Earlier today, EA released the first screenshot for NCAA Football 2012 through the ESPN website.
In addition to giving us the screenshot (and our first taste of the new game), EA also promised that they would break down the new features that the screenshot is supposed to showcase.
First screenshot of EA's NCAA Football 2012
But just because EA is going to spoil all the answers to the puzzle they've given us, doesn't mean we can't dissect this little gem ourselves:
First and foremost, the image is gorgeous and showcases further improvement of the stellar lighting and self-shadowing that was implemented in last year's game, and there seems to be a greater balance to depth of field (players who aren't the focus of the frame aren't as blurry as they were last year). Last year's game was a massive jump up in visual quality, and it looks like this year's game is going to be no exception.
Other visual nuances:
- The field is now in 3-D! Yep, it now appears that individual blades of grass are being rendered in 3-D. Clumps of grass even appear to be able to be kicked up (look at the top of the left sock of number 52 in the screen).
- Player uniforms look they are going to be getting dirtier in more realistic ways.
- New character customizeation options such as new helmets and facemasks, and the return of dreadlocks.
- Player faces may be more dynamic than in last year, with players showing greater degrees of emotion and/or physical distress during plays (instead of just in post-play cutscenes).
Why none of the above means didley-squat
The unfortunate truth is that it doesn't matter how pretty your game looks if it doesn't play well. A still-frame screenshot doesn't really reveal much - if anything - about the actual gameplay. But there are a few things in this screen that look promising, and a few things that make it look like we might be getting more of the same.
Topmost on my list of concerns is blocking. Blocking is one of the areas that was improved last year (specifically, run blocking), but was still lacking in many important areas. NCAA Football 2011 never provided a sense that the offensive linemen and defensive linemen were really struggling against one another. They just kind of locked arms and danced a waltz. Linemen also have had an irritating habit of "suction blocking" defenders for years. In the above screenshot, I see no indications that blocking has actually been improved. Of the five blockers in the screen, only two appear to be actively engaged with a defender, and we can't see what either is actually doing because one is blocked by number 55 and the other is out of the frame (with only his foot being visible on the right edge). The other two offensive linemen (number 55 and the Miami Hurricane player behind and to our right of Gator defender number 22) seem to just be walking around watching the play while their running back is breaking his ankles trying to juke a defending linebacker. The offensive lineman in the far left of the background is also completely flat-footed on the grass, as if he has planted his feet and is doing his best impression of pre-global-warming glacier.
However, the screen isn't all bad. The focus of the image is on Miami running back number 6 and his apparently legendary juke of Florida linebacker number 52. The tackle animation being shown here appears to be brand new, and one of the consistent complaints with EASports football games over the past years appears to have been addressed (at least partially). In previous years, when an offensive player makes an evasive move against a defender who is triggering a tackle animation, the offensive player's movement is canceled and in many cases completely reset in order to make the tackle animation work. This would often result in a player stopping mid-spin, turning back around, and letting the defender tackle him. All within a fraction of a second. However, in the above screenshot, the Florida defender appears to be in very close proximity to the runner. Close enough that I would expect the runner's juke move to have been canceled, and the animation to be reset. But that doesn't seem to be happening here. It looks like the runner is actually able to escape the tackle because the defender did not get his arms around the runner's body.
At least, that is what I'm hoping that I'm seeing in this screen. It is also possible that this screenshot was taken just prior to the runner's juke animation being canceled to make his motion sync up with the defender, or that the screenshot was taken immediately after a new break-tackle animation has been executed. There is also no way of telling from this screenshot by itself that linebacker number 52's right hand won't simply "ghost" right through the runner's right leg, meaning that no tackle animation (or broken tackle animation) was even played to begin with.
While I highly doubt that EASports and Tiburon Studios went to the trouble of implementing a fully real-time physics modeling system into their game engine, I am going to suspend my doubt for a moment and hope that the intent of this screen is to show worried consumers that this year's game will finally pay more respect to the physical bodies of the players on the field. That character model clipping, animation cancelation, pre-determined animation results have been minimized or removed. That each and every player on the field may now have the potential to affect the outcome of the play - even after a tackle animation has begun. But that might be asking too much. 3-D grass doesn't mean jack-diddley-squat if the game isn't going to pay respect to the physical bodies of the players on the field.
I guess we'll find out tomorrow what this screen is supposed to be showing us...
And hopefully, somebody will teach number 6 to hold the ball against his body. Remember the 3-points-of-contact rule for ball control!