Ed. Note -- This preview will solely focus on presentation. That does not mean I did not play the game already, but because my initial hands-on time was so brief I feel it would not be worthy of speaking about here -- I would more or less be listing off bullet points straight from EA rather than giving you guys actual gameplay impressions. I believe I will be playing the game in a deeper fashion in the very near future, so expect gameplay impressions from OS by next week.
Madden NFL Football has struggled mightily over the years to find a solid presentation foundation. Over the years the presentation elements have been lacking, aimless or just plain bad. And, to some extent, that’s not surprising. EA had the impossible task of trying to live up to ESPN NFL 2K5 in the presentation department -- a game that was at one time the gold standard for the entire sports gaming industry. On top of that, the Madden developers refused to just go the route of mimicking an ESPN-style broadcast after they acquired the ESPN license, which would have been a commendable creative decision had they actually created presentation elements that were lauded.
Nevertheless, here we are now, and all we have seen during this console generation is bland, repetitive, aimless or just plain bad presentation in our NFL football game. However, it seems like EA is finally putting in the time and effort -- and money -- to create an experience that you will want to be a part of, not just because you want to control your favorite team or player, but because you want to be a part of a football experience.
No, that’s not a buzzword, it’s literally what the EA developers gathered to lay the groundwork for the presentation in this year’s game. The developers gathered blueprints from every NFL stadium so they could figure out the various camera placements in each one. As that was just step one, from there the developers actually had to place the cameras in the right spots in the game so they mirrored real life. It doesn’t sound like a big deal at first, but each stadium is unique, which means EA added something like 700 cameras to the game.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can play from 700 different camera angles, but it does mean that when you are playing in Jacksonville, the 50-yard-line cameras there will give off a different look during an in-game camera cut than the 50-yard-line cameras would in Philadelphia. It also means that you might see your head coach from one particular angle when you have a home game, but then on the road the cut to your coach will be from a completely different angle. By tweaking the look and angle of things you see every game, the developers hope that it will help to keep things fresh.
From the sounds of it, this was an immense undertaking, and it’s an addition that truly should be called hardcore. For one thing, it will take a true hometown fan to notice that their actual stadium cameras are in the game. Secondly, this is a feature that will unfortunately probably go unnoticed when it comes to the average fan. Still, it’s commendable and certainly makes me buy into EA’s be “true to the NFL” philosophy that the developers are harping on this year.
Creating an EA Broadcast
The cameras are the brick and mortar of this presentation overhaul, but from there you actually have to make the experience look like something you watch every Sunday. To attack this portion of the project, EA looked to CBS and Troika.
Troika seems to run the world when it comes to creating and assembling the graphics you see on sports broadcasts. They help ESPN and about a million other TV stations when it comes to assembling how stats, scores and every other TV overlay looks during an actual television broadcast. EA developers worked with Troika and received guidance from the company to assemble the graphical packages that show up in their game, and it shows.
The game just looks way more consistent, clean and smooth. To elaborate, everything from the starting lineup screens that flash up on the TV as you first take the field to the scoreboard that runs across the top of the screen to the stat overlays that pop up during the course of a game all fit together like a real life TV package. And the best part about all of this is that I soon realized that what I was watching was not an ESPN broadcast; it wasn’t a CBS broadcast; it was a Madden broadcast.
Beyond the graphics, CBS helped to put the EA developers through a broadcast boot camp of sorts. Some EA developers actually got in a CBS production truck and were shown when certain camera cuts should be made, why they were made and so on. By the end of this teaching lesson, the EA developers were making the proper TV cuts almost in unison with the real-life TV cuts made by the actual professionals.
How the developers seem to be taking what they learned and applying it to the game has to do with some common sense and some predictive logic being programmed into the game. One example of common sense is just the camera cutting to a quick cut scene of the QB talking to his head coach before he comes out for his first set of downs. An example of the predictive logic is something more along the lines of cutting to the blimp cam at the end of a quarter.
Essentially, EA has tried to sequence everything in such a way that you feel like you are a part of a TV broadcast sans the commercials. If you feel like a play was replay-worthy, then more than likely the game should be cutting to that replay from a unique stadium-specific camera angle. Since I have only been exposed to a little slice of this experience, it’s hard to say if every part has been nailed, but the amount of dedication and time that is being poured into this particular element of the game is noteworthy.
First Impressions Are Everything
The pregame sequences in Madden NFL 2011 were a good first step, but this year the team is trying to really go for it. To attack this portion of the game, the developers researched the pregame intros of every team, and they also enlisted the help of the NFL Films crew.
The outcome of the research is the addition of a ton of new introduction sequences. So for the Seahawks there is now a 12th man flag involved during their intro. But the specificity of these intro sequences goes well beyond just key things like that. In Pittsburgh, it means there is no pregame pyro, the team comes out from the corner of the stadium, and Big Ben comes out last as the PA announcer does the player introductions. I have little to no knowledge of what the proper intro sequence is for any NFL team, but EA seems confident that your favorite team will get what’s coming to it in this department.
(As a quick aside, the developers actually added the new wind turbines that will surround the top of the Eagles stadium to Madden NFL 12 -- the turbines won’t actually be completed until September. This an incredibly small detail that I only noticed because I live in Philadelphia, and I only mention it to show you how serious these developers seem to be about nailing small details.)
NFL Films is also incredibly important when it comes to the pregame portion of the game because those guys actually filmed these cut scenes. While I won’t get into all the nitty-gritty details, basically NFL Films workers got into a 3-D space and EA mo-capped them and their cameras as they followed the action that was happening in the video game. I’m sure that’s a little hard to understand, but all you need to know is that it adds an authentic touch to these intro sequences because EA has embraced human imperfections. The NFL Films workers did not know every motion that Michael Vick would do as he came out of the big Eagles helmet, so what that means is that the camera is slightly shaky at times, and Vick is not always perfectly in the middle of the picture.
These imperfections go beyond the pregame sequences as well. A real cameraman can not track a football in the middle of his lens as it soars through the air, so the game will no longer do that either during an in-game replay -- any long-time Madden player should know exactly what I mean with this example.
Consider this your mishmash portion of the presentation preview. The thing that most stands out about this game from a graphical standpoint is the improvement to the color palette. Whether it’s the lighting or the fact that the shadows are changing throughout the game, or just a focus on making sure green is actually green, it’s immediately noticeable. If you look at Madden NFL 11, the Eagles jerseys in that game look almost turquoise. This year, the Eagles actually look like they are wearing green jerseys. Of course, cynics would say these things should have been correct in the first place, but hey, at least they seem to be right now.
And much like in NCAA Football 2012, the 3-D grass is lovely. The coolest part about the grass might be the stains though. The developers went the extra mile with their grass-stain technology. So, for example, you can actually see stains on the ridges of a player’s thigh protector, but the stains won’t be within the divot of the thigh protector. The stains all happen in real time as well. In other words, if your offensive lineman gets put on his butt, there is probably going to be a stain there on his left and/or right cheek.
For the equipment junkies out there, you guys should also be happy. There is something like 20 new facemasks in the game. The helmets themselves will also get scuffed up during the course of the game. In addition to that good stuff, there are flak jackets and other assorted pieces of equipment like back plates in the game.
As far as player models go, there has been a focus on trying to make sure players are more proportional this year. One of the focuses is making sure players actually have necks. In the past, it was more shoulders connecting to heads with nothing in between. Beyond that, apparently it can be a real pain to create players that actually continue to stay proportional at various heights. So this year smaller players won’t have tiny heads -- a 5-foot-5 person still has basically the same size head as a 6-foot-5 person in real life. The general idea is just make the players look like humans on a football field.
Finally, I have to mention the actual size of the football. In last year’s game, the football was huge. This year you can immediately tell during the coin-toss sequence that the football is a normal sized piece of pigskin.
I did not mention the commentary duo of Collinsworth and Gus Johnson, and that’s for good reason. I simply did not really get to hear them much during the demo event. However, I can at least pass along one note that these two did actually get some time in the booth together, which should help them sync up more this year. I also did mention a halftime/Extra Point show or anything of that sort. This was also intentional. This element was scrapped this year. Considering it was such a joke in the past versions of the game, the developers decided since there was not enough time to do it justice, it would just be taken out completely. It’s obviously not the most popular route to take, but it fits back into their desire to only want to do things right or not at all on the presentation front.
Those ingredients aside, I hope it’s clear that EA is going for it this year on the presentation front. For too long the developers have been negligent parents to their presentational progeny, and now they are trying to make up for all those missed birthdays and Christmases in one year. I want to see more before getting to amped up about what was done -- staying power and avoiding repetition is key here after all -- but either way it’s abundantly clear that this was a major focus in this year’s title.
Look for much more information in the future here at Operation Sports as we approach Madden’s August 30 release date.
*Full disclosure: EA paid for my airfare during my trip to see the game. While it did not influence what I wrote here, OS believes transparency is still key whenever possible.*