My twenty-seventh birthday began only a few hours ago as I hoped it would: groggily leaving the parking a nearby GameStop with my new copy of NCAA 09. All this after waking up at 4 a.m. in another state the previous morning, then driving/working for over twelve hours. Such is the plight of the working man. I suppose that it’s an example of my commitment, or my insanity, depending on how you look at it.
I have to admit, the early hours of NCAA Day (and the many leading up to it) were not filled with the normal glee and giddiness as in past years. Perhaps it was because, as an admitted NCAA fanboy, perusing the forums over the past two days or so was the equivalent of taking a swift kick to the jewels. Roster glitches, disappearing teams, and bugs galore. Pessimism was at an all time high.
Even though we considered canceling this little early morning report with all of the information already in the forums, we ultimately decided to move forward in order to give you a little glimpse of what NCAA 09 has to offer in the gameplay department. Rather than re-hash all of the facts and hearsay about said roster glitches, I will do my best to keep this brief report to the on-field action, with a little bit of dynasty info as well.
One more note – this is not a full review. We already have that up. Rather, it is some preliminary impressions from yours truly about the overall fun factor of NCAA 09. Hopefully, it will help those of you who are still on the fence.
Here goes nothing…
The first thing I noticed when I took possession of the ball was the playbooks. In years past, even if a team favored a specific type of offense, playbooks remained fairly balanced. Not so this year. For example, in my first game with Illinois, it seems EA Sports had no problem giving a dizzying flurry of shotgun formations (thirteen to be exact), and only a small spattering of non-shotgun formations. This imbalance of playbooks is a definite improvement, as it more closely mirrors reality.
Perhaps it is my style of play talking, but after a quick go-round, I feel this system is a tad clunky.
The most noticeable difference on offensive gameplay this year is the physics, or general feel of the game, in my opinion. Cuts and moves feel much more momentum-based, whereas last year you could frequently turn on a dime with just the left analog stick. It will take some getting used to, but the learning curve is short. Overall, it is an improvement over 08.
The big selling point of this season was the “wide-open gameplay,” which referred to a breakaway animation system. Within this system the ball carrier can perform a multitude of new shifty animations (mostly variations of jukes), which can flow into one another. Perhaps it is my style of play talking, but after a quick go-round, I feel this system is a tad clunky.
While the nuances of each little juke and slick move transitions are pretty, the system just feels just a tad clunky.
The passing game feels familiar at first glance. However, after some semi-serious experimentation in practice mode, there are definitely some differences. Touch passing and directional passing (i.e. ball placement) have become a bit more refined. The mechanics of lofting a fade to the outside shoulder or firing a dart on a hitch definitely received an upgrade. The passing game also provides some pretty spectacular bobble animations, which result in both catches and drops. Pretty cool.
I did not notice a lot of issues with the pass rush, as I still felt pressured by the defense, and even gave up a sack or two. It is maybe a smidgen easier to sit in the pocket, although I think previous versions have suffered from a serious case of pass-rush overkill on the CPU’s part.
The turnover system does seem much improved, even if I did get my beaten up a bit in the passing game on Heisman difficulty.. I did see a few fumbles, but nothing nearly as severe as last season, which had most of us clutching the “cover ball” button for dear life at the end of every play. Overall, I think EA Sports heard and heeded our collective advice.
My biggest disappointment on offense was the new so-called formation specific audibles system. I had expected the ability to choose five specific plays for each formation in my preferred playbook. Instead, the game allows for only five hand-selected audible plays TOTAL. The advertised formation-specific audibles are pre-programmed by the game, giving you a selection of a single run, quick pass, deep pass, and playaction pass. These plays are static, and cannot be change. This current system creates an interesting duality of complexity and simplicity, but ultimately falls short of my expectations. Perhaps it was too lofty an expectation to hope for CUSTOM formation-specific audibles. Maybe next season.
Forum posts claiming NCAA 09 to be heavily geared toward offense are right on the money. Although the new breakaway animation system is not perfect, it can definitely give you fits trying to stop it. As a blanket statement, I would say that if you are not particularly astute at controlling defensive players, this is not your year. This doesn’t just go for manual pass coverage/interceptions either. Tackling can be a doozy as well. You had better be prepared to take picture perfect angles to the ball carrier or be left in the dust. Other than proper pursuit and squared shoulders, there really is no direct counter to some of the new ball carrier animations.
Because defensive play-books are rather lack-luster in the first place, this does not have quite the depressing affect as the offensive system’s inflexibility.
Similar to previous NCAA and Madden titles, there seems to be an imbalance between the CPU defensive line’s ability to penetrate the backfield, and the human controlled d-linemen. Ultimately, I believe this is what has caused the most complaints about a lack of a pass rush. The interaction between the offensive (CPU-controlled) and defensive (human-controlled) is actually rather stagnant. Although the animations are solid, the results are a bit lacking. Unless you bring a blitz, chances are that the opposing QB is going to sit back in the pocket all day and pick you apart. Kind of makes you long for the souped up ever-so-hated jump the snap feature from last season. The feature makes a return this year, but it does not have nearly the same impact as last year.
The defensive audible system suffers from the same malady as its offensive counterpart. You will have the ability to set five custom audibles from whatever formation you see fit, while each individual formation will offer you the options of man coverage, Cover 2, Cover 3, and a blitz play. Again, these are not editable. Because defensive play-books are rather lack-luster in the first place, this does not have quite the depressing affect as the offensive system’s inflexibility. Still, I would have liked the depth that custom formation specific audibles would have provided.
Although I obviously have not had time to run through an entire dynasty just yet, I did sim through one season to see what new little nuggets NCAA 09 had to offer in this department.
As a whole, the dynasty mode has remained largely unchanged, which is both good and bad. Last year’s dynasty mode was largely satisfying, but also lacked some of the bells and whistles from yesteryear. Those of you clamoring for player discipline or the spring game this season will come up short once again, sorry to say.
There are few minor tweaks. First of all, gone is the dreadful ESPN.com interface with microscopic print and hideous layout. It its stead, there is a new menu-accessible interface which conjures up memories of the old Xbox/PS2 interface. This menu flows seamlessly into a newspaper-like interface which allows you to view all of the week’s happenings on the local and national levels, as well as viewing what ESPNEWS has to say.
Recruiting has remained mostly static from last year, but now includes some little streamlining features for those who do not wish to spend as much time in the war room as they do on the field. You can now actively employ computer assistance at the genesis of each season, allowing the CPU to fill your recruiting board based upon offensive strategy, player-type preference, etc. For those who do not wish to scour through the prospect database, this is a God-send. For those of you hardcore recruiters (like me), avoid this feature like the plague.
The game also provides a quick-call feature to use for prospects each week, where you can simply assign an allotment of time to call a specific recruit. This will in turn unlock different pitches automatically. Again, good for the casual gamer, useless for the rest of us.
Other than these slight little changes, there is little else to say about dynasty mode this season. While this is disappointing, the degree of the let-down is greatly reduced by the inclusion of online dynasty. Multiplayer dynasties create an entirely new dynamic from single player endeavors, and ultimately are much more satisfying. Perhaps the new wrinkle of online dynasty mode can overshadow the fact that this year’s dynasty mode is nearly a carbon copy of last year’s.
Throughout my short maiden voyage of 09, there were numerous little good and bad things that I noticed. Here are a couple:
The Atmosphere: Okay, so maybe this isn’t really a little thing, but the atmosphere of the college stadiums is definitely back this year. The game feels more vibrant and alive than previous next-gen offerings. Although I would still like to see team entrances, a true pre-game show, and a live coin flip, the steps taken this year to restore atmosphere are appreciated.
After-the-play activity: You will see a lot more going on after the play, for instance players picking up incomplete passes off the turn and running them back as if they were fumbles, lineman falling down, etc. These are subtle things, but really add to the overall aura of the game.
Sideline catches: There is a bit of overkill on toe-dragging catches near the sidelines, particularly on the computer’s part. Often times, players will drag their feet to catch a pass when they are still a full yard or so from the sideline. Not a deal breaker, but just an annoyance.
Throw-Away Button: For 360 owners, the throw-away button has been moved from the right thumbstick to the right bumper. The problem with this is that the right bumper was a receiver (usually out of the backfield) in last year’s game. More than once, I fired a bullet into he third row after the snap while attempting to hit an open fullback in the slot. Kind of makes me feel like when I first started playing Halo 3 haphazardly deploying equipment when trying to reload. Oh well, just a new learning curve, I suppose.
While it certainly does not meet all of the lofty wish-lists we outlined early this year, it is a gradual step in the right direction at first glance.
Roster issues aside, NCAA 09 is largely what I expected, a subtle improvement over last season. While I do take issue with some of the new features, it is really too early to completely pass judgment on them. My first experiences in the game were mostly positive.
I am aware that certain issues have put many of you on the fence regarding the whole roster debacle and reports of various bugs. I will simply say this, if, historically, you are a fan of the NCAA football series, you will enjoy this game. While it certainly does not meet all of the lofty wish-lists we outlined early this year, it is a gradual step in the right direction at first glance.