Imagine this: There is a box. Inside is a chessboard, a deck of Pokémon cards, the yellow grid from a Connect Four set, a handful of Monopoly pieces, a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook with the index and glossary torn out, a NOW That’s What I Call Music! compilation, and some magazine advertisements for Gatorade. All these pieces can be used to play a game based around the NFL, but not the game of football. Opening this box and trying to determine just what the hell is going on is approximately what playing Madden NFL 12 is like. There are thousands of moving parts, many of them familiar, but how they work is a mystery.
If Madden were simply asking you to control a football team on the field, this wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, there are many disparate games in Madden 12, and, as is a hallmark of the series, EA’s Tiburon studio has tweaked them to improve the game and justify another perennial purchase for the series faithful. Even old hands may get confused, though.
Franchise Mode, Madden’s centerpiece, hands over the reins to a team and allows control of most details defining the team’s future over multiple years. Everything can be tweaked, from player salary caps to players’ roles in the hierarchy (Team Leader, Franchise Quarterback, etc.). 12 is improved in this respect, foregoing inane minutia from past entries like hot-dog prices at your stadium, and adding in a deeper rookie-recruiting system, but all these options are still buried inside a menu-labyrinth dense enough to boggle Jorge Luis Borges.
There’s also Madden Ultimate Team, a cross between Magic: The Gathering and fantasy football that has players collecting trading cards of classic and current players, forming a perfect team and competing with friends to earn points. Those points can be spent on new cards to expand your team, but if you’re low on points, you can buy them from EA with cold, hard cash. There’s an enjoyable collector-fetishist hook in Ultimate Team that succeeds in spite of the sinister microtransaction business within, but as with Franchise, an impenetrable interface obscures its merits.
What about the actual game of football? Tiburon added a litany of improvements to the math—there are new animations, new artificial-intelligence routines—but the feel of the game is unchanged. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the complex and subtle controls are relatively unused in the single-player game. What good is creating custom plays for the field when actual control of the players is so byzantine?
When not hidden behind math and menus, Madden is still a good football game. There are still those moments that capture the visceral thrill of an NFL game, when you’re completing a play in a regular game, or in the Superstar mode (another returning sub-game that has you developing a single player through his career). That’s ultimately Madden’s greatest problem, though. It replicates watching the NFL more than it does playing NFL football. While that serves the millions who play year after year, it leaves NFL fans who want something more waiting for EA’s exclusive contract with the league to end.