The NCAA series used to be my favorite sports franchise. I use the past tense because ever since the series came to current-gen consoles the gameplay quality and presentation values have taken steps backwards, culminating in the extremely disappointing NCAA Football 10.
So my mission was clear at this preview event in New York: track down those responsible for the development of the series, ask them the tough questions that the OS faithful expect and see just what was so special about this year's version of the game, especially after years of disappointment.
But before I go any further, I wanted to bring up one thing. In today’s world of yearly sports releases of varying quality, it is quite easy to scapegoat a developer or producer, placing the blame on those particular individuals for the quality of their aforementioned game. Our forum users here at OS have a somewhat notorious reputation for holding development teams to somewhat impossible standards at times -- just look at the 180-degree turn in excitement for NCAA 11 after the initial "gameplay" video was posted on site.
After meeting developers Ben Haumiller, Russ Kiniry and the new series executive producer, Roy Harvey, I can tell you that they have taken the criticism of the series and the passion of the fans to heart. For those of you who do not know, Harvey joined the series just as NCAA 10 was released, and his message to me was the same message he preached to his team throughout NCAA 11’s continual development cycle: make sure the core on-field gameplay and college atmosphere are the best to ever be found in a video game.
Ben, Russ, and Roy spent hours talking with me, answering questions and taking me through many of the improvements and surprises NCAA 11 has in store. They came off as huge fans of college football and seem determined to right the ship and deliver a hit with NCAA Football 11.
It is also important to mention that all three informed me that the initial gameplay video was not meant to have ever been released. This was an internal video from a pre-alpha build of the game that was mistakenly released to the public via an internal hiccup.
Regardless of the mix up, everyone take a deep breath and erase the video from memory because after spending two days scrutinizing the current build -- and getting several hours of actual gameplay in with NCAA Football 11 -- it seems like this title could make a lot of die-hard fans of the series very happy come July.
NCAA Football may just be back in a big way.
Many people already know that this year's game includes the highly touted player locomotion system. What everyone does not know is how successfully this locomotion system is implemented into the game. The best way I can describe it is to simply say that the players just "feel right." With appropriate weight shifts occurring after initiating jukes and spin moves, this system should make the days of turning on a dime with players that felt like paper a thing of the past.
The locomotion system also feels good in execution because the game speed has been slowed from the breakneck pace found in NCAA 10. For those who prefer the faster game speeds, do not fret, there is an option included to increase the speed by two levels if deemed necessary. To me, the default game speed was perfect in the build I played (it is a bit faster than Madden 10's default), and really allowed me to appreciate the new locomotion engine.
The locomotion engine shines even more when it comes to the game's running animations. Who can forget the frequent "hitch" steps that would persist on long runs in previous versions of the series? Ben and Russ explained to me that this was the result of certain running animations being looped together, causing this "hitch" to occur as the loop reset itself. The locomotion engine completely rewrote player movement in the game, and the result is a control experience unlike any football game to date -- agility and acceleration actually mean something now, with high speed ratings taking a backseat to player skills (as they should).
This locomotion engine translates to defense as well by allowing users more control of their respective player. It also seems to have eliminated the magnetic attraction to blockers that has plagued EA football games for years. The defensive locomotion has also tweaked the efficiency of the hit stick, making big hits a lot harder and more rewarding to pull off.
I think Roy put it best when he told me that you can watch as many gameplay videos as you want and try to critique the locomotion system, but until you actually get your hands on the game and "feel" the difference the mechanics make, you will not fully understand. I honestly could not agree more with this statement, especially after my extended time with the game.
Dual-Analog Stick Moves
The right stick is now used to control your player's upper torso. Just as with Madden 11’s dual-analog control, NCAA 11 allows for a whole new repertoire of ball-carrier moves. Russ showed me my personal favorite new move: the ability to have your player lean back, arch his back and high step a bit to shake off a tackler attempting to track him down from behind, which was all accomplished with a subtle movement of the right stick in the back direction coupled with pressing the left stick forward. The new moves definitely take some time to master, but after three or four games I was pulling off some highlight-reel moves.
Completely New Line Blocking AI
An even more significant gameplay improvement comes in the form of all new blocking assignment AI. In hopes of eliminating the OS Blocking Complaint threads, the AI blocking logic has been completely rewritten to eliminate suction blocking and make sure linemen are never standing still. Ben took me through a couple examples where a center would actively search out a man to block during pass protection. During these examples, I could see the center's head swiveling as he actively searched for the best person to block.
On the defensive side of the ball -- and as someone who plays exclusively as a lineman against the CPU -- I was extremely impressed with the line interaction. I was able to get heat on the opposing QB in realistic scenarios, and both power and finesse moves actually work this year, which should lead to far more potential sack opportunities and QB disruptions. It seems to finally be fun to be a lineman again.
CPU AI Enhancements
CPU AI is dramatically improved. Here are some quick hitters that should make the community very happy. First off, robo QB may just be thing of the past because I frequently saw weaker CPU quarterbacks overthrow or flat out miss a receiver.
The CPU run game also has to be experienced to be believed. I was amazed during the first game I played because the CPU was realistically hitting holes and, better yet, the CPU was using all the same right-stick moves that typically only human players pull off. The best part was that this was all on Varsity difficulty. When I made the mistake of cranking the difficulty up to Heisman in a Cincinnati (CPU) vs. Oregon game, Russ was laughing and praising the CPU AI as I lost the game 63-8. The best part was that I did not feel that I was destroyed by a line of code, rather the CPU actually outworked me in every facet of the game.
120 Ways to Win
NCAA 11 is putting a huge emphasis on different team styles and playbooks, much like what the NCAA Basketball franchise was able to accomplish with their team-specific motion offenses. 120 Ways to Win is a tagline that describes the 120 different teams represented in the game and their different offensive styles.
Per Russ, the following main offensive styles are present in the game:
Run and Shoot
Multiple (Basically a variety of different styles)
The styles noted above are the main offensive categories represented in the game, and different teams will run different variations of these styles. For example, Michigan will run a spread offense, but it is a hurry-up spread that is intended to intimidate and confuse opponents. Each team received a lot of individual attention from Ben and Russ in the past few months, so if you are a fan of a team that recently changed offensive styles (like Notre Dame), expect to see that change in NCAA 11.
To touch again on the no huddle, one of the cooler things I experienced was that you are now able to select any play from your playbook as you rush to the line. In the past, you would be forced to audible into one of your preset plays if running a hurry-up offense, which put a major damper on a potential game-winning drive. Not only are you now able to select any play you want, but your team will realistically look to the sideline as the play is made just like you would see on a Saturday afternoon. This animation is one of the cooler things I have ever seen, and it just goes to show how dedicated the NCAA 11 team is this year when it comes to the authenticity within their "120 Ways to Win."
Improved Lighting = Improved Graphics
Simply put, NCAA 11’s visuals are gorgeous and much of that has to do with the all new lighting system. According to Ben, shadows are now more dynamic, allowing for much more realistic jersey graphics, skin tones and equipment on the player models. Just as an example, in the past games this generation, there was no way of differentiating between jerseys made of different materials. If you look closely at your copy of NCAA 10, you will see many teams with far "shinier" jerseys than they wear in real life. In NCAA 11, you are now clearly able to see teams with mesh jerseys (Auburn being an example), and differentiate them from something like a flashier Central Michigan jersey.
But as previously mentioned, the new lighting system makes everything look better, not just the jerseys. NCAA 11 is one of the better looking sports games I have seen this generation, and it is an enormous step up from last year's visuals.
Due to the revamping of the engine and addition of the locomotion system, I was stunned to see multiple player animations on runs, catches, tips, deflections, blocks and tackles that I have never seen before. After spending four years with NCAA this generation, I thought I had seen it all, and for the most part, the animations had all been pretty ugly.
NCAA 11 will change the game on this front because it is more closely replicating what you would see on any given Saturday. Gone are the hit-stick flips of NCAA 10, replaced now with more subtle wrap tackles. Linemen will jostle with one another, pushing each other forward and backwards realistically instead of getting stuck in an an "engaged" animation with one another. Defensive backs and linebackers will actually track balls with their eyes and attempt to make plays in a realistic fashion -- the old-blind-linebacker-magic-swat animation is seemingly out this year. Even cooler is seeing a player miss a tackle. For instance, a defender attempts to grab the ball carrier while out of position, but he loses his grip on the ball carrier as his body momentum attempts to catch up to his arms.
One particularly impressive animation that I experienced occurred during a two-point conversion. A Notre Dame receiver became open in the back of the end zone during this conversion attempt, but the pass was thrown a bit hot and in front of the receiver. So, the receiver reached out with one hand and made a fingertip catch, tiptoed along the back of the back of the end zone, pulled the ball into his body and regained his balance all in one sequence. I happened to be standing next to Russ when this happened, and he turned to me and said that even he had not seen that animation before.
The Little Things
Those obsessed with little details such as helmets, face masks and cleats should love what NCAA 11 brings to the table.
Jersey selection is amazing, and if you are a self-proclaimed jersey freak like myself, then be ready to get excited. The game includes the occasional NCAA-approved throwback jersey, like Oregon’s classic green and yellow combo, and also some alternate jerseys that people are going to be very happy to see (Tennessee’s Halloween black jerseys and Cincy’s white helmets for example). There is also more to this story, but I cannot go into too much more detail here due to an embargo.
One negative, however, is that there will be no bowl patches this year -- Roy has mentioned this is something they will most likely be integrating into NCAA 12 because there were bigger fish to fry this season.
I have saved the best for last as NCAA 11’s presentation package is one of the best I have ever seen in a video game. There is a lot I cannot talk about because of the aforementioned embargo, but rest assured, there are some amazing things up EA’s sleeve.
The ESPN integration is jaw dropping, with real-time replay wipes that will select the most dynamic camera angle to highlight a specific play. But stat banners and cut scenes are my favorite part of the presentation because many are almost photo-realistic, especially the ones that include players trash talking with each other after a big play. Ben and Russ realized how much acclaim a game such as MLB 10: The Show has received for its attention to cut scenes, and they are out to prove that their title will be mentioned in the same sentence.
I am also very excited to let everyone know that authentic team-pregame entrances are back, and after seeing a couple in action, I have to say I was more than impressed. EA will be releasing a blog very soon detailing which entrances are in the game, so I do not want to steal their thunder. I will tell you this: what I saw in action was put together in such a way from a broadcast-presentation standpoint that I initially mistook it for a live game feed on a loading or intro screen.
Again, there are some very big things regarding presentation that I cannot talk about, so keep your eye on the EA blogs and here on OS as they are "officially" announced.
The last four years have been a very dark time for hardcore NCAA Football fans like myself. Every year, I have found myself playing and accepting the game because it was all that was available on the 360/PS3. So it is a relief to at least say that I am looking forward to this year's game, which is a feeling I have not experienced since NCAA Football 06.
I have only been away from the game for less than 24 hours as of the writing of this article, but I am already dying to play it some more. And I am not the only one either because at Wednesday’s Community Day Event there was a line of 2-3 people deep at times waiting to play the game, and it was easily the most buzzed about game in the two days I was in NYC.
In other words, NCAA Football 11's July 13 release date seems a lot further away now.
Feel free to send some questions my way via the forums or Twitter @Bumble14_OS