Thoughts from Maddenpalooza: Part 1

LT.jpg

I turn 30 this week, and I can think of worse places to start off seven days than at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I was there for the cutely named Maddenpalooza, a fan festival heralding the release of Madden 09 as well as the franchise’s 20th year. I wrote a small container for the Bulletin and the Sun, while Caroline An and Samantha Bravo held it down for the Pasadena Star-News. I mentioned some technical aspects, while the Star-News duo got fan reaction as well as Steve Young.

I spent a good chunk of the day playing, talking and then playing some more. Since there were a few hundred gaming stations, I was able to sink a little bit into the gameplay. As I mentioned before, my 360 died, so I tried to squeeze in as much as I can. Here are some of my first impressions on aspects of the game.

The new look: I didn’t think the game really needed a total visual overhaul, but I really liked what I saw from the handful of games I played. Some have griped that the players look a little too bouncy or cartoonish, but at least they seem livelier than the slightly robotic players that had been racing up and down the field in past 360/PS3 versions of the game.

“That’s probably the part that me and the team are most proud of,” said Phil Frazier, the senior producer for the game. “We replaced a lot of animations, did a lot of new things with lighting and player models. In the past, while they looked good, they weren’t really proportionately accurate. This time, we scanned the full body of different kinds of athletes wearing pads, and looked at a lot of high-res photos of players from all angles.”

If you look closely while you’re playing, you’ll also pick up on some other visual knick-knacks. For instance, if you break a long run, the camera suddenly zooms in and starts shaking slightly, as if it’s being held by someone running behind you. That’s the “impact” camera, and it’s one of the new dramatic elements that’s been added to the game, along with cameras panning from offense to defense and a “blue” hue that comes over the screen when it starts snowing. That’s what Frazier was getting at when he was talking about adding “drama” in the container — even at the expense of deadly accurate realism.

“We want the game to pop, so yes, sometimes we do exaggerate colors,” he said. “But that’s the tricky part — doing that without going overboard.”

John Madden and the Sands of Time: I’m talking about the new “rewind” feature, which essentially gives players a do-over by pressing a button. In effect, this “rewinds” the play to the point right before the ball is snapped, so that you have a chance to avoid the mistake you just made. I have to admit … when I first heard of this (and tried it), a part of me wept. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. However, Frazier expounded on the reasoning behind the feature.

“We get two reactions when it comes to the rewind,” he. “The casual gamers and fans loved it. The hardcore players rejected it .. at first. It’s meant to be a learning tool. You can’t use it online, and you and a friend can use it to handicap. If you’re really good and the person you’re playing isn’t good at all, maybe you give them, say, three chances to rewind. If you’re a hardcore player playing by yourself, you can use it to work on your game.”

So remember, the bottom line is that rewind can be disabled, and that you can’t use it online.

It’s also meant to tie into the game’s “backtrack” feature, which not only functions as a replay, but also lets you know of any chances you missed, like an open receiver downfield. Pretty cool, I thought.

Cris Collinsworth is my hero: One thing I couldn’t really stand about the last few games was the disconnected “radio” play-by-play voice. The PS2 and “last-gen” versions had Al Michaels and Madden, while the 360 players were left with Random Radio Guy.

This year, we’ve got Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth, who I actually like listening to when I watch a real game. Hammond’s your typical straight-arrow play-by-play guy in this edition of Madden, but the real magic comes when Collinsworth starts talking. It rarely sounds like he’s following a script and simply just talking about players and situations he sees on the field.

“We encourage our guys to actually ad-lib,” Frazier said. “It’s interesting … we actually adapted our writing style. When we got feedback from Al or John, their thing was that they thought we were being too negative. John would say something, and then he’d say, ‘Do I have to be so negative?’ Cris would look at the script and say, ‘OK, I see what you’re getting at here,’ and then just start going … he could literally just ad-lib and talk for minutes. He also told us, ‘You know, I actually like getting after the players … can I be a little more negative?’ We said sure, go for it.”

You get an earful of Collinsworth’s musings, all of which I enjoyed, especially when he was talking about Steelers tailback Willie Parker. In one snippet of thought, he talked about everything from Parker’s straight-line speed to the fact that he didn’t play that much in college. It’s good stuff … it’s like a switch went on and he just started talking about football.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Next time, it’s more gameplay as well as some stuff from the retired players who were there.