College football is pageantry, tradition, the gleam of a sousaphone, the wink and tight sweater of a Song Girl. It's also the promises and browbeatings of a recruiting call, and desperate gambles made beneath a sky the colour of lead.
EA Sports hauls up the gauzy myths and cold realities of the collegiate game with NCAA Football 11, which next week will make its kitchen-table pitch to a nationwide base. Will they see a red-shirt year deferring promise to another season? Or can they buy the promise of playing the big time right now?
The Draw, the Swing and the End Around: Some of the staple plays of real-life football are ones that materialise well behind the line of scrimmage and are slower to develop than video games have traditionally allowed. Better blocking intelligence and more responsive running physics have made these much more viable in NCAA 11. Swing and screen passes still take timing, but they're no longer automatic tackles-for-loss even when properly executed. Draw plays, which I'd contemptuously written off long ago, are much more effective; I was delighted to find myself converting third downs with them, even against blitzes. Passes to the flat were frequently my get-out-of-jail card, even to the near side, because receivers have been tuned to stay inbounds, with new animations (a benefit you'll see going downfield, too.) The comprehensive boost to player intelligence and execution profoundly opens up your playbook and, on the flipside, makes the running attack - and especially spread offence formations - much tougher to contain with a base defence.
The Rest of the Playbook: Though not entirely the same as its Madden cousin's GameFlow coming up this year, NCAA 11 also reduces the dizzying complexity of a football playbook in a useful way. You may still call plays in the standard manner - searching through them by formation or play type - but now the default view gives you a simplified range of plays dynamic to the situation you're in. So many decisions made under the old model were just straight up arbitrary, and this removes both A) that last-second decision between Ace Big and Ace Big Twins and B) pretending like you know what the hell either really means to the situation. Its only deficiency is its unpredictable cycling of certain plays, and your pet calls will seem to go missing right when it's gut check time on third down. So don't get too dependent on it, and know where in your playbook you can find Fullback Over if that's your bread and butter for third and short. But the feature more than speeds up gameplay, getting you to the action instead of a UI. It meaningfully integrates things with last year's Chew Clock feature, so that even novices can come out of the huddle with the appropriate play and still enough time on the clock to reasonably change it at the line of scrimmage.
No Huddle: Playcalling in NCAA 11 also involves no-huddle offences in a more realistic manner. It's no longer a hurry-up fire-drill that repeats the previous play and has you audibling out of it. You'll come to the line of scrimmage able to call from your team's full playbook on the fly. It makes the no-huddle tactic less gimmicky in mid-game scenarios and more effective in true emergencies. It also offers the defence a chance to call from its full playbook outside the huddle, too. In multiplayer, this should be a huge boost for those who otherwise found themselves caught in a nickel defence, getting slant-routed to death unless they called a timeout.
A Visual Feast: The most famous lead paragraph in sports writing comes from a college football game, and it begins with the lighting. No longer, however, is NCAA Football simply outlined against a blue-grey sky, or a bright one marbled with clouds, or the black of night. More thoughtful panoramas deliver, for example, a platinum, formless sun low on the horizon of a rust-coloured late afternoon. And new dynamic lighting accentuates a chapter-by-chapter narrative of a game that might begin under bright sunshine but end under the multiple shadows cast by stadium lights. Few sports deliver a sense of time and place like college football, and the visuals here are finally serving that. And for those who take in their major college football on the couch, the integration of ESPN's college football anthems and graphics, new to this year, will make you feel right at home on a Saturday.
Dynasty in the Making: Taking a cue from last year's TeamBuilder, EA Sports built web integration into its long-term dynasty mode, by far its most popular gameplay mode, to allow players to manage their programs away from the console. Ideally, you'll be doing this with a bunch of friends, but even if you don't have enough pals for that, I still think it's worth creating a one-team Online Dynasty for the efficiencies it offers in the game's recruiting obligations. What I tested still had some yips to work out - recruiting screen layout, especially, and some parts of the web application didn't load properly, requiring wholesale page refreshes. It's still a beta site and EA Sports assured me they're working on improvements right up to Tuesday's full release. Assuming they can get this right, it's still a faster way to manage player recruiting, which can be a real grind on the console. Singleplayer online dynasties still won't be able to do much beyond recruit for the current week, a disappointment, but not fatal for a first-year effort. I bring this up because some who take over weak programs like to sim most, or all, of their first year's games straight out while hitting the recruiting scene hard. At any rate, NCAA 11's Online Dynasty is a profound step forward in how this game mode is serviced, and given college fans' interest in recruiting and bulletin-board hype, could be the basis for making it an obsession.
The Trash Talk Times: And that's also because of my favourite feature of Online Dynasty, the story generator. I was always one of those guys who would come into the office on a Monday and bash out a fake AP sports report on my team's doings, replete with inside jokes and arch insults and completely invented controversies and back stories, and circulate it among friends who owned the game. The Online Dynasty website offers a story creation engine that formalises this role-playing ritual of sports games, and will upload these stories for display in your console (and your friends'). Wins and losses will return a base story format if you don't have time to write your own. The whole thing is fully editable, and allows for uploading still shots and video highlights from the game you just played. The most interesting content it delivers will be self generated, but it's the first sports game to allow and encourage such open-ended user contribution. And, again, it's worth it even as a singleplayer online dynasty, if you like to make a record of your team's successes.
A Light Pre-Game Meal: It's been a long battle toward restoring the current generation version of this game to the previous generation's broadcast quality - not necessarily in visuals, but in depth. NCAA 11 takes a strong step forward with its new pre-game sequences but, unfortunately, they become repetitive very quickly, and if your team doesn't have a specific ritual (like Notre Dame or Clemson), they're anchored with a generic animation that seems to fixate more on Nike's brand and the apparel it's currently selling. (And the fact that all college women, apparently, wear naughty librarian glasses.) The game begins with a standard broadcast introduction and then jarringly goes into you-are-there-animation that have no narration. It doesn't provide either a first-hand, gameday feeling or the idea you're watching this on your TV. Since this year features ESPN broadcast integration, to step out of that context is, I think, a mistake. The new cinematics are improvements, no question, but after you've seen them half a dozen times, you'll be whamming the A button to get on with the chase.
A Short Road to Glory: While this game's singleplayer career mode gets a desperately needed upgrade in playcalling, that comes largely because of overall AI improvements in the game at large, not something specifically directed at this mode. Road to Glory is still structurally the same as previous years, with just a few presentational upgrades. It's a disappointment to those who expect more from a career mode that, in terms of career length and gameplay, would seem optimally positioned to be very strong among sports titles. Granted, Road to Glory serves a small constituency compared with Dynasty and straight-up multiplayer, but it still plays out as a novelty that wears off after two seasons at most. Road to Glory received next to no treatment in this year, and deserved better long before it.
Sure, it's not perfect, but that's more of a boilerplate declaration because no game is. Though players' relative speed is adjustable, they still move too fast, especially on special teams, and too many passes end up picked off by linebackers with amazing vertical leaps. On the flip side, even if the blitz is coming, a quarterback can reliably whip it to a tight end with his back turned, before he makes the first cut of his route, and still complete the pass.
But in the few areas that the gameplay falls short, it's largely to effect a more enjoyable and dynamic experience, rather than enforce a coldly accurate one. I can live with that. Especially with upgraded offensive line play, whose blocking assignments are articulated for you pre-snap, allowing you to make better decisions at the line of scrimmage. Further, no sports simulation makes the wet work of personnel management as intriguing or as necessary as NCAA Football. It's truly a situation you feel like you can influence based on your team's identity, as opposed to just plugging in contract numbers and trade offers and hitting the dice roll.
NCAA Football 11 belongs among the glamour franchises of sports video gaming, with names like MLB The Show and FIFA. It cultivates a fantasy just as rich and as personal as the best offered in the sports genre. And in the end, that vicarious thrill, that totally hallucinated reality, is why such games are played.
NCAA Football 11 was developed by EA Tiburon and will be published by EA Sports for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on July 13. Retails for $US59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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