In the online multiplayer era of sports gaming, I have been a Grinch-like hermit, rarely venturing forth into it except to ragequit and rant that none of what they do reflects reality, and to get off my lawn.
Madden, which has a culture of elite play spanning about a decade, television shows celebrating it, and a cottage industry of strategy advisors supporting it, is one of the more intimidating environments for a newcomer. Brutal experiences early on can kill not only fun, but a desire to return.
EA Sports has taken commendable steps toward fun, accessibility and respect in Madden NFL 12 not with heavy-handed moderation tactics or coddling gameplay, but in handing players the tools they need to police themselves, to find an enjoyable partner, and to reasonably compete to the end of a game despite a lack of skill or familiarity. All of this comes together in Madden NFL 12's online experience, the surprise gem of this edition's offerings.
We're continuing our coverage of Madden NFL 12, the 23rd edition of sports video gaming's glamour franchise, with a look at Franchise. This is not the review of Madden NFL 12. It just looks at one of its modes and critiques qualities specific to it.
The reason is sports video games now ship with at least three distinct modes of play, and many who play them spend most of their time in just one of them. Reviewing all modes, all at once, either doesn't go into enough detail on each, or overwhelms the reader with an extremely long writeup.
So this week, Kotaku has been breaking down each game mode on its own and will cap it off next week with a summary review examining gameplay, presentation and other overall features, which stands as our final opinion of the game.
Today, the game's online features, including online multiplayer, Online Communities, and the strangely addicting Madden Ultimate Team.
What I Played
Madden NFL 12 offers a robust menu of online experiences, from the traditional head-to-head ranked match, to online team play supporting three guys a side, to Ultimate Team, a card-collecting/player management/online multiplayer mode that defies easy description. I tried everything but online team play, a feature introduced last year that adds a perk system to your playing record, somewhat like a multiplayer FPS.
To all this, Madden NFL 12 has added Online Communities, whose purpose is to link players up with others of similar interest and skill level, and smooth out the an online multiplayer experience where traditional matchmaking still leaves some well out of their depth or unable to find enjoyable opponents.
I played four ranked head-to-head games, started an Ultimate Team and played a couple games there, joined one community (Operation Sports) and started another one you may join (Kotaku Sports), and then opened an Online Franchise as a test only, just to see if Dynamic Player Progression was featured there (it is.)
Online Franchise received no changes this year, unlike its offline counterpart. This has been a source of much complaining. Given that Madden NFL 12 incorporates real-time elements that involve league-wide participation (such as the new free agency period) I can understand the explanation that there was no way, on a year's development cycle, to bring them to Online Franchise with full quality.
How It Went
I went 2-2 in my ranked multiplayer (six-minute quarters, all-pro difficulty) but honestly, I should have been 2-1, with that last loss at least coming in overtime. My very first game, in my very first possession, I lost my connection immediately after fumbling on my opponent's 9-yard-line. It looked like a ragequit and it was penalised as one, with an instant loss and a 100 per cent DNF going next to my name. I apologised profusely to the guy over an Xbox Live message but I don't think he believed me.
My third game, against Denver. You can get a sense of the lag and sluggishness players were battling yesterday. Fortunately, in football, you can usually bull through it, but it does slow the game down.
I redeemed myself in the second game with a 23-17 win, San Diego over Philadelphia. The Eagles will be a preferred team for a lot of multiplayer gamers this year, but the Chargers, especially with a highly accurate Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates in the middle of the field, are no slouches. Still, I am not an experienced multiplayer performer in any sense of the words. I expect to get killed.
Madden really balances the competition though, and not in an artificial way. A complete novice blending GameFlow, the play-calling engine introduced last year, with a few deliberate choices in tight spots can put up enough of a diversified offense to mask one's glaring tendencies and unfamiliarity that comes from having to use all of the playbook. On defence, I found that just calling a base formation and adjusting its units for blitz, zone or man, throwing in the occasional disguised blitz, was enough.
You're still susceptible to the two big turnoffs in multiplayer sports gaming: cheeseball play and lag. The latter sacked me in my third game, Oakland against Green Bay. Oakland is an order of magnitude poorer than Green Bay but I still hung in this game, thanks largely to a vacuum cleaner of a secondary that sucked in three interceptions. At the end, Jason Campbell threw a pick-six in the final two minutes to get the Packers out ahead 27-20. I drove Oakland to the Packer 1, having to use my final timeout to stop the clock with one second left. I called a play action out of a goal-line set, saw Kevin Boss make his cut uncovered and hit the B button.
And hit it.
And hit it more.
And then Campbell was sacked. I'd seen button presses go completely AWOL before, usually in signalling fair catches, but like the dropped connection in the first game, I was furious that technical failures had embarrassed me again. After calming down, on the whole I felt very pleased with an evenly matched, back-and-forth, very tense experience. Unfortunately, EA Sports' servers seem to be really straining under the release-week load. They were playing very sluggishly on Thursday, suffering a five-hour blackout altogether in the evening.
I saw this play a lot once the guy realised he had about three minutes to score 14 points on me.
This morning I ran into the other scourge of online play, the cheeseball. Back to the Chargers, against Denver, I came up against a guy went for every fourth down, went for touchdowns instead of field goals, ran his defenders around presnap to distract me, exploited gaps to get a sack on running plays and took running headstarts on fielding kickoffs. I can appreciate such a diversified cheese strategy but he should have back-loaded its risk, as I stopped him on fourth down twice in the first quarter, and he began running a undefendable screen pass in the fourth quarter trailing by two scores with two minutes to go.
I still held on to win, 26-20, forcing him to watch me run out the clock. He was much more experienced than I was, much more familiar with how to win online, versus against the CPU, and yet I still won by playing principled, smart football and exploiting his sloppiness.
On the whole, my head-to-head games showed me how so much of Madden's passing game is weighted to the middle of the field, Rivers has a superior arm, and I was able to audible to a fly pattern and hit Vincent Jackson for a huge 80-yard gain outside the numbers. Campbell, forget it. When the Chargers' running back Ryan Matthews was lost to injury against the cheeser, I just started hitting Jackson, Louis Murphy and Gates on slants, a cheap but effective tactic.
One final note, Dynamic Player Progression is a part of online play but the death spirals you get into don't seem as pronounced as they do in Franchise, probably because there's no multi-game history to really nerf whatever player is in a funk. Matthews is a 79-rated runner but I was still able to recover from some demoralising backfield tackles to tear off respectable 7 to 12-yard jaunts.
After getting my feet wet in head-to-head it was on to Ultimate Team. Basically, you start with a base team, pretty poorly rated, and build it up by acquiring packs of random players, grouped according to skill level, like you would in assembling a sports card collection. Your Ultimate Team is playable head-to-head against other Ultimate Team owners, or against a computer-controlled team from Madden's main lineup.
Buying one of the new "Legendary" Packs and adding it to my Ultimate Team.
There are two big additions this year to Ultimate Team: "Legendary" Packs and the ability to straight-up trade cards. In years past you could only auction them to the highest bidder, for "Madden Coins", the game's multiplayer currency. In trades, you can now put a card up on a virtual trading block and set expectations for what you want to receive, in terms of the type of card, its quality, etc. The first trade offer that meets these conditions is accepted. I put a Cowboys blue road uniform up on the block but it didn't get picked up. I may have asked for too much (a silver-level player).
Legendary packs now include the best mix of overall players, plus a shot at finding one of 27 99-rated all-time NFL greats (actually 13 players, some have multiple cards). While everything is technically available free of charge (you accrue Madden Coins through multiplayer play, of any type), Ultimate Team's structure definitely incentivises splurging on player acquisition at the outset, if you want to have an interesting team. A Legendary Pack runs $US5 in real world money. I bought one and got Dan Marino and Barry Sanders, along with several other solid players.
Ultimate Team is a great concept, steadily gaining popularity, but it really demonstrates the adage about getting out of something that which you put into it. In this case, moolah. A ranked multiplayer match, even one in which Vincent Jackson had 270 yards receiving and Philip Rivers threw for more than 350, returned me 152 Madden Coins. That reward is trivially small, and it was accompanied by a 38-coin "2 Games Completed Penalty" whose nature absolutely baffles me. In an Ultimate Team head-to-head game, I was getting more on the order of 1600 coins, or about half the cost of a Bronze pack, the lowest rated pack of cards you can get.
Finally, a word about Communities. This isn't itself a game experience, just something that facilitates them. You may, as a player, search for a community that plays games according to parameters you enjoy -- whether that's difficulty, quarter length, clock runoff, injuries, whatever. Joining one allows you to quickmatch directly among its members that are online at the moment. Coupled with booting authority vested in the community creator, players can police cheating and unsportsmanlike play. Communities may be public or password protected support up to 2000 members, online team play, and have their own lobbies and leaderboards.
It's also a good way to meet gamers from a common background. I've set up a Kotaku Sports community (public, no password) whose games are All-Pro difficulty, seven minute quarters, with a clock runoff to 15 seconds. Join up if you like, it's a way to get to know a large number of folks without having to add them all into an Xbox Live or PSN friends list.
How It Felt
Online multiplayer is no tack-on in Madden. Nor is it a pit of bro-gamers and obsessive elites making life hell for casual fans who want to play something other than the CPU. This is easily the best Madden for multiplayer on this console generation, the best ever in terms of the breadth of services and experiences it offers, and one of the best packages in all of sports gaming. I have never felt more invited to play online multiplayer, nor more rewarded when I got there, even in the losses.
The lag is a bother but it's a variable I can't completely say isn't my fault, as my Comcast pipe behaves like it hates me most of the time and my 360 frequently drops its connection to Xbox Live when other devices are using the Wi-Fi here. After that first drop, I turned them all off and still had to fight through sluggishness.
On the whole, though, those who play this game primarily for multiplayer -- and there are millions -- will find Madden NFL 12 to be well worth picking up again this year.
Our evaluation of Madden NFL 12 concludes Tuesday with our final review of the game.