It's an unspoken cardinal rule that any NFL head coach's inspirational, Al Pacino-esque halftime speech has to include the notion that football is a game of pushes and retreats. For every play that busts off tackle for 13 yards, there'll be a double-reverse that gets stuffed ten yards in the backfield. It is, if you'll forgive me going all Greg Gumbel on you for a moment, the yin and yang of America's favorite sport.
EA's storied and ubiquitous Madden franchise is a lot like that. Every year, it trots out onto the field, the developers having tweaked and/or overhauled the details of their shiny mega-million selling juggernaut. And every year, some of the fixes are first-down-worthy, while others come off like a drunken Al Davis in a rhinestone-studded bunny suit.
It's easy to tell that capturing game atmosphere was tops on the Madden NFL 12 wish list -- every game now begins with the same rah-rah hoopla that launches the actual games on Sunday: Dancing cheerleaders, players storming the field through smoke and pyrotechnics, the mascots madly waving flags. Flashy, yes; substantive, not so much.
The GameFlow feature that debuted last year returns, but it's thankfully been silenced -- no offensive coordinator jabbering the same set of clichés in your ear -- and you can now sync your own customized playbook to it. Other tweaks that deserve props include new tackling that doesn't feel like every player is wearing magnetized uniforms and -- finally -- a change to online franchise/match play that saddles opponents with a loss if they lamely log off when they're down three touchdowns.
Now for the flops. The ball physics on passing plays remain as bizarre as ever. And the disconnects between the announcing and what's occurring on the field are often more jaw-droppingly bad than Troy Aikman's color commentary on your typical Fox NFL broadcast. An apparent sideline TD catch is greeted with utter silence from both Gus Johnson and the crowd, and it isn't until five seconds after the official runs across the screen making the "reception" signal that anyone even reacts at all.
Elsewhere, an injury timeout warning pops up on the screen, followed by a cutscene of your supposedly injured player jumping around and back-slapping teammates on the sidelines. That's sloppy to a degree even the Bengals don't routinely sink to.
Annual sports franchises manage a development cycle that's even shorter than that of movie tie-in games, so to a certain degree, imperfections are gonna be part of the process. But as long as they're there, it's too much to ask legions of fans to shell out for slightly improved editions of what they bought last year.
Final verdict: Like its predecessors, Madden 12 is a supermodel in shopworn sneakers, a gorgeous game with head-scratching and inexplicable flaws. It's only worth picking up if your last football-game purchase was Madden 09.