Quick: Name one thing you didn't like in last year's Madden NFL 10. No, I'm not talking about receivers not getting their feet in on the sidelines. I'm thinking of a larger problem with what was otherwise a very respectable entry in the long-running NFL series from EA Sports. It had nothing to do with the visuals, or the gameplay, or the controls. For me--and for many other Madden 10 players--in an otherwise fine football game, the biggest problem was Tom Hammond.
Now, nothing against Mr. Hammond. The long-time NBC broadcaster is pretty much a legend in his field as he's covered everything from horse racing to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But his work in Madden NFL 10--which he shared with color commentator Chris Collinsworth--left a lot to be desired. In fact, while Collinsworth's work shined, especially in the post-play breakdowns that worked specifically to Collinsworth's strengths as an unparalleled football analyst, Hammond's lackluster play-by-play calls really didn't work…either by themselves or in conjunction with his partner.
EA Sports knows this. It probably knew it with Madden 09--the first entry that featured Hammond and Collinsworth. With Madden NFL 11, however, EA Sports is finally addressing the problem by bringing in CBS' Gus Johnson to handle play-by-play duties along with Collinsworth. [Full disclosure: GameSpot is a property of CBS Interactive.] Earlier in the month, I had a chance to head down to EA's offices in Redwood Shores, Calif., to check out the new audio changes in Madden 11 and spend some time hanging out with Gus Johnson.
According to Ronnie Morales, EA's audio director on Madden 11, bringing Johnson into the Madden fold is just one of the improvements made to the game's audio presentation this year, but it's certainly destined to be the most noticeable. There's somewhere around 90,000 lines of commentary in this year's game--Johnson refers to the mounds of script he's read through as "stacks and stacks and stacks of paper"--which is a far cry from the roughly 500 lines of dialogue that was featured in the first Madden game all those years ago.
Johnson's trademark excitement--if you've ever seen a televised NCAA basketball game with him at the helm, you know the kind of energy he's capable of bringing--was all over the demo of Madden 11 showed off to the press. According to Morales, the biggest change between the audio in this year's game and in games from prior years occurs during midplay, which is where all the excitement happens. Sure, Johnson and Collinsworth can set up the down and distance before the ball is snapped, but it's once the ball is in the quarterback's hands that the real test of the men in the booth begins.
An example: In Madden 10, when a receiver caught a ball and headed into the open field on his way to the end zone, Hammond rarely did more than call the yard marker he was passing. Certainly, it was accurate, but it was far from exciting. With Madden 11, you can expect to hear Johnson continually amp up the intensity as that receiver sheds tackles and barrels closer to the end zone. By the time that receiver is in the end zone, Johnson is nearly apoplectic, and the whole thing feels less like a clinical operation and more like a gridiron achievement.
Johnson is no stranger to EA--he has previously handled announcing duties for last year's NCAA Basketball 10--but his trademark energy is just one part of the audio chemistry in Madden 11. For the first time, EA Tiburon hired outside writers who have contributed new dialogue for Johnson and Collinsworth to read (in previous years, all dialogue was written internally by producers and developers).
In addition to enhanced commentary, the game's environmental audio has seen a lot attention, with enhanced crowd and stadium noises that will react to the action on the field. If you listen for player-specific chants, such as Seattle Seahawks' receiver T.J. Joushmandzadeh catching a pass, the crowd reacts with a resounding "Hooooouuuuush!" There are also pre-play "hype" presentations for all 32 NFL teams, similar to the one shown featuring New Orleans Saints' QB Drew Brees. When you toss in the additional commentary from your offensive and defensive coordinators, who will be breaking down play calls for you if you're using the new gameflow feature, there's a lot for your ears to take in.
Morales said EA Sports has included plenty of Gus Johnson Easter eggs in the audio presentation--many of which will only be uncovered in very specific circumstances--and he's looking forward to watching the message boards as Madden fans talk about the latest Gus gem they've heard. Personally, I won't be satisfied until I hear a roof-rattling "OH MY GOODNESS!" at the tail end of a Jay Cutler touchdown bomb. After all, I wouldn't expect anything less from Gus.
Look for more coverage on Madden NFL 11 during GameSpot's live coverage of E3 2010 in June.