SPORTSBALL, WEEK 6: Bye, Bye, Bye

Welcome to Sportsball, where I spend the NFL season trying to figure out how to play Madden and win. It only works sometimes. Catch up on the fun here. Read on to find out why the lead image is a vintage 'NSYNC group shot. Maybe.

For those of you have been following this adventure of mine from the beginning and read faithfully (I like to tell myself that there are people like that out there, even if it isn’t true. Makes me feel valued and stuff.), you may remembered that last week was my team’s BYE week, which meant there was no game scheduled. I had said that I would do something different instead to compensate.

Unfortunately, I was on the go much of the time I usually set aside for Sportsball, and wasn’t able to get a column done. I did, however, do something a bit different during the BYE week. Let me tell you about it:

So, Madden 12 has a “NFL Superstar” mode, which is that year’s version of a career mode: you get to create a player from the ground up (or import one from NCAA Football, which is kind of cool) and enter him in the draft and play through his career. So I decided I’d give this mode a go in my BYE week.

Ladies and gentleman, meet my rookie Quarterback, Milli Vanilli:

SPORTSBALL, WEEK 6: Bye, Bye, Bye

In case you’re curious, it’s been a week and it still makes me chuckle.

Anyway, as you can see, but probably don’t know, I do everything I can to make Vanilli look like me. This is not easy, because Madden is severely limited in it’s choices for face types, only really allowing you to pick between seven different kinds of ugly and then maybe some face paint or tape. It doesn’t really matter anyway, since the game isn’t ever gonna show your guy without his helmet.

I am, however, able to make him resemble me in other ways. Look closely, and you’ll see that Milli Vanilli is super skinny and not jacked at all. He also has awkwardly big feet, which is a trait I don’t actually have, but, like the name Milli Vanilli, simply amuses me. This guy really shouldn’t be in the NFL.

It may sound like I’m being purely facetious here, but this actually highlights a sort of game design quandary of sorts that I can’t ever seem to make up my mind about. It has to do with an avatar’s cosmetic appearance as related to their performance. Bear with me for a moment here:

I like RPGs. In most games in the genre, not only is your character’s performance determined by their experience level and the points you pour into different attributes over time (a feature that Madden and other sports titles have since adopted), your gear plays a big part in it too. Maybe a certain armor set is fireproof, or a weapon exists only to damage a certain type of enemy. As a result, an engrossed RPG player like myself can often lose quite a bit of time stopping to compare sets of pants like the person in front of you in a checkout line with a sandwich bag full of coupons, trying to figure out which one will offer the bigger stat benefit.

I personally don’t mind this—it’s all part of the fun of playing an RPG. But sometimes I do mind, especially when particularly beneficial bit of gear just looks inexcusably ridiculous. Usually this involves hats. Observe:

SPORTSBALL, WEEK 6: Bye, Bye, Bye

I don’t care if that thing gives me +25 health and lets me walk on water, I’m not wearing it. I’m a guy out to save the world from demon hordes and can generate more electricity from my bare hands than most New Jersey municipalities. I need to have at least a little bit of self-respect.

There are games that take this into account, and do one of two things: Either they include gear that modifies your stats without actually changing your appearance, or they make gear entirely cosmetic, with no stat benefits whatsoever. I tend to not like either of these choices, since I’m someone who likes everything that I do in a game to have some sort of measurable impact on how the game plays out, but I suppose I understand the latter option more. I’ve never been big on customization for its own sake, but I do find value in it.

Madden made me think about all this while creating future superstar QB Milli Vanilli. Other than having a skill point system that, like most of Madden, makes zero sense, you can trick out your character with all manner of gear. You can also do this with your team in Franchise mode, as you’ll see when I was trying to decide whether or not Adrian Peterson looked better with short sleeves:

SPORTSBALL, WEEK 6: Bye, Bye, Bye

Or if the the sleeveless look was more becoming on his figure:

SPORTSBALL, WEEK 6: Bye, Bye, Bye

Now, ultimately, sleeves and sweatbands probably don’t matter much (although I could imagine a game where they helped/hindered performance based on weather conditions), but I feel like other things you can choose, like pads, do. They’re essentially armor, and come with the same tradeoff: increased protection comes at the cost of decreased mobility. But in Madden, it’s purely cosmetic, like eyeliner, you use it to make your players arms pop.

None of this is, ultimately, a bad thing. In fact, I’m almost positive there are very good reasons why the game has this particular system of customization set up (was it ever different?). It does absolutely nothing to detract from my experience. I just wonder if having it would make it all the more engrossing.

As for the actual Superstar mode itself, I quite like it so far. You play one position, the coach calls out your plays and you follow them (or not) and you only play when your Superstar is on the field. It also gives me a really good venue for practicing my QB skills for Franchise mode, which still require a bit of a warmup every week.

The main drawback, though, is that every other player on your team is controlled by the AI, and the AI sucks, man. Your receivers are droids and the defenders are Jedi. Run plays, which were a safety net for me in Franchise mode, became pretty much the only way to gain yards in Superstar mode. Milli Vanilli’s prospects are not good. With his terrible pass completion rate and an 0-3 preseason record thus far, I’m not sure the Baltimore Ravens would want to keep him. Cross your fingers, folks. Maybe things will get better for the chap.

Back in Franchise land for Week 8 of the regular season, my 4-2 Bengals were up against the 2-4 Seahawks, and damn, their stadium is cool.

I’m able to snap into a quick groove early on, relieved after having played Superstar mode to have control of my whole squad again. I blow through the game, reaching the fourth quarter leading 17-0. Unfortunately, I get a little sloppy and the Seahawks get a little better (they really benefitted from a sideline catch that went under review and came out in their favor) and they manage to score once for a final score of 17-7.

I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.