can actually build the type of player you want to become. For my quarterback, for instance, I was able to build him into a scrambler who is good at short passes, but terrible at running the ball or throwing deep. Your performance in each game gives you skill points to further refine and improve your character. There’s also a great new coordinator audio in your helmet, so you can hear what the coach wants you to do on each play. It’s a very satisfying “you are there” sort of experience, but whether you enjoy it or not depends on how much action you see from your position.

Bottom Line: A reliably solid and satisfying entry in the series with a handful of missteps but no real deal breakers. The new AI and collision systems improve the action on the field, while additions to Franchise and Superstar mode help bring more structure to the game.

Recommendation: If you haven’t picked up a copy of Madden in a while, 12 is a lot of fun. If you’re still getting fun out of more recent versions, there’s nothing here you can’t live without.

[rating=4]

Game: Madden NFL 12
Genre: Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Platform(s): PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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