The NFL season has arrived, and with it, another iteration of the popular "Madden NFL" series. "Madden" is an institution, and Electronic Arts hasn't messed with its winning formula in any fundamental way since the term "PlayStation" was still a novelty. Still, for any given release in the franchise's 23-year history, the feel has changed ever so slightly, whether it's a tweak to the graphics engine or the gameplay balance or the feature set. While it's certainly true that "Madden NFL 12" (PlayStation 3; $59.99; Rated E) is simply another set of updates and minor changes, it comes the closest of any high-end "Madden" game in this generation to feeling perfect.
In terms of gameplay, this is largely due to a revamped defensive engine that makes pass defense doable. The new contact tackling system makes playing on the defensive line a satisfying experience, as run-stopping and pass-rushing actually works the way you'd hope it would every so often. Defending passes actually works better too, given that switching to someone in the secondary doesn't kill his momentum thanks to the auto-sprint function.
For the first time in recent memory, offense and defense feel as though they are on equal footing. The difference this makes in fielding games that feel consistently and constantly competitive is immeasurable.
Again - it just feels right.
What EA has also done right is acknowledge that what people want to do with sports games in the current generation is play them against other people. EA has set up an online community system where people can play against friends or strangers with common interests, whether game-related or otherwise. Head-to-head games, online leagues, and the absorbing Ultimate Team system give people lots of ways to play, with whatever group it is they want to play with.
The cost of greatness
Perhaps the only part of "Madden NFL 12" that feels off is the pressure that the Madden Ultimate Team mode puts on the player to spend money. Money is the quickest way to good players, and it's the only way to get "legendary" players, a set of 27 greats with maxed-out attributes - players such as Gale Sayers, Lawrence Taylor, and Barry Sanders. You can still field a great team without those stars, but it's unfortunate that the price of admission isn't enough for access to them.
There's a good chance that "Madden" is never going to feel novel again, because technology just doesn't change enough from year to year to justify the complete overhaul of a proven formula. Even so, the satisfying experience of "Madden NFL 12" makes this year's edition one to pick up.