With six additional teams and a slew of custom visuals, NCAA Football 11 released an uncommonly ambitious demo last week. Football is still a results-driven enterprise, and its video games are rightly held to the same expectation of on-field execution.
That's not to say this game can't be fundamentally enhanced by pageantry and atmospherics. This is college football, after all, whose individual contests have a greater major-event quality than really any other North American team sport, pro football included. NCAA Football 11's demo gives a taste of that with a new ESPN broadcast package, interstitial animations and pregame hype-builders. But let's not over-evaluate those to the exclusion of some necessary gameplay modifications.
Straight away, the main play camera has been adjusted to a higher angle, giving you, as the quarterback, a better view of the linebackers and the secondary's depth and how to deal with both. Key defensive personnel will also appear with a star underneath them, a last-minute reminder that you might not want to run to that side.
Another new inclusion is the directional switching of personnel. Rather than cycle through everyone with the B button, and crazily hammer it if you cycled past the guy you wanted, you can hold B and aim with the right stick to point out, sort of on a clock-face, the guy you want on the field. This is an enormous convenience and also removes a singleplayer exploit of sorts, as the game normally wouldn't snap the ball while you were cycling unless the situation was urgent.
In gameplay, the biggest difference will be in the running. This is, year-in-and-year-out, the No. 1 promise of football developers, but there is a palpable difference in ballcarrier handling this year. If you relied on the right trigger to get to the corner and then the right stick or face buttons for tricks and jukes, try to train yourself just to use to left stick. You'll see a world of difference. In some cut moves, the player seems a little too fast to be real, but it's more responsive than keying the juke or spin animations (at which I am, inevitably, too late.) Between the tackles, hitting your hole with an authoritative lean on the stick just feels a lot easier and more connected to the action than in NCAA 10.
Another gamer assist is the modified no-huddle controls. Provided the clock's running you can go immediately into a hurry up window that allows you to call a play from the field, rather than repeat the last one you called and audible out of it. This works for defence, too, presumably also in multiplayer, so getting caught in a nickel and exposed to a no-huddle, audibled run (or the inverse) should be less of an exploit there. I'm not much of a no-huddle player myself - even with the assist, I still called plays conventionally while I was leading. In a full regulation game I can see this coming in quite handy though.
The playcall menus also have been redone. Lee Corso is not in this year's game - EA Sports told me both sides decided mutually not to renew his contract - so he's also no longer suggesting plays. Instead, you toggle between a simplified and more useful set of plays (still team-specific) and the full playbook by using the right stick button. Bumper buttons organise the full playbook by play type, formation, and then finally by coach suggestion for the situation. I spent most of my time in basic mode and still felt I was given a strong variety of plays. There were some instances where I expected to see, for example, the "four verticals" all-streaks play, didn't, and had to call a base formation and hot-route my receivers or just go hunting for it.
One key difference: because of those menu changes, and the limited menu options of the demo, the gameplan - where you set your offence and defence's tendencies - was a bit tricky to locate. If you're in the basic playcalling menu, the choice was not exposed, and you have to go to the advanced playcall menu - organised by "ask coach" - to see the option there. If this also isn't different in the retail version, or on the list of fixes for it, it's just a design flaw, nothing else. But your team's behaviour vis-a-vis gameplan seems not to have changed much. Tuning it for aggressive defensive line play will have you successfully jumping the snap without any right-stick command nearly all of the time on varsity and easier difficulty.
Presentationally, the game has been remade with an ESPN broadcast graphics and music package that will be very familiar and enjoyable for those who spend entire Saturdays with their asses on the couch. I was a little disappointed with the pregame team-specific introductions though - not so much for the cinematics (Clemson massing at Howard's Rock was fantastic), but for the long gaps of dead air during them, punctuated by crowd "sweeteners" that sounded like maybe 16 people had showed up to see a high school scrimmage. I can only imagine this is because we were seeing a demo that had to accommodate eight teams instead of two. (Indeed, communication from EA Sports says that many lines of commentary are will be added. If they don't make this segment more reflective of a broadcast it'll be a serious disappointment.)
Visually, it's a very good looking game. You'll see more than the usual combination of sunny, overcast, afternoon, twilight or dark skies. In particular Florida and Florida State, in Tallahassee, played out under a kind of overcast late-afternoon pewter that I remember from muggy early autumn evenings in the South. The Sooners and Longhorns played under blue-as-a-marble North Texas skies. As for the field action, post-play animations have gotten some much-needed juice, too, with receivers shaking their heads at drops and defenders doing team-specific gestures (like Florida's alligator chomp) after a stop.
Overall, the players are still a little fast, especially on kick coverages. There's still a lot of gliding, zooming and roller-skating looks to open-field and special teams defence, and still plenty of clipping in replay sequences that don't have a two-man animation. I've been playing with that for years and can forgive it with the improved ball carrying, though.
My biggest gripe with NCAA on the current console generation is how much it has lacked features and details, outside of gameplay, that had been a part of its Xbox and PS2 progenitors years ago. Three years ago we first saw the singleplayer career mode, though it still needs a playcalling overhaul. Then EA Sports did an excellent job last year with TeamBuilder, restoring and far outdoing the old create-a-team mode. This year, we're finally seeing the return of the cinematics that helped make this the most immersive console sports simulation of any type in the early 2000s.
Compared to the old guard of this franchise, it still feels a bit limited in gameday scope, especially with the skimpy pre-game commentary. But then again, this is a demo. The full version will have to show more if it's going to get back into that conversation, but it does show great potential for it.