This review was originally published 07/30/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
EA really needs some competition in the football gaming market. I can’t imagine any football gaming fan NOT wanting the NCAA to discontinue EA’s NCAA football-exclusivity license when it expires either this year or next. [Update: EA has agreed to not sign another exclusivity agreement!] Comptetition is always good for the consumer, and right now, EA really isn’t giving us games that are up to par with our expectations. For the past two or three years, EA has given us NCAA football games that have contained some great new features and gameplay additions, but every year, they manage to fill the game with new flaws or take steps backwards in terms of gameplay.
Two years ago, excessive turnovers made the game almost unplayable. Last year, the oppressively fast game speed made the game look and feel so chaotic, that it almost completely overshadowed the improvements such as the "Dead Duck" passes and the "Setup Play" feature. Like in past years, the new game gives us a lot of welcome improvements, but also introduces new problems and takes several steps backwards in certain areas.
The most immediately noticeable change in this year’s iteration is its presentation. Several major changes in this category make the game look, sound, and feel very different than last year. ESPN has finally been fully integrated into the franchise, with graphics, pre-game introductions, music, and instant replays all using the official ESPN College Football themes. The ESPN integration is a good compliment for the game’s completely revamped graphics that introduce lighting, self-shading, and texturing effects to rival last year’s visually-impressive Madden title (and looks like it will be able to compete visually with this year’s Madden too).
The game looks like an ESPN broadcast.
So the game looks great, but the frequent ESPN graphics are a bit obtrusive and feel almost like they’re being forced down my throat, and I really don’t like the new Instant Replay cameras that are placed low on the field, limiting the view of the entire play. A simple Pressbox or Sky Cam is much more realistic, and much more interesting to watch, since it allows you to see how a play develops. But now, you’re stuck having to watch the back of the ball-carrier’s jersey and can’t see any of what’s going on around him.
The new main menu is also annoying. Past iterations showed pictures or videos of your favorite team and/or highlights from your own games while on the main menu, while playing your school’s fightsong. It wasn’t game-making or game-breaking, but it did add a great deal of personalization and a sense of school spirit. The new game uses a pre-selected set of ESPN music tracks for the menus, and all the highlights and photos are gone, replaced with only pictures to represent the various game modes and options. The new menus are boring, and quite ugly, and I really miss the Shrine.
Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreet return for commentary, with Erin Andrews still acting as sideline reporter. But strangely, Lee Corso is gone from the commentator line-up. This might be welcome news for some, but I already missed Corso within the first minute of gameplay. Nessler and Herbstreet are just boring without him. Commentary feels sparse and uninteresting, and repeats far too often. I hope Corso comes back next year.
Many major schools have some authentic team entrances that give the game a unique college feel and pageantry, but each school only seems to have ONE such entrance, with the same camera cuts and animations. And if you’re a fan of one of the less-popular schools in the nation, you may feel that you’ve been cheated out of some of the game’s new "pageantry and tradition" that is advertised on the back of the cover. Being from Las Vegas, I’m a fan of UNLV, and I very quickly noticed that neither UNLV’s mascot OR fight song had been included in this year’s game, both of which WERE in last year’s game. I am absolutely baffled and very disappointed that they were removed. Of course, if your school’s fightsong was left out of this year’s game, you can still import it using the Custom Stadium Sounds feature and set events to trigger when it plays in-game
We can talk about presentation details like those until we’re blue in the face, but in all honesty, all that is just fluff. What really matters is gameplay.
The moment you run your first game of NCAA 11, you are going to notice several immediate changes. You’ll notice that its animation is much smoother and much cleaner than last year, and the pacing seems a bit easier to handle. Controls have undergone some changes due to the introduction of a "Locomotion" system that emphasizes players’ acceleration and agility over pure speed. Runners can now combine together multiple stutter-steps, jukes, and spins all with motions of the right analog stick, and sprinting is now handled automatically (although this can be toggled "off" if you still want to have to hold the right trigger to control you’re player’s speed).
The Locomotion system has improved both the passing and running game. Leading receivers is easier than ever, since really quick receivers can easily break free from coverage to sprint to a properly lead pass, and dropping the bomb over a running receiver’s shoulder is finally possible in this game. More control and fluidity in the movement of running backs has also helped the run game, but the biggest change to the run game comes in the form of some long-overdue blocking improvements.
Using the Coach Cam to see the play art on the field will now show exactly which defender each of your blockers is going to attempt to block, and these assignments will actually change if the defense shifts positions pre-snap. Linemen are finally reliably opening holes and doing their jobs, blocking downfield on Counters, Sweeps, and Screen passes, driving back Noseguards with double-teams on Isos and Dives, and doing a much better job of pretending to pass block on Draws. For the first time in years, the running game actually feels like a viable and potent offensive weapon -- even Sweeps!
Coach cam shows accurate blocking assignments, even during Read Option plays in which the backside defensive end is intentionally left unblocked.
The best news is that these blocking improvements all continue to work even on the higher difficulty levels (at least, so far). In fact, they might work too well, even at higher difficulties. In several games I played on All-American, I was able to run the ball with little-to-no resistance. However, the game makes up for this slightly with its pass defense by making the CPU team’s defensive backs psychic, as they will noticeably follow the receiver’s routes BEFORE the receiver has made his cuts, and the human player’s pass blocking is horrible. Put simply: the game still cheats on higher difficulties.
The gameplay is still far from perfect. The same motion-captured, animations-based engine that’s been used since the days of the PS2 is still the driving force behind the game. So "cheap," "cheating" moments still abound in NCAA football. Some of the franchise’s major problems have been addressed, however. Receivers finally actually do a decent job of making sideline catches and turning up-field. The irritating "piggy back" animation (in which a defender will jump on a receiver’s back and knock down the ball) has apparently been replaced with a much more realistic animation in which the defender wraps around the receiver’s waist and brings him down. And the invisible force fields that allowed defenders to swat the ball without even touching it have been retuned so that now the ball seems to go right through defender’s fingers (I guess they exchanged one problem for another -- "Force Field hands" for "Ghost Hands" -- whether it’s a fair trade-off is up to you).
But not all the long-lasting problems have been fixed. Players’ body parts still "ghost" right through each other, linemen still sometimes run around in circles without blocking anybody, receivers still drop passes for no apparent reason, and defenders still roll around on the ground instead of adding on to a tackle. This last one is especially irritating considering the Pro-Tak system from Madden has been imported into NCAA this year. But the Pro-Tak just doesn’t seem to ever happen when it should. Far too often have I been frustrated with my defender wrapping up a ballcarrier near the endzone or a first-down marker with a safety coming in to knock the ballcarrier back before he crosses the line, but instead, the safety just rolls on the floor (along with a few more of my defenders), and the one-man tackle animation continues to push the ballcarrier forward for a First Down or Touchdown. In such situations, players are completely prevented from being able to interact with the play once a certain animation has been triggered. It doesn’t look good, and it can actually have an effect on the game, sometimes being the difference between converting that last-minute 4th and goal when down by 6, or being stopped on the one-yard-line. It all depends on whether the game’s programming feels like letting you win or not. Sometimes you’ll benefit from these flaws to pull off an upset of your own; and sometimes, they’ll cost you your perfect season, rivalry trophy, bowl game, or a National Championship.
PRO-TAK has been imported from Madden 10 - for better or worse.
When a play is over, you’ll notice a new play-calling scheme as well. The playbooks themselves have received a lot of attention and specialization based on teams. New playbooks have been added with focus on different styles of offense. The default "basic" play-calling screen has the AI select about a dozen or so plays based on the situation, and you just chose from among those. But if you want full control, you can switch back to the "Advanced" play-call mode with the press of a button.
The play-calling interface has some welcome additions: when selecting a kicking play (punt, field goal, etc.), the game will show the wind speed and direction above the play; and when on defense, the game now shows not only the amount of each position the opposing offense is putting on the field, but also shows the jersey numbers of those players, so if the opponent subs in a super-speedy backup receiver, or subs in a player in a position they don’t normally play, you’ll be able to see it on the play-call screen.
The Basic mode works fine for offense, but is horribly broken on defense. The game only selects plays for you based on situation (down and distance), rather than the personnel or tendencies of the opposing offense. If you’re playing against an opponent who likes to run 4 or 5 wide receiver sets, you’re going to be very irritated to find that the game will rarely include nickel or dime plays on defense on first or second down. You’ll often have to settle for a 4-3 or 3-4 formation, and have to put your linebackers up against those multiple receivers. Compounding this issue is the fact that the game now starts the 12-second countdown for the user to pick a play on defense, rather than giving you an extra 5 or 10 seconds while the CPU offense picks its play. This gives the user VERY little time to scroll through all their plays, especially with how slowly the game renders the play-call screen. And if you’re not satisfied with the plays the AI selected for you, and want to go back to the "Advanced" play-call screen, you’ll have NO time left over to scroll through all the formations and plays. Even starting with "Advanced Play Calling" turned on gives you very little time to be able to scroll through all the available plays within a formation due to the very slow rendering speed of the play-call screen. Effectively, HALF of your defensive playbook is off-limits. And don’t even think about toggling through different defensive personnel packages.
A corollary issue is that absolutely NO time gets ticked off the clock when the CPU offense is in the huddle. The game and play clock stops immediately after the defensive play-call screen opens, effectively completely devaluing clock management. Why do you need to run a no-huddle offense when the play-call process on offense now only takes 1 or 2 seconds, especially now that running a No Huddle still brings up the Play-call menu as you’re players are lining back up? The No Huddle actually wastes MORE time off the game clock than huddling up! An accelerated clock option is absolutely essential to this game (counting down about 10 or 15 seconds from the game and play clock to simulate the time it takes to huddle), and the fact that it was not included is a hugely unfortunate omission by EA if you’re a football purist like me.
Plus, they incorrectly implemented the "Spike Ball" rule, and allow teams to spike the ball from the hurry up offense out of Shotgun or Pistol formations, even though the rules of football state that a Spike Ball can only be done from under Center. CPU clock management during the end of a half also suffers from broken logic. I’ve seen the CPU team run down the clock prior to punting the ball when losing by 1 point with just over 2 minutes remaining in the fourth. In fact, the AI rarely ever uses its timeouts (especially on offense), even in situations when they NEED to use them. Clock Management in this game is just all-around bad!
A final insult for users of the "Basic" play-calling system is that it completely eliminates the ability to use the GamePlan feature that returns from last year. In order to access the GamePlan menu, you MUST be in the Advanced Play Call screen, and you MUST have already selected a formation. It’s absolute nonsense! You can’t even get to the Gameplan screen from the pause menu! At least, not that I could tell.
Some other irritating logic bugs also pop up way too frequently. CPU teams still have the problem of opting to play offense first in overtime (which you DON’T do in college football). Additionally, kick returners frequently field the ball from 8 yards deep in the end zone and punt returners frequently field the ball from inside the 10 yard line. Both of which are "no-no’s."
So the actual playing of football is full of some hit-or-miss changes, and more than its fair share of bugs.
The game modes
When you’re ready to do some off-field work, both the Dynasty and Road to Glory modes return this year. The Road to Glory Mode is still the horrible mess and waste of time that it was last year. In fact, it hasn’t been changed at all from what I could tell. The exact same Erin Andrews cinematics and commentary have been re-used and no improvements outside of the general gameplay changes have been made. But fortunately, Road to Glory isn’t the only mode the game has to offer.
The Dynasty mode is still here, and it’s still the deepest, most enjoyable football career mode in any game currently available. The interface has been revamped and streamlined across the board. Information is organized very well, and almost any information you could want is accessible with only one or two button-presses. But the major change to Dynasty comes from a change to the way recruiting is done. Now, instead of being able to spend an indefinite amount of time in a call with a single prospect and discuss whatever you wish, you now have to allocate between 1 and 6 conversational topics (each lasting 10 minutes of recruiting time), and these topics will be selected at random. The system does make recruiting more interesting, but it can seem incredibly unfair to the smaller schools in the game.
Recruiting calls select random topics.
If you’re playing with, say, UNLV, you only have one or two possible pitches going for you (maybe 3 if the prospect is in Nevada or a nearby state). So in order to have a shot at recruiting a top-tier prospect, you have to hope that a.) the one or two topics that you excel at will show up at random so you can ask the prospect how he feels about it. b.) that the player has at least some interest in that pitch. c.) that in the next call, that topic will come up again so that you can actually pitch it to the prospect. And since there are 14 possible pitches and only 6 topics that you can discuss in any given weekly call, you’re statistically only likely to see any given pitch one time every 2 or 3 weeks.
You can now actually see how many points you’re earning towards recruiting a prospect, and you are shown exactly how far off you are from the top-ranked schools on his list of favorite schools, so you’re much better able to judge whether you’re wasting your time on a prospect or not. So I guess that sort of makes up for the apparent unfairness of the randomized recruiting. But I still don’t like the system overall. If there were an even split between choosing your own topics to discus and having to discuss randomly-selected topics, or allowing you a "what are you looking for in a school?" topic that could reveal his most important desire, or a "general conversation" topic that has a chance of revealing 2 or 3 of a prospect’s pitch interests at a time, I think the system would work much better. But as it stands, it’s just too time-consuming and offers too little reward for your patience.
I was also disappointed that the game still only allows you to export your Dynasty Draft class into Madden 11 at the end of each year of Dynasty. Since Madden includes in-season recruiting as well, it requires that you import your draft class at the beginning of each season. Which means, it is likely that (similar to last year), owners of both NCAA 11 and Madden 11 will have to keep their NCAA Dynasty a full year ahead of Madden’s Franchise in order for graduating players to be transferred. Is it really too much to ask for a way to let us play our Dynasty and Franchise seasons simultaneously?
Despite the game’s many flaws, once I got over the disappointment of my school’s fight song not being in the game anymore, I found that I greatly enjoy this year’s edition of NCAA 11. Even though it takes some significant steps backwards in some areas, with some tweaking of the game’s settings, options, and AI sliders, the game plays much better and is a definite improvement over last year’s offering.
But EA still has a long way to go.