It’s summertime, and while sports fans are still soaking in baseball’s Midsummer Classic, sports gaming fans have been flush with anticipation of EA Sports’ latest college gridiron title, NCAA Football 11.
Year in and year out, the NCAA game tries to carve out a niche in a ever-shrinking release window (this year, it’s less than a month) before its own big brother, the Madden NFL series, all but drowns it in hype and attention.
NCAA Football deserves better than that, of course, but such is life for a yearly release title. Along with that are the burden of increased expectations and the need to satiate the desires of the “hardcore” gamers that can be counted upon to purchase every iteration - and nitpick every niggling detail that isn’t to their liking.
It’s a difficult road to walk, despite the nearly automatic profitability of the series. This year, NCAA Football 11 has trodden their path more deliberately than usual, providing their customers with an impressive on-field experience; impressive enough that its few slights can be forgiven.
The first thing any gamer is likely to notice when playing a game of NCAA Football 11 is how realistically players move with regard to momentum and mass. Agile halfbacks and barrel-chested defensive ends don’t move in the same fashion, and while the effect isn’t pronounced on a player-by-player basis, the overall effect when 22 men are on the field completely changes the way that the game is played - and for the better.
NCAA Football 11 isn’t about hammering down the “sprint” button and making for the corner on every play anymore; new blocking mechanics and improved collision detection makes each play a unique experience, especially when the game is set to “slow” speed (one notch below the default setting), when the intricacies of the new, dynamic playmaking can be enjoyed at a more absorb-able pace.
Indeed, the “sprint” button can be taken out of the equation entirely. A new addition to the game, the “helper” setting in the control scheme, sounds as if it’s supposed to simplify the game, but that’s selling it short. Much like removing the “turbo” command from the NHL series of games revitalized that game’s hidden strategic heart, NCAA’s “helpers” serve much the same purpose. Sprinting and defensive “strafing” (side-stepping to keep your body square to the ball-carrier) can be set to automatic - in other words, instead of trying to contort your hands to do something that a real player would do instinctively, the player will… you know, do it “instinctively”. In real-life football, players generally don’t sprint at full speed until they can run in a straight line, but in video games, gamers oftentimes press the “sprint” button as soon as they have the ball. Now that momentum affects player movement, sprinting while turning actually hampers those turns, like in real life. The auto-sprint alleviates that concern, and my assumption is that this is a first step towards eliminating the manual command entirely in future EA Sports football games. It says here that doing so would be a wise decision.
Further flattening the learning curve is a play-calling scheme that distills your team’s specific playbook down from 100-plus plays down to a dozen or so. The game selects an array of plays that would be the most sensible to call, given down and distance, speeding up the game for would-be coaches. Of course, if you want the full playbook at your disposal, it’s only a click away, and you can go back and forth at any time. It’s simple and very effective.
Last, but not least, is the new one-button mode, which is likely to be overlooked by veteran gamers. But if you have a significant other, young children, or anyone else who’s a football fan but stares at a game controller as if you just handed them a porcupine, it’s a godsend. One-button mode takes all the game’s pertinent commands, and maps them to one button. Yes, it’s for new players, but since two-player games can have one team using standard controls and the other using one-button controls, your wife/girlfriend/whomever can share a little gaming fun with you immediately, and perhaps a new sports gamer is born. As Mel Kiper Jr. might say, there’s nothing but upside here.
The game’s Dynasty mode, which lets gamers take over their favorite program and build them into a national championship contender, is instantly familiar but gets a huge boost with enhanced online functionality, including a nifty tool called the Dynasty Wire which will keep all the owners in the loop regarding everything that’s happening in your multiplayer league.
Teambuilder, last year’s smash hit feature, allowed gamers to create any teams they wanted from their own imagination an bring them into the game via the Internet. NCAA Football 11 wisely allows last year’s teams to be imported, and allows new ones to be created as well. I’ve had as much fun re-creating my high school’s football team during my senior year as I have with anything in Dynasty mode. It’s simply terrific.
It’s not all wine and roses, of course. Even though the game’s ESPN integration was highly-touted, it actually seems to have taken a step backwards. While in-game replays have undoubtedly improved, the announcing has become stale, stat overlays are practically nonexistent, and even the new team introductions are underwhelming. Hopefully, this is a focus going forward, because what’s on the field is too good to diminish with such underwhelming presentation.
The game’s Road to Glory mode, NCAA’s “career” feature, has gone essentially untouched from last year. It’s frankly dull, consisting mainly of menu navigation, and the full-motion videos of ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews are the same ones as last year… either that, or she hasn’t changed clothes yet. That, plus the rather tacky “bumper” screens during loading that flout Andrews’, um… popularity (”That’s right, we said Erin Andrews!”) give the impression that the mode exists, at least in part, merely to capitalize on Andrews’ physical attractiveness. In this state, Road to Glory might have been better off expunged from this year’s title entirely.
All that aside, the main focus of every game is how it plays, and the fact of the matter is that NCAA Football 11 plays better, plays smarter and plays more beautifully than any game in this generation of consoles, if ever. It’s terrific fun - for players of all skill levels, finally - and it deserves its place in the sun.
Hopefully, it finds a way to see much more of it after the Madden blackout, currently scheduled for August 10. If you’re a football fan at all, NCAA Football 11 is worth your playing time. Now… and then.