It's hard to say nowadays what truly kicks off EA Sports' official season. Is Tiger Woods the kickoff, or is NCAA? Both usually come out at the same time, but given that NCAA's more a celebration of amateur sport, perhaps Tiger? It was pretty crystal clear this year, since Tiger was out before the snow thawed in Vancouver. Most gamers, however, will tell you NCAA is the one they reach for, either in support of their favorite college teams, or to tune up for Madden 2012.
In a strange turn of events, I had the opportunity to play Madden BEFORE NCAA this year, so my perspective is a tad upside down compared to the norm. Regularly, I find one formula holds true to NCAA and Madden - Both possess similar play engines, but one's presentation blows the other's away. Madden's in-game presentation was decent this year, but rife with tons of improvement points, like horrendous menu loading time, choppy player sprites and perhaps the worst play by play commentary since Tony Schiavone sat down on WCW Monday Nitro.
After popping NCAA into my Xbox, I was surprised to see the intro video had loaded by the time I switched my TV on. Better yet, the online pass access screen was lightning fast. Even better yet, the menus took almost no time to load. Edge: NCAA.
As usual, the presentation maintains its collegiate vibe. Team colors adorn all corners, with cheering crowds and signs all about. The game, as usual, doesn't take itself seriously during loading, and definitely has a fun presentation style. There's no denying that this game has a lighter feel to it when loading. You'll also see right away that the game's partnered heavily with ESPN as well, with their commentators and sideline reporter Erin Andrews along for the ride. (In Game Weather is also brought to you by the Weather Network.)
Before jumping into gameplay, it's worth commenting about the fact that this game just throws caution to the wind and throws everything but the kitchen sink at you with its new features. You can turn this game into your own. Forget NCAA Football 12. If you're the kind of guy who likes to customize everything, turn everything into his own and give it its own identity, take a picture of yourself, photoshop it onto the cover, print that out with your name and slap it on the front cover. This game allows you to customize everything from uniforms, coaches, teams, everything. I haven't seen a sports game that allows you to build/wreck it this good/bad since WCW Revenge for the Nintendo 64. Even past editions haven't been so out and out ridiculous like this one.
The new Be a Coach mode is interesting. You get to coach as much, or as little as you want. You can strategize and flip on the fly, modify pass lanes, call audibles and even switch up your hot routes. If all of that is foreign to you, well, you can just select plays and watch. All achievements that you can get from gameplay are strangely available here too. Go figure.
Then there's the mindblowing Road to Glory mode, where you start your player from his senior year of high school all the way to Heisman Glory, and you can even build the teams you play against. Unlike Nintendo Ice Hockey, however, you cannot stack a team of all skinny guys or all fat Marios and use it to your advantage. Much like Madden, however, don't expect that your player will have a fabulous high school year and get recruited by a big name school. Just like getting drafted by the Cleveland Browns every year, you'll probably get a middle of the road school (or Akron, in which case you're pretty much the best player by default even if you redshirt, or just shut the game off.) You have the build up your coach's trust from the beginning, because again, you're just a new kid starting from nothing. Certain positions will allow you to flip around to others as well if you believe it gives you a better shot of starting, or making it to the show. You can also decide you want to be the next Garo Yepremian and just become a kicker.
So with all this mind, I haven't even discussed the gameplay. Some of it's because I was able to write this entire thing in the time it took to load a game.
Alright, so it's not quite THAT bad, but the loading time is a little on the slow side, but you quickly see that you're not just loading players, but mascot animations, collegiate cheerleaders and sideline reporting. The game interface itself looks and plays like Maddens previous to 12, with the simplistic kicking system, play selection screen and buttons. In fact, I'd go so far to say it's a mirror image. All of the buttons are the same, the camera angles are the same (thankfully, all of the right camera angles are defaulted, meaning you don't have to go around switching things to the way it was before.) There's even a button for your selected player to pep up the home crowd on defense. I had a bit of a hard time adjusting to this, however. It responded perfectly when I was playing, but the crowd didn't respond (story of my life.) On the flip side, the crowd would cheer at the drop of a hat in Be a Coach mode, but the player would run offside from the line of scrimmage. I had to eventually stop trying to bring the crowd into the game because I was giving up so many yards that the opposition just had to walk into the endzone once a quarter.
This may be my lack of college football knowledge, but the first down system in the game seems to be messed up, which may be a pretty big deterrent in the grand scheme of things. I admit, I don't watch college football, but it seems like the second the ballcarrier's foot touches the first-down line, it's an automatic first down, even if you push him a couple yards back, or the ball doesn't cross the line at the end of the play. Perhaps my games rules were skewed, but I didn't touch them at all before starting up, so I was a bit taken aback at the ease in which first downs were attained in this game of inches. Still, the gameplay is pretty sound, but after playing Madden, you may agree that the vast improvements they made to the gameplay engine on that side make this one almost night and day in terms of overall playability. It's often said that the yearly games serve as nothing but a cash cow with roster updates and little changes. Not so. Check it - This game and Madden were released a month apart, yet they're so very different. I'll address this a bit more in closing below.
Back to NCAA - One of the things that frustrates me year in and year out is the lack of player names, which takes a lot out of the identity of game itself. Unfortunately, the NCAA's regulations with regard to player exploitation and use of likeness means you will likely never see real college player names and faces used. This rolls across all sports. You'll never see anybody in a collegiate program in the NHL games either. Still, it would be a nice gesture to see fake names make an appearance. MVP Baseball 2005 (still my pick for the best top to bottom pure baseball game ever) took the names of devs and testers and made them college baseball stats. I realize that rosters of thousands of players might be a tough go to make fake names for, but it's a small sacrifice to give the game a bit more identity instead of "HB 17" on the back of uniforms. Unless you start taking advantage of roster sharing, there's always the "Dude that looks like..." game. My favorite players in the game were the Washington Huskies halfback dude that looked like Ahmad Rashad, and the Oklahoma Sooners QB that looked like UFC fighter Cheick Kongo. Seriously though, it's a bit bush league when your create a player is the only guy in the entire country that gets to have his name on the back of a jersey. Even a fake generator for next year would be fine. East Coast standout Archie Abdul-Luongo would be better than nothing.
Graphics: 8/10. To a man, the graphics are great, but not spectacular. The players are individually animated, but still awkward. Player Collision is still kind of sticky, especially when playing Coach modes. The players move a bit awkwardly, almost like marionettes. This I understand must be a difficult process, however and continue to applaud EA's attempt to simultaneously individually animate a team, referees and sidelines within a down. It's better than everybody programmed to run toward the ball like 5 year olds playing hockey that all skate for the puck. The players themselves may not be all that great, but the atmosphere is fantastic and the way that they animate the playing field the way you choose is second to none. Go play a foggy 105 degree game at night and tell me you don't feel like you're watching football played live from the inside of a sweaty glove. Disgusting, yet amazing.
Sound: 9/10. Sounds are where NCAA always trumps Madden. Brass bands playing team songs, cheerleaders shouting random things, and well, the play by play in this game is leaps and bounds better than Madden, though the Storage Wars fan in me can't shake the fact that Kirk Herbstreit sounds a bit like Darrell Sheets this year. I keep waiting for Herbstreit to tell me about his Wow Factor. Still, that being said, all the grunts, groans, crunches and hits are well represented here. The commentators provide enough insight that it isn't overbearing, and feeds well into the overall atmosphere of the game.
Controls 8/10: It's hard to say anything new about the controls without just cutting and pasting exactly what I said about Madden since all controls are basically the same. They're easy to figure out (and if they're too hard to figure out, one button mode cures that in a hurry,) though fairly awkward overall, especially when you find your right hand needing to hit 3 commands at once. I did find that playing an armchair coach was a bit easier here than Madden, and I'm just as bad a football coach there as I am here.
Gameplay: 7/10. The in-game football gameplay itself is average and nothing spectacular. I didn't quite enjoy playing football, however, as much as I did not playing football (in the sense of all of the extra features.) I think something that you're going to see from NCAA in future years is that this is something that's going to become more of a multi-faceted experience title than just a football game. THQ has done well to do this with their WWE games, absorbing you in farther than just a wrestling match and a few chairs. This is the direction I can see NCAA going with next year and future years. There's a lot less to balance in the NCAA since you don't have to worry about long term contracts, free agency or salary caps, and I see EA starting to compensate for that in other ways. I know this title gets overlooked by straight NFL fans (and I admit, if it wasn't for the fact that I was reviewing it, I wouldn't have picked this up either,) but it's good to see that there will be in fact more to make you take a look than the Be a Pro transitions over.
Overall, let's look at both of EA's yearly football titles to see who wins out. The better football game is Madden 12. Madden sucks you in with a better, crisper and more comprehensive on-field football game. There's absolutely no question here, but to be fair, some of it may be the gameplay improvements they made. NCAA, however, is the better football PRODUCT. If you crave a bit more outside of just football and legacy modes, NCAA is the all comprehensive product you're seeking. You never have to play an actual game of football, and you can still spend hours and hours doing whatever - Customizing teams, playbooks, uniforms, teams, everything. If you could sandwich NCAA's flexibility with Madden's actual game, you might have the ideal football game. But there's always next year right? Until then, I can't honestly tell you which one's the worth buying most. Both games excel in completely different directions and are both worth looking at and playing. If you're a long time player of both franchises, both games are worth getting - Consider this a transition year for both games. Once they implement the game changes from this year's Madden into NCAA 13 along with whatever else they choose to touch up, you'll probably be looking at a possible future candidate for best football game ever. Until then, this is basically just a push. You'll win with both titles. You'll lose with both titles. Expect greatness above perfection, and expect to be entertained.
Like the review? Hate the review? Think Im the best or worst game reviewer in the history of ever? Give me an earful on Twitter @paliontology. See you soon for NHL 12!