At this point in a console generation, it feels like sports games are at an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, developers should have an immense amount of understanding of the consoles they are working on now. This means adding those extra little elements of joy and polish can be more easily worked into the development of a game. However, it seems like it would be almost crazy to talk about installing an all-new physics engine or something else along those lines at this point in a console's life cycle. Changes like that just seem to happen more often than not at the start of a new console generation.
And NCAA Football 12 might epitomize that double-edged sword. Some of the tweaks that I was shown and was able to mess around with are immediately noticeable and mostly positive, but for folks wanting widespread change, a new engine or some masterful stroke of development genius that will create this all-new football game should probably reel in their expectations a bit.
We have seen a lot about presentation at this point, so why not lead off with something that has not been discussed nearly as much at this point: gameplay.
The tweaks to the gameplay that were discussed during the demo session seem to be cosmetic changes on the surface that act as guides for what is really going on underneath the hood. The best two examples of these cosmetic-but-actually-layered-changes involve zone defense and tackling.
Last year, zone defense was, well, awful. Defenders would protect areas where there were no players or seemingly ignore particular areas of the field that absolutely needed to be defended. This year, it seems like defensive players will now actually work as a team and try to figure out what zones need to be defended and figure out what player should be defending them at any one point.
Basically, last year every defensive AI player was oblivious to other defenders on the field. If a safety was supposed to protect one area, then that was the area that would be defended no matter what. This year, defenders will literally point to each other and opposing players to signify that they are handing off the coverage of that receiver to someone else. It's a clear visual cue, and it's an effective one. It seems like now you should know why a coverage was blown, and it's also a way to acknowledge that these defenders actually have some awareness of both teammates and opponents.
In addition to that tweak, zone defenders will also shift their coverages based on where the receivers actually are on the field -- novel concept. If the offense sets up with a flooded right side of the field, defenders on the left side will actually move to protect the farthest portion to the right of their zones. It does not mean they will abandon their coverage area, but rather they just now notice that the closest danger will be coming from the right side.
Man defense has also been affected by changes like these. Slant patterns were cash money last year, so this year's corners will actually be ready for those quick slants by leaning a bit on the inside. I don't think that means out patterns now will be money, it just makes sense that a receiver should not be able to easily get inside position right after breaking off the line of scrimmage.
When it comes to the flats, they also should be defended better this year. I am not ashamed to admit that I looked to the flats quite a bit last year; it was an easy low-hanging fruit when you wanted some easy yards. This year man and zone defenses both seem to be focusing on not allowing players in the flats to pile up YAC. I actually tested this out on quite a few plays during the two quarters I played, and this new-found defensive fervor in the flats seems genuine.
As far as tackling and other physics-related contact goes, the developers are trying their hardest to remove the much-maligned "suction" from the game. This year's attempt to remedy the issue deals with a change to the physics engine so that no animation begins until the players actually collide with each other. Whether that be while blocking or tackling, no animation should start until the players engage each other. It obviously sounds good, but it actually looks relatively good because players also seem to be able to engage each other from every angle. The suction blocking/tackling/whatever seemed to happen a lot of times because these mo-capped events could only be started from certain positions. So to make sure the animation synced up right, the game would suction your players to the proper positions.
The want to change and eliminate "suction" is genuine, but the change is still a work in progress. I still did see some suctioning on certain tackles, but it was far less noticeable. Hopefully by the time the game comes out, the developers will have this portion of the game looking even better. I also am not ready to say how much blocking will be helped by this tweaked interaction system. I did not run the ball that much, but I do know the developers are focusing more on blockers getting out to the second level of the defense this year.
Momentum is also a big deal this year, especially when tackling. Last year, certain animations just did not make sense. If your player was running full speed at someone on his heels, it should have ended with you hitting your opponent hard and pushing him back most of the time. But last year, sometimes the animations just did not make sense. In other words, guys should not be fighting for extra yards when they were not even close to top speed and being hit from straight on.
At the same time, gang tackling should also affected by this tweak to momentum. If your defender is engaged with the ball carrier, another player should now be able to come in from any angle at full speed and nail that ball carrier in a new direction.
Basically, this adjustment should lead to fewer instances of those jumbled sequences where a mass of bodies would just be falling all over each other. I don't think it will eliminate all the oddities -- "true" purely physics-based gang tackling is not present after all -- but it should help things out.
Lastly, a new tackling mechanic is being introduced this year. This year gamers will be able to use the "X" button on the Xbox 360 to wrap tackle. It's the safe way to try and grab a ball carrier and take him down. When you press the "X" button, your player will "bow up" so to speak, and then he will try to engage the player. It's hard to get a feel for how this will affect things, but it certainly seems like a logical middle-ground maneuver if you don't want to just run into the ball carrier or Hit Stick him.
Many of you have probably already seen some of the content the NCAA Football team has been releasing in terms of the new pregame entrances and so forth. Whether it's all-new touch traditions, the inclusion of locker-room sequences like the one in USC, or just the addition of more of these entrances to the game this year -- a "smaller" program like Louisiana Tech received a unique entrance, for example -- it's easy to sense the developers love this stuff and want to please all the college football fans out there.
Personally, my favorite part of the entrances are the real animal mascots. They look amazing. When I asked about how they were created, I was told they were all handcrafted and animated -- guess it would be sort of tough to mo-cap a wild animal. Regardless of how the developers got them into the game, when I watch Georgia's Uga snap at an opposing player, it's going to be cool the first time and hundredth time I see it.
These changes go beyond the pregame ceremonies. Team bands are in the game now, and there is a new focus on the fans in the stands. The fans look much better this year because of the focus on making them 3-D so the thousands in attendance are not just a blocky blob of artwork. Generic coaches are also in the game, but the sidelines still seem a little bare because the players on the sideline still have not been updated enough or tweaked to have more varying animations and pixels.
Sounds within the stadium are also being focused on this year. The developers actually went out to capture more audio so it would be easier to gauge the level differences between the sound coming out of Michigan's Big House, and the sound coming out of much smaller stadiums.
On the "TV" side of things, there is no College Gameday portion to the presentation package this year, which is disappointing, but a lot of the other ESPN elements are in place. The NCAA team grabbed the exact package ESPN uses before the start of a TV game, as well as the graphic package for the end of quarters. The end-of-half package is really impressive because the game cuts to this flashy ESPN graphical package, and then going on within in it are some key plays and scenes from the half that was just played. In short, if something is a part of the ESPN broadcast graphical package, the NCAA team wants to try to get it in the game.
Grass, weather and lighting also received love. The grass is now 3-D, and it looks great. However, while it looks awesome to have your feet digging into this surface, it does not mean it will necessarily help foot planting and so forth. I still felt a little floaty when using players, so it's more a cosmetic change than a gameplay change right now.
But the grass kicking up and the overall change of the lighting helps highlight a lot of positives because the shadows and so forth change during the course of a game, which adds a ton to the overall look of the game. The team did not go through and update the entire graphical engine, but the lighting changes make it look like a ton of time was spent updating the game. And while I did not get to see the snow, I was also assured the field would not be completely covered in one thick layer of snow. Now it will look more natural rather than just a white blanket.
Equipment and jerseys are the last improvements on the presentation front I will mention here, but unfortunately I do not have an eye for this stuff. I do know the development team made somewhere around 140 new jersey tweaks, added some new helmets and implemented team-specific colors for gloves.
Custom playbooks are in the game this year, and the interface to tweak your selected plays is really intuitive. Beyond just picking plays, you can even switch the three plays you see on each page of your playbook. So that means while you are in a game, you can flip through your playbook and know what three plays are on each page of that playbook.
Many folks feel like NCAA Football 11 was the version of the game that finally put the series back on the right track, and they think NCAA Football 12 just needs to keep pushing forward now. While it's hard to say how successful NCAA Football 12 will be at doing that at this point, it certainly seems like the idea was to follow through on last year's successful revival by trying to build on that success.
But again, at this point in a console generation, perhaps expectations need to be kept in check. It's awesome that I can now use custom entrance music, and therefore rock out to Metallica's Enter Sandman when Virginia Tech takes the field, but watching a linebacker look at a ball as it flies right by him might just be one of those things that just happens once in a while during this generation of consoles.
*Full disclosure: EA paid for my airfare during this trip. While it did not influence what I wrote here, I think transparency is still key whenever possible.*