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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Madden 12: Impressions of the demo.

Since the second edition of the Madden video game franchise in 1990, EA have released a new edition of the game every year. It is, perhaps, unreasonable to expect major overhauls of the game with each annual instalment; but since EA agreed to terms with the NFL on an exclusive license in 2004, stifling the threat posed by Sega’s NFL 2K series, there has been a sense amongst some gamers that EA have not really felt any need to make considerable improvements or innovations to the Madden games. This was particularly true after the release of Madden 11, which, aside from the little-used, quickly-ignored ‘Gameflow’ feature, was considered by many to essentially be a £40 roster update with some minor graphic improvements. With the NFL recently extending EA’s exclusive license, so that Madden will be the only official NFL game until at least Madden 14, many wondered if this year’s instalment would fail to live up to expectations in the way its immediate predecessor had.

After playing the Madden 12 demo, let me assure you that this is certainly not the case.

Firstly, EA have bundled a few extras in with the playable demo – a handful of screenshots, two trailers and a short video explaining some of the new gameplay features in Madden 12; nothing which hasn’t been available online for several months, but at least it’s a little more than many demos would bother to include. The actual demo itself, a recreation of the 2010 NFC Championship Game, has very few options the user can change – you can equip either team with either the Bears’ or the Packers’ offensive and defensive playbooks, change the difficulty setting and choose between ‘Gameflow’ or conventional play calling, but beyond that the settings are fixed at 5 minute quarters, with accelerated playclock run-off set at 15 seconds. EA are giving away as little information as possible in the demo (which is understandable), with no option to see either team’s depth chart, and therefore player ratings and ‘player traits’, a new feature in the game, remain a mystery (you’re also locked into playing in the Bears’ home and the Packers’ away kits, in case you were hoping to get a sneak peek at any throwbacks EA have included for either team).

Clay Matthew's glorious locks are
recreated in their full
luscious glory

Onto the game itself. First thing you notice is that EA have really upped the ante with the visuals. The demo begins with a wide aerial shot of Soldier Field (the first time EA have managed to obtain the rights to recreate it in the game), including neighbouring Chicago building and a busy motorway. EA have placed a strong emphasis on a faithful TV-style presentation, and a lot of pre-, post- and inter-play cut scenes do give the game a more professional look, from the opening cut-scenes of player entrances and the coin flip to the new, smarter-looking score & time bar, relocated to the top left corner of the screen. Playing the game, the camera moves in a whole new way, panning towards the sidelines on throws rather than moving laterally with the ball, and following running backs with a more organic (albeit a little shaky) hand-held shooting-style camera. Not all the camera work is necessarily an improvement – I was very unimpressed with the new camera angles for kickoffs and field goals/PAT attempts (although I am aware not everyone, including others from this blog, dislike it as strongly as I do); but even then, you can switch to the classic view by pressing the right-trigger button. The graphics themselves are considerably improved, with curves appearing softer, and therefore more lifelike, than previous editions. EA also seemed to have made players’ faces more realistic – although I’m pretty sure Aaron Rodgers has never looked quite as intimidatingly scowly as he does in the game. The only other complaint I have about the visual presentation is the score & time bar at the top of the screen. Yes, it looks more TV-like, and I really like how they’ve displayed time outs remaining – in Madden 11, the time out lights were a team’s primary colour, which often meshed with the logo and made it hard to tell sometimes how many time outs you had left. But the problem with the bar being at the top of the screen is that it’s not really in your field of vision during plays. Normally, this isn’t an issue, but if a ball carrier fumbles, it’s not as advertised as it was in Madden 11, so you need to be paying more attention after tackles or you may not be aware the ball’s up for grabs.

For all the realistic TV angles and improved graphics, sports games always live and die by their gameplay. One thing that becomes immediately apparent from opening kickoff is how different tackling is in Madden 12. To go a little bit technical, tackling in football games occurs when an offensive and defensive player come into contact, which would trigger a built in ‘tackle animation’. Once upon a time, if a defender had tackled a ballcarrier, no other defender could physically touch him if he were not included in the design of the tackle animation, leaving the player to effectively bounce off the ballcarrier. No longer. It appears that EA have essentially shrunk the radius of their tackle animations; so if, for example, a defensive tackle has wrapped his arms around a running back’s leg, the animation only covers that leg, leaving the rest of the back’s body free to be hit by a linebacker. The result is the tackling in Madden 12 is far more realistic than in any other Madden game I’ve played. It will take some getting used to – the ‘hit stick’ is no longer a magnet that sucks in nearby players, requiring more accuracy in your tackling, and after years of learning there’s no point rushing to a ballcarrier if another defender got to him first, the reduction in the size of tackle animations means there’s no longer any excuse to give up on plays (perhaps Randy Moss should give this year’s Madden a miss).

EA have also spiced up the defensive playbooks with new formations, in particular the ‘Sub’ formations which recreate some of the more exotic third-down packages defensive co-ordinators have up their sleeves. EA also claimed that defensive AI is vastly improved, with defenders now breaking off from their assignments to cover any open receiving threats (previously, a player would stick rigidly to their zones even if a receiver finds a seam that passes right by them). How much this is true is hard to tell from the time I’ve spent with the game so far, but it does seem that receivers aren’t as often as open (although this could be because I’ve mostly been playing as the Bears so far, so this could well be down to the lack of a genuine no.1 receiver on Chicago’s roster). The changes to gameplay on offense seem rather minimal in comparison. Running backs don’t cut as cleanly using the movement stick alone, necessitating greater use of juke moves and stutter steps to avoid defenders. Because of the changes in tackling, running the ball does require paying more attention to your blocks – whilst there is still some moments of O and D-linemen being ‘stuck’ to one another, this has been considerably reduced, meaning blocking schemes actually do what they’re supposed to do more often than you’re perhaps used to in a Madden game. Unfortunately, the one thing I was most hoping EA would fix in offensive gameplay – the play-action pass – appears to be no more effective than in previous incarnations (i.e. not very). Maybe next year, eh?

Despite Madden 12's tagline "True
to the Game", there is no 'QB
Sulk' in Chicago's playbook
Finally, the play calling itself. One of the biggest problems with ‘Gameflow’ last year was that it often chose unsuitable plays – for example, it would define ‘2nd-and-long’ as around 7yards +, so would call a running play wither it was 2nd-and-8 or 2nd-and-17; this problem was only compounded by the fact that you had no idea what play ‘Gameflow’ would call unless you chose it, leaving you to rely on your audibles to change to a more suitable play. From what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear that there’s been any improvement in which plays ‘Gameflow’ would call, but a welcome addition this year is that it shows you what play ‘Gameflow’ is intending to call next. Further, ‘Gameflow’ now gives you a choice between three plays – a play from a pre-designed gameplan (which one assumes is customisable as it was last year), a run play or a pass play on offense, and an aggressive or conservative coverage on defense. This makes ‘Gameflow’ a far more useful tool than it was last year. When you look at your full playbook, the presentation style has undergone some minor but useful modifications. When flicking between formations, the x’s and o’s actually move to the new positions, rather than it being static diagrams; a nice twist, but no real practical difference. Much more important, the dots on the diagram are bigger and the numbers are visually bolder. This is a subtle but very helpful change, as it makes it a lot easier to see which players are put into the game when rolling through your sub packages – I can’t tell you how many delay of game penalties I’ve had from trying to determine whether I was subbing in #85 or #88.

There are a few major innovations that are, if not absent in the demo, than at least cannot be easily explored, in particular the ‘dynamic player performance’ feature (in the pause menu, the game does tell you that one or two players might not be a big hitter at that moment in the game, or plays the ball conservatively in the air, but without knowing what the full traits for that player is, it’s hard to tell how much that’s actually affecting that player’s gameplay). Likewise, the many changes that EA have made to the franchise mode are not on show here. Not that I’d be expecting we could actually play franchise mode in a demo of course, but an interactive video showing the differences would have been nice; instead we’re just given a screen listing what the changes are. That said, all in all, the Madden 12 demo has me very excited for the upcoming game. The game just looks a lot better than previous Maddens, the TV-style production-value visuals do suck you in that little bit more, and most importantly, the huge improvement in tackling forces the player to think with a ‘football brain’ more than any other game in the history of the series, and that can only be a good thing.

The Madden 12 demo is now available to download on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The full game is released in the UK on September 2nd.

- Gur Samuel (@FredThePuppy)
The Pulling Linemen

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