The problem with Madden games in years past is the fact that they have been an autopilot cash cow where EA wraps up the same formula as the previous year with updated rosters, making for an utterly unfulfilled product package. Therefore, whenever a new Madden game is released, the thing to look for is what's new and what's hot. In other words- what makes this year's version of the game worth picking up other than the fact that Brett Favre is no longer in the game. Luckily, for what feels like the first time since Madden '08, the series appears to have made a pleasant transition.
There's no need to go into the specifics of the game's mechanics. The controls are as tight and slick as ever. It's very, very rare that I find myself performing a juke, spin, jump, or dive that I myself hadn't intended on. The graphics have had their yearly buff and make this game, without a doubt, the prettiest Madden on the market. The commentary of the game is still good and entertaining, but suffers the same drawbacks of previous years- play the game enough and you will be sure to get sick of the same remarks by Collinsworth.
What sets Madden NFL 12 apart from its previous installments though is not just one specific trait, quality, or instance. It's the opinion that you form after hours of playing. You won't realize it after one game, or even five. But about the time you're halfway through your franchise mode it starts to dawn on you- the game finally has something that fans have wanted for years- it's sucks you in! Madden 12 is finally something different when it comes to being realistic. It replicates what happens (or could happen) every Sunday to such a higher level of perfection. It doesn't matter that the Green Bay Packers are the reigning Superbowl champions and the Arizona Cardinals have an awful defense- it's still the NFL and it's still a challenge. Big Ben's rocket of an arm is still there and very much a threat, but no longer can he spin around off his back foot and complete an 80 yard bomb to a receiver that's being double covered on the other side of the field. The realism is finally here. In previous games, Madden was all about the stats. Now it's about strategy and knowledge of the game and the tendencies of its players. Just because Matt Forte has great stats doesn't mean that you'll suddenly be breaking runs right through the Ravens defense. To defeat the AI in Madden 12 you need to come in playing like an actual NFL team would. It doesn't matter that you're using high-rated player Tom Brady to throw to high-rated player Wes Welker... Revis Island is still very much a threat.
Of course, Madden 12 has received some more visible improvements as well. All of the primary game modes are still the same and seem a bit disappointing and all, but the tweaks are there and appreciated. No longer do you have to spend 8 seasons buffing up the stats on your NFL superstar. It's been simplified. I don't always agree with simplifying and dumbing down features in games, but in this case it is very much an improvement. There is also the new mode of MUT (Madden Ultimate Team). MUT means trading cards with other players around the world, sort of similar to the local card system that Madden used to have back in the days of the original Xbox. MUT is much more difficult and rigorous however, and requires good knowledge of the game to build a successful "team". Teams are also given ratings by EA and there are cool unlocakables and achievements for building high-rated MUTs which is much harder than it may sound.
Overall Madden NFL 12 really is a great product. It's still not a perfect product, and it still doesn't top my favorite game in the series (2008). It is however, a beacon of hope and shows that EA has not given up in innovation for the NFL games. In the '09-10 seasons things were looking bad. 2011 showed little signs of stepping up. Finally, Madden 12 is here to fill that role. Hopefully this game is not seen as a peak in the series though, but the transition game to that cutting-edge game that we American football fans continue to lust for.