EA Sports has stepped up their game in the last year. They’ve produced the best soccer game with FIFA Soccer 10. They redefined Madden NFL with new graphics and better contact. Hell, they made me interested in hockey for the first time with their NHL 10 release.
They’ve performed and delivered so well that one would think they should be checked for performance enhancing drugs.
With all of this said, most people that play NCAA Football consider it to be the opening ceremony for the Madden NFL series. It always seemed like it was a step behind and never on par with its professional brother.
Could EA Sports ever make NCAA Football the game that sits next to Madden NFL and not behind it? That’s a big question and one that was answered in this year’s release.
Let me just ruin the drama for you and let you know that yes this release is leaps and bounds better than any previous version of NCAA Football. EA Sports nailed this sucker in terms of improvements and additions.
The first thing you will notice in the game is how absolutely gorgeous it looks. I’m not sure if they used the same graphics engine as Madden NFL 10, but it’s damn close.
You get more rich texture out of the fields, the character models, and even the referees.
The stadiums are more detailed in this year’s version as you’ll see all the little details that you know and love about your team. For example, when my dominant Kentucky Wildcats went to play at the stinking Louisville Cardinals stadium you could see all the obnoxious inflatable cardinals sitting in front of their practice facility; it was nauseatingly impressively detailed (I kid about the 'stinking' part. They have a nice stadium; just rivalry emotions speaking). Need another example? In Commonwealth Stadium (Kentucky’s beautiful palace of a stadium) the opponent’s fans were crammed in the corner like they should be crammed in during a game.
As for the players, they no longer look like cel-shaded cartoon characters. They have actual textured skin and detailed faces. I was most impressed with how the animation of each player has improved dramatically. For example, when your quarterback drops back to make a pass the correct body/weight shift is animated perfectly. You’ll see it in the replays as your quarterback will plant his back foot and push off from it during the throw. It’s impressive and very noticeable. What’s even more impressive is when your quarterback is off balance making a throw and the ball comes out wobbly or under thrown.
Now the real deal to all the animation, the thing that got people chatting about Madden NFL 10, is the contact animation. While it does have an occasional graphic breakage, for the most part NCAA Football 11 nails the contact animation pretty well. When you wrap up a guy on a tackle your player will literally ‘wrap’ him up and bring him down. Better yet, if you wrap up a pesky running back and you can’t bring him down your fellow players will join you in the frenzy and bring him down appropriately.
It’s very impressive.
Anyway, you’re going to love how it looks and you should commend EA Sports for stepping up their game in this department.
Moving on to actual gameplay…
When we spoke with EA at E3 2010 about Madden NFL 10, they were telling us how they were going to try to get away from using buttons for propelling people up the field and move back to the analog sticks. While they didn’t really incorporate this element from Madden, they did put the analog sticks to good use. The analog sticks now act as your juke-ing guide. You can cut, juke or spin using the right stick, while you’re directing your player with the left. It’s a helluva improvement, as you don’t have to be a rocket scientist any longer to try to juke with buttons. What’s scary is that I found this usage of the sticks to be natural during the game. It didn’t take any time to get use to it, as it just really fit the mold of the game. I found it easy to use and, more importantly, used quite often. For example, I passed to my tight end most of the game and assumed that this man should be able to shake-off a single defenseman without a hitch. Once in the open field, one-on-one, my opponent grabbed him and, using the right stick, I shook the guy off and kept moving forward. While the opponent did slow me down it still was neat to be able to fight a guy off of you and then keep progressing.
As for offenses played in the game, each college (120) gets its own respective, actual offense in NCAA Football 11. For example, the Florida Gators spread option offense was fully intact. I must have yelled a dozen times about how extremely easy it was to figure out how to break the spread option with that team (while I was watching them on television). Folks, that same offense is intact and very difficult to figure out. Sure I beat the Gators 38-0, but it was confusing and hard on my defense at times. More importantly it was perfectly replicated for this game. EA brought the goods on this side of the ball, as you’ll find every team you like running the appropriate offense.
With all this said, there was an element of the offense that needs to be improved immediately. The play-action passing needs to be sped up or opened up for player control. If you’re playing the computer you will be able to fake the hand-off and pass down the field. If you’re playing someone online or offline then you’re almost guaranteed a sack every time you initiate the play-action pass; I have this issue with Madden NFL as well. It’s irritating and damaging because you don’t really have a good option to run it when you’re dealing with other gamers playing against you. That is my biggest gripe and one that needs to be heard and improved (not my gripe, but the actual play).
Shifting gears to defense, it really is the same as you would expect from previous version, which isn’t bad.Going back to what I mentioned previously, the contact animation is highly improved and with that comes better defensive results. It’s much easier to run insane, repetitive defenses on the computer then it is on players. So, while that does hurt it a bit, it still hasn’t changed much. For example, I ran a Cover 3 off a 4-3 scheme for most of the games I played. This would guarantee that I had the receivers covered and that I could pretty much hold my own at the line; translation…. I could pretty much stop any offense.
When Kentucky wins the SEC Championship and the Sugar Bowl you know that something is a tad bit off. Better offensive scheming from the computer would have been nice, but I still didn’t let it get in the way of my fun.
Now, with offense and defense out of the way we should briefly discuss the game speed. Going back to my previous comment about EA Sports at E3 2010, one thing they were intent on focusing on was speeding up the game a bit. The game tempo by default is damn fast. You no longer have to drudgingly wait for computer opponents to John Wayne their up to the line, as they’ll run up to the line and hike the ball in under 3-4 seconds; that’s an improvement folks. The game runs in normal mode pretty quickly. You can change it from Very Slow to Very Fast (actual options). Regardless you have options to keep a game going the pace you want it to go. It took me three days to finish an entire season (keep in mind I have other things to review and have a family to go home to), which is remarkable. If you sat down to play a game you’re looking at around 20-25 minutes per game. You should probably expect the same with the Madden NFL 11 release.
Moving on to what I think of are ‘add-ons’ to the game…
ESPN has been integrated into NCAA Football 11 quite nicely. Most of what you get that is interesting occurs while you’re online. You get a neat ESPN ticker, actual ESPN on demand and the entire announcing team that you would find with college football (Brad Nessler/Kirk Herbstreit/Erin Andrews – they all do a great job). One of the cooler things you get with the ESPN integration is the 20/20 Radio updates.
My wife and I were sitting waiting for someone to pop online to play me (it’s tough to get people together when you’ve got early copies of games) and the Sportscenter 20/20 Radio Updates starts playing. My wife asks me, “Is that real?” I respond, “Yes.” She replies, “Whatever.” Then we hear a report about Lebron going to the Heat and she exclaims, “Wow, they actually give you radio online while you wait?” I confidentally say, “Pretty cool.”
It’s an added entertainment to a game. It’s a natural fit as well.
Another neat ESPN add-on is the ESPN Instant Classics. If you end up playing a close game against the computer, or a friend, the game will automatically save the entire game for your viewing pleasure. I had two games that were ESPN Instant Classics. The first game was a losing effort against Ole Miss, but it was still good. The second was the SEC Championship game against Alabama where I won it on a two-point conversion. With this new option you can go back and view your glory or your heartbreaking loss.
Thankfully, they don’t record the games where you get blown out.
More parts that are improved on this game include a deeper Dynasty mode. You get the same dynasty/career mode that you’re use to except you get some minor tweaks here and there. You can provide live updates to your dynasty online and give people reason to hate you and your success. A neat, yet slightly obnoxious, option is the Dynasty Wire.
Here you’ll be able to tell the world, with photo and video highlights, how you dominate. You can literally write about your team and your experience and make it available on Facebook and twitter. Cool option and something I hope people will take advantage of when it comes to having fun with NCAA Football 11.
One big improvement is the recruiting portion of the game. You get 10 hours a week during the recruiting period and you can talk to recruits over a phone. You get to select how and what you talk about. It’s amazingly deep. What’s even neater is that recruiting gets trickier with top prospects, so use your hours wisely and don’t run out of topics.
All of this is solely for making the experience of the game better and it works. Some of the new stuff is a bit forced, but most of it works really well.
Now, the final topic of this review is the online experience. The online experience for NCAA Football 11 is more streamlined. You can now play online with TeamBuilder teams (last year or this year), which is a huge deal. You get a bit more control over who and how you play. Anyway, the online is just as good as it use to be and it’s a bit better thanks to the ESPN and TeamBuilder add-ons.
With all that said, you do get your first taste of the online pass that people have been dreading for the past two months. You are given a code with the game which identifies you as the owner. Once that code is put in you are the only one allowed to play the game. So, if you sell the game or trade the game in the new owner will probably have to lay down some dough to play the online game. I haven’t figured out who this benefits, but it’s the first game that I’ve come across that has done this. I’m not going to get on a soapbox about this because I don’t know enough about it and how it’s actually going to affect gamers (people are quick to judge and I won’t be that guy), but prepare yourself.