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The NFL may be in lockout still, but the NCAA is definitely going to be playing football this fall. Now that it's July, we're almost at the point where EA is ready to start releasing it's annual football titles. But first come the playable demos. I finally got some time to mess around with the NCAA Football 12 demo that was released earlier this week.

A few notes that I want to start with:

  1. I was not able to record or take screenshots of my actual gameplay. So sadly, you'll have to take my word for it when I say something about how the game looks or plays, since I can't provide photographic or video proof.
  2. The demo does not allow the user to access the instant replays. So I can't go into real detail examining any individual plays. I can only see what I see in real-time while playing the game. So I could be missing a lot of positive and/or negative aspects of the game that I'm just not noticing.
  3. I played all my demo games on the All-American difficulty. I did not have access to sliders or any other control configurations, so everything is set to default.

Does it feel like "next-gen" football yet?

Actually, yes. It really is starting to feel like "next-gen" gameplay. Gameplay is much smoother. Animations look much more natural. The collisions looked great. Controls felt great and responsive. Even the 3-D grass actually looks pretty cool.

Tumbleweeds just won't go away

But it is still far from perfect. Although I did not notice any specific instances of suction tackling or blocking, force fields, or significant warping, fusion, or sliding, I did notice that tumbleweeds still happen and that running still feels more like skating. The locomotion system doesn't seem to have been updated at all, and so players can still change directions, start, and stop way too fluidly. Despite the addition of dynamic collisions (supposedly based on momentum), there are still times where the game takes control and locks players in animations that cannot be altered by the influence of another player. I still saw instances of defenders just dropping to the ground next to a wrapped-up ball-carrier rather than influencing the tackle. This is definitely concerning, and it is something that I saw in the gameplay trailers a few months ago.

Fortunately, though, these instances seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Most tackles seemed to play out fairly naturally. And the animations used for tumbleweeding have been significantly improved, so that even when a tumbleweed instance did occur, it didn't look as bad as it has in the past. It really isn't fair to expect a problem like this to go away within a single year. And even the "gold standard" of football gaming that is ESPN NFL 2K5 suffered from this problem occasionally. But we won't know for sure just how persistent a problem it will be in NCAA 12 until the final game hits shelves.

There were also numerous instances of players just not triggering a tackle animation at all. Players would sometimes just run into each other and nothing would happen. A few times, my running back would just bounce around in the middle of 3 or 4 defenders running next to him for 5 to 10 yards. This was also uncommon, but it was noticeable.

Passing game woes

When I decided to change things up a bit and throw the ball, the passing game really bothered me. Quarterbacks tended to be very inaccurate (both my QB and the AI QB). A lot of balls sailed out of bounds.

AI QB logic may also not be up to par. I noticed that the AI QB often held onto ball too long, leading to lots of sacks. There were even a few instances in which the AI QB would step up to pass when running a screen pass. He just ran right into the rushing defensive linemen. What the hell was he trying to do?!

Secondary zone coverage is supposed to be one of this game's key areas of AI improvement. In the demo, I noticed that defensive backs reacted uncannily quickly to the ball being thrown, and tended to be in much better position to make plays on the ball than the receivers. Wide receivers never defended the pass or put up any fight for the ball when DBs were in better position. This lead to a ton of interceptions. And considering how short the game's quarter length is forced to, this is a scary sign! If the two QBs are throwing a combined 3 to 6 interceptions in eight minutes worth of game time, how many will get racked up over the course of a 40 or 60-minute game?

And since completing passes was so hard to do (except to the defense), I didn't see any signs that catching, deflection, diving, sideline, or mid-air collision animations have been significantly improved. EA has claimed that catching has been significantly improved in this game, but I just didn't see it in the time I've spent so far.

Fortunately, though, I didn't notice any instances of route jumping, passes bouncing off of force fields, the ball passing through players or limbs, or any of the other outrageous flaws that have become common-sight over the past few years, but without access to instant replays, it's hard to tell whether it's actually happening.

Blocking and line play doesn't look as bad as I thought it would

In my analysis of the game's trailer two months ago, I was very concerned about the blocking. I noticed some nice examples of jostling between the offensive and defensive linemen in the trailers, but almost all of my other observations were negative. I am pleased to report that the line play in the demo was surprisingly good. There seems to be more jostling and fighting and pushing between the offensive and defensive lines. Linemen actually create a pocket for the QB, and defensive ends rushed around the edge realistically.

Despite clear examples of block warping in the trailer analysis, I did not notice any such issues during the demo. But again, without access to instant replay, I can't examine the plays to be sure.

Offensive linemen did a much better job of blocking down field and realistically picking up the blitz (or not picking up a blitz, as the case may be). There were no obviously noticeable instances of warp-blocking or linemen sliding into place to make an impossible block.

I was bothered by the Read Option play though. Last year, one of the big selling points was the improved option play in which the offensive line would leave the end man on the line of scrimmage unblocked for the QB to read. This was a realistic touch that worked very well last year. This year though, I noticed that my linemen didn't leave the end man on the LOS unblocked with any consistency. Sometimes they blocked him, sometimes they didn't. So it looks like this feature from last year might have somehow fallen through the cracks in this year's game.

ESPN presentation is not NFL 2K5 good, but it's getting there

So just like last year's game, there is still no Lee Corso. What happened? Does he not want to do the games any more? Can EA not afford to compensate both Lee Corso and Erin Andrews? Come on, EA! Get Corso back in the recording studio! The commentary sounds very sparse and boring without him.

But other than the crappy commentary, the broadcast-style presentation is exceptional. The pre-game and post-game graphics look just like what you see on an ESPN broadcast on Saturday. There are some nice cutscenes of players warming up before the game starts. During the game, there are cutscenes of players talking to coaches, running onto or off the field, and so forth. Players show more emotion and enthusiasm. And after coming back from halftime, Erin Andrews gives more-than-satisfactory recaps of the first half with appropriate replays.

Very impressive. It'll be interesting to see how these features pan out when the full game releases and we can play 5, 7, or 15-minute quarters and the game has more plays and "highlights" to chose from when assembling those recaps.

The new pre-game introductions look like they will get very repetitive though. As far as I can tell, they are exactly the same every time. So if you play with the same school a lot, you'll be seeing the same exact cutscene of the introduction every time you start a game.

We're probably going to be stuck watching players run out of the tunnels the exact same way every time we play at a given school.

We're probably going to be stuck seeing a player get scared by Auburn's tiger every single time we play at Auburn.

We're probably going to see a Colorado buffalo handler trip and fall while running the buffalo onto the field every single time we play at Colorado.

And we're going to see a lot of players jumping up and down in a huddle.

And so on.


I also have no idea how smaller schools like (my alma matter) UNLV will be handled.

Well, it's a nice effort on EA's part anyway. Hopefully they will add more variety in future editions.

So what's EA hiding?

As good as the demo makes the game out to be, I have to say that it also has me feeling a bit on edge.

EA really has me irritated that they once again opted to significantly restrict and limit what we can do in the demo. It's stuck on two-minute quarters. Instant replays are disabled. We have no access to control configurations or options. We can't change the auto-sprint, auto-strafe, or auto-pass options. We can't try coach mode or the simulation mode. There's only two matchups to chose from.

I don't mind that they only gave us two matchups to play. I don't expect all the 120 NCAA teams to be available in the demo. But last year's demo had twice as many to chose from.

But would it really kill EA to let us play longer games?

Restricting the quarter length to 2 minutes makes the game feels rushed. There isn't any time to run the ball. If you run the ball 4 or 5 times, the half ends and you have to kick off or end the game. How am I supposed to be able to really judge whether the tackling and blocking are improved if I can only play 10 plays in a game? That just isn't a large enough sample size.

The AI QB also snaps the ball immediately. This was a problem in last year's game too. And in Madden 09! In fact, there were enough complaints about it in Madden 09 that EA patched the game to make the QB wait 3 seconds before snapping the ball. So it wasn't good enough for Madden 09, but it is good enough for NCAA 12. Or maybe it isn't a problem. Is the rushing by the AI because of the lack of time? Are they maybe just hurrying because they are in a 4-minute drill? Because the game starts in a 4-minute drill! Or is this a repeat of the rushed snap issue from previous versions of the game? We don't know. EA won't let us change the quarter length to find out if this is a legitimate issue or not.

EA disabled instant replay. This is a huge sign of concern for me. Without the ability to take a detailed look at what each and every player is doing on the field, it is really impossible for us to tell with any degree of certainty that the game isn't still cheating, or that the engine isn't still fundamentally broken. Just because we aren't noticing warping, sliding, route jumping, etc in real-time doesn't mean they aren't still happening. It could just be happening so quick that we can't see it.

So what is EA hiding? What is the point of giving us a playable demo that doesn't even give us an opportunity to explore all the new features and enhancements in this game?

I honestly feel like the only thing that we really get to see is the new pre-game introductions. The rest of the demo goes so fast that it's almost not even worth playing. The limitations inherent to the demo make it seem like EA doesn't want us to have an opportunity to really dissect the game. They've gone out of their way to prevent us from analyzing the game in the same way that we can with the full retail release.

It doesn't really feel like a demo anymore. It feels more like an interactive hype trailer.

This demo really might have been enough to sell me on buying the new game - if EA hadn't been so stingy with it! I still have no idea what I'm going to do next Tuesday when this game comes out. Will I buy it new? Or wait a week or two and pick it up used? I guess it's going to come down to whether or not I feel like going out to the store when NCAA Football 12 hits stores on July 12th.

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