NCAA Football 11 Review (Xbox 360)
I will come right out and say it: The NCAA Football series has been a disaster on this generation of consoles. Back in 2006, the thought of more powerful consoles had gamers thinking about all the possibilities for the NCAA franchise. After all, the development team down at Tiburon had just completed NCAA Football 06, which was hands down the most immersive and best playing college football video game of its time.
However, when NCAA 07 was released on the Xbox 360 back in July of '06, the hardcore NCAA masses everywhere expressed their disappointment. The game was missing half the features and nuances of its technologically inferior last-gen little brother, and it had also taken several steps backwards in the gameplay department.
With each successive release on the 360 and PS3, the series began to sink deeper and deeper into a vortex of mediocrity. Fueled by missing features, a lack of presentation, sub-par AI and a general lack of polish, more devoted fans of the series (myself included) began wondering if the ship had sailed on one of EA Sports' most lucrative franchises. Sure, I enjoyed NCAA 08 and '09 because they were the only college football games available for my uber-powerful HD system, but each game's lifespan began to get shorter and shorter as I became more and more annoyed that my favorite franchise of all time was not up to par with a 4-year-old game developed for a technologically inferior console.
I hit my personal low point with the series in August of 2009. After being angered by the lack of innovation and stale gameplay, I shelved my copy of NCAA 10 within two weeks of release and literally never touched it again -- something I had never done before.
As the first tidbits of information began releasing in regards to NCAA 11, I had all but given up on the series. It was with this same pessimistic attitude that I attended the EA Sports Draft Premiere in April. Heading into the event, I knew this would be my first hands-on with the newest iteration of NCAA Football.
Within moments of arriving at the event, I was approached by executive producer Roy Harvey, and game developers Russ Kiniry and Ben Haumiller for an extended hands-on. With the attitude of someone whose heart had been broken and was afraid of being hurt again, I cautiously listened to all three as they touted the game's new features, gameplay changes and how this was going to be "the year" NCAA made its triumphant return. I found it difficult to believe what I was hearing because I did not want to be disappointed again. Then I got my hands on the controller, played a few snaps, and I realized I was falling for NCAA all over again.
By the time I left the event, I was dying to get my hands on the review copy of NCAA 11. Simply put, I wanted to see what the final build would be like because the build I played there was already looking good.
Well, I am happy to say that after a long wait, and after playing my copy of NCAA Football 11 for several weeks now, not only is the franchise back in a very big way, but this is also the best football game I have played this generation.
The retail build of NCAA 11 plays a great game of football that has to be played before it can truly be appreciated. For those of you who have played the demo to death, please be aware that the game speed is slower in the final build, which allows you to feel the effects of the much-touted locomotion engine (more on this later) more so than on a faster speed setting.
Speaking of speed settings, there are five included (very slow, slow, normal, fast, very fast), so individuals can customize the game speed to their liking. After playing with each setting, "normal" feels the best, which is a very good thing since online games default to this game speed. It should also be noted that the commissioner of an Online Dynasty can set the speed settings, so be sure to look for this option before joining a dynasty with strangers.
One of the biggest innovations in the game this season deals with player locomotion physics. If you have been following the game, I am sure you already know the basics of the new engine, but for those newcomers out there, locomotion takes into account a player's speed, acceleration and agility ratings, with the result being accurate body physics, animations and player speed differentials. For the first time since NCAA made the jump to this generation of consoles, a power back will be noticeably different than a speed back, and a large Calvin Johnson-like wide receiver will feel different than a small speedy slot man.
It is quite amazing to experience the locomotion engine in action because each player does feel different. As a direct result, these differences can impact your strategy when setting up formation subs, depth charts and even your recruitment strategy. A perfect example of this new layer of locomotion strategy can be explained via the Nebraska team that I am using in the Online Dynasty for members of the media. My starting halfback is a speed back, coming in at 6-feet with a very upright run style. My backup is a smaller, stockier power back who I utilize on late downs to punish the opposing defense as it gets tired. Each runner feels completely different, and because of this, I have tinkered with my formation subs to highlight each player's skills in certain offensive sets.
Another prime example where locomotion plays a huge role is the wide receiver route running. In NCAA 11, locomotion affects route running, which in turn can be coupled with a QB's ability to lob some pretty impressive passes into some tight spots. There have been plenty of instances where I noticed a WR flash open in a soft spot in an opponent's zone coverage and then placed a perfect ball into his hands. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, and it is something I have not experienced in a football game to date. For those afraid of cheesing, in no way are good route runners automatic because there are plenty of instances where your QB overshoots a wide open receiver. The best part about these moments is that most of the errant passes feel like they were caused by user error -- you really need to pay attention to your touch and your QB’s accuracy and power numbers this year.
Locomotion also finds a home on defense, which results in a challenging yet surprisingly fun experience. If you exclusively play as a lineman like I do, be ready to feverishly work the sticks to earn your keep in the trenches. If you react too late and do not succeed in getting the locomotion momentum, be ready to see your man get pancaked. If you are a linebacker junkie, make sure not to over commit to your assignments or you might get beat via the pass or the run. The same philosophy goes for cornerback/safety users out there since skilled wide receivers will abuse lesser rated defensive backs, especially if you like to gamble with press coverage. In fact, in one game I played, I had a corner getting beat so bad on a consistent basis that I had to switch his assignment with my star cornerback's assignment just to keep things from getting out of hand.
It is little details like these that make locomotion feel so good, but it is the next gameplay addition that takes the feature over the top.
Obviously, the "over the top" addition I am talking about is the game's optional auto-turbo mode (turned on by default if you had it on in the demo). This small addition may not sound like a game changer in any sense of the word, but its addition could possibly be one of the greatest innovations in a football game since icon passing. Auto turbo is exactly what it sounds like, the complete removal of a turbo button. Now, the game determines when to kick on the jets based on the player's speed and acceleration ratings -- where that player is on the field also ties into the equation. The feature is implemented beautifully and enhances the gameplay twofold.
In the past, I found myself spamming the turbo trigger as soon as my player had the ball. This may just be my old age talking, but that millisecond it took for my brain to relay the message to my finger to hold down the turbo button oftentimes interfered with my reaction time when working with the right-stick juke system and face-button moves. By playing with auto turbo on, I now find myself concentrating more on my player hitting the holes, looking for blockers and chaining together special moves.
The other area where auto turbo shines is in the open field or when turning a corner. So now when you get into the second and third layers of a defense, you will start to feel your player begin picking up speed as his momentum gets him up to full gait. As mentioned earlier, the amount of time it will take to ramp up to full speed is entirely based on your player's attributes, and defenders are going to have a hard time stopping you if you manage to get out into the open field while moving like a freight train. Honestly, hitting a hole as a running back and breaking away from a defense in NCAA 11 is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in a football video game.
Another one of my favorite new features in NCAA 11 has to be the inclusion of the new dual-stick controls. Gone are the days when pressing to the left and right on the right-analog stick would cause a juke, up would truck a defender, and down would lead to a step-back juke. Now the right stick controls your offensive player's upper torso, and how forcefully you move the stick changes the range of response you will get from your player.
With the left-analog stick now controlling jukes, the game's new control scheme allows for a world of new possibilities when trying to fool a defender. Stringing together different variations of left-stick and right-stick movements will unlock different jukes, stutter steps, spins and other impressive animations. It should also be noted that these animations are not canned, which means you can break out of an animation at any given time. (This aspect of the dual-stick controls is why I like that auto turbo frees up my old-man brain to focus on offensive moves.)
I have played countless hours of the game since it arrived in late June, and I am still seeing new animations via the dual-stick controls. Due to all of these potential move possibilities, the enjoyment that comes from getting an extra five yards because of a stutter step in traffic is simply unmatched.The dual-stick controls also allow the locomotion engine to shine once again because skilled players can perform Reggie Bush-like feats, but virtual Toby Gerharts can still feel satisfied with a smash-mouth-stumble-and-rumble-style offense.
One of the biggest issues that has haunted the NCAA series has been terrible AI blocking. However, I am happy to report that magnetic blocks have essentially been removed from NCAA 11. This means you will no longer feel yourself being pulled into an offensive player when going for a sack or taking a ball carrier down for a loss.
The game's blocking AI has been completely rewritten, and the results are evident as soon as you play your first game. In past versions of the game, running up the middle was a jumbled mess. For this reason, gamers were usually forced to get outside if they wanted to have any chance of ripping off a big gain. NCAA 11 remedies this problem by having holes realistically open up between the tackles, allowing the user to hit the hole hard and run successful draw plays. CPU blockers will also intelligently search out someone to block if their assignment is blown. At the end of the day, there is a definite sense of pride for your teammates when you have battled it out in the trenches for four quarters.
Still, as much as the blocking AI has been fixed, all is not perfect in blocking land, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest issue I have seen is that you will really need to work if you want to sack the opposing QB without slider tweaks. It is not that opposing offensive lines feel cheap in any way, it is just extremely rare to see them botch an assignment that allows a defender to overpower someone else on the line.
Do not get me wrong, if you are committed to using a defensive lineman and begin utilizing the various spin and power moves at your disposal, you will be able to get to the QB -- mixing up blitz packages also seems to work fairly well. Nevertheless, as of this writing, the most sacks I have managed in a game on the All-American difficulty level is three, and this was while using Ohio State against Florida Atlantic University.
It should also be noted that the inability to rack up sacks is not entirely due to an overly aggressive default blocking scheme. Quarterbacks generally just get rid of the ball as soon as they start feeling pressure, which oftentimes results in them overshooting a target or throwing an errant pass. While this element removes Robo QB from the game and creates more realistic CPU completion percentages, I cannot help but feel a bit cheated at times. I feel especially cheated when I am a millisecond from taking the QB down for a sack, yet just as I get there, the QB heaves a wounded duck as my defender wraps him up. These issues are easily corrected via sliders, so they are not overly frustrating, but they are worth mentioning.
120 Ways to Win
If you are not quite sold on this game yet, the implementation of team-specific offenses should push you over the edge. The developers have gone through and identified each team's specific offensive variation down to the smallest detail. This means Michigan runs the hurry-up spread, Nevada runs the pistol, SMU runs the run and shoot, Nebraska runs a pro-style set, and Navy runs the triple option. And if you are a fan of a smaller team like Central Michigan, you have not been forgotten either -- get ready to take the reigns of the squad's true-to-life option/spread offense.
I really believe the best part of this feature is not that you can use all these different offensive sets, but rather, the best part is playing against the AI while it uses a certain style of offense to destroy you. For example, I booted up a game where I chose Oregon and played against Navy. Not only did Navy commit to running the triple option against me (racking up over 300 yards rushing in the process), but the offense also burned me on a couple deep passes and upset my Ducks 17-13.
Watching Navy execute that offense against me was a thing of beauty. And perhaps the best part is that Navy only threw the ball eight times the entire game -- I have never before seen a football AI so accurately mimic a real-life offense. After years of sleepwalking through defense even on higher difficulties, it is a welcome change to have a team like Michigan run me ragged with a hurry-up spread. You have to pay attention to your defensive personnel now and really game plan for the type of offense you will see on a weekly basis.
NCAA 11 is gorgeous. The game has an all-new lighting engine, which leads to the player models looking more lifelike than ever. In addition, the jersey and equipment details are spot on, stadiums are extremely detailed, and the sky/weather effects are beautiful. There are multiple times during a game where I will zoom in on a replay and have to do a double take because what I am seeing up close looks almost photorealistic.
If there is an area where the game suffers, it is the crowds. During cut scenes in the game, crowd members look good, but the gameplay crowd is still made up of the two-dimensional stand-ins that have been present for years. However, it is easy to let this slide once you take a look at the amount of detail that is present on the field and players.
Off the field, the game definitely looks like what you will see on Saturdays, and outside of a few wonky collision animations, the action on the field looks pretty darn impressive as well.
With as many great things that can be said about the game's presentation, there is a pretty glaring omission in that players' jerseys no longer get dirty. While this has no impact on my enjoyment with the overall product, it is very discouraging to see a graphical nuance that has been a mainstay in the series for years go the way of the dinosaurs. It is also somewhat distracting to see perfectly clean jerseys while playing a game in the middle of a rainstorm. I am not sure if this is something that can eventually be patched into the game at a later date, but I always enjoy seeing the wear and tear on my players' jerseys after a tough battle on the gridiron. Here is to hoping EA can fix this issue at some point in the future.
Finally, after five years of waiting, EA has implemented ESPN broadcast-style presentation in the game. This means authentic ESPN theme music, wipes, stat banners, and Herbie and Nessler in the booth. Authentic team entrances have also made their way back into the game after a four-year hiatus, which gives the game an additional atmosphere boost. It is extremely cool watching a team like Nebraska tapping the horse shoe before entering the stadium or watching Clemson touch Howard’s Rock. The intros are extremely detailed, and even if your favorite team does not have a specific pregame ritual, be ready to grin -- even though I hate Michigan, I never get tired of seeing them come into the Big House and slap that blasted banner.
Bowl games have finally received the attention they deserve. There are now specific bowl entrances and postgame celebrations. The coach getting doused with Gatorade is still missing, but what is included is definitely fun to watch.
Pregame warm-ups and postgame celebrations during the regular season become a bit repetitive -- get used to seeing the player of the game jump on the bench to salute the crowd -- but they are still very entertaining. The bottom line is that the game feels alive again with college atmosphere, and it is not a soulless abomination anymore. Much like with Madden 10's pregame and postgame cut scenes, NCAA 11 looks to be a building block for future versions of the game on the presentation front.
Announcing is still one of the game's biggest weak spots. Lee Corso has left the broadcast booth, so now you are stuck with Kirk Herbstreit and Brad Nessler. It is not that their commentary is bad, I just think that after hearing their ramblings for close to 10 years, they are largely tuned out subconsciously. Put it this way, there is nothing the two will say that will make you take notice, and the game's commentary is a far cry from the dynamic commentary we have seen being implemented into a few of today's sports games.
Road to Glory (RtG) mode is back this season, and it is virtually unchanged from last year. Aside from a new camera angle and some new player equipment, the mode is identical to NCAA 10's RtG featuring Erin Andrews. At this point, if you have not played this mode, it is worth checking out. However, if you are a seasoned veteran of RtG, aside from going for the Achievements/Trophies, you will want to stay away from this mode entirely.
I cannot fault EA for giving us more content in a $60 package, but I can't help but to think that if RtG was scrapped altogether, and the space on the disc was allocated elsewhere, that perhaps some content that is still missing from the past generation of NCAA games (bowl patches) would be integrated by now.
NCAA 09 gave us the highly addictive Online Dynasty mode. NCAA 10 added Teambuilder to the mix. This season NCAA 11 gives us the Dynasty Wire and Dynasty Anywhere features, and both promise to change the landscape of dynasty and franchise modes forever.
Dynasty Anywhere allows you to connect to your dynasty via the EA Sports Web site and conduct scheduling, recruiting, scouting, and view dynasty statistics from almost any PC or mobile device. The beauty of the feature is that no longer are you tethered to your console when toying with your dynasty. Now you can play a game, and then recruit and perform other important dynasty tasks on the fly if you are operating a device that can connect to the Internet and get to EA’s Web site.
I have been recruiting via the Web site in the Online Dynasty I am in with other media members, and it is one impressive experience. The site itself can take a few moments to load on a mobile device but be patient because the end result is definitely worth the wait. I cannot even imagine how much recruiting is now going to take place in offices across the world -- the drop in workplace productivity is going to be massive during the peak months NCAA is played. I have to hand it to EA, they have really taken the social-media craze to the next level by seamlessly integrating a popular online mode with an online community aspect.
Integrated into Dynasty Anywhere is the Dynasty Wire feature. If you choose to use this feature, you can become a virtual Jimmy Olsen and write stories about your team. These stories can then be viewed by everyone in the dynasty, both in the game and on the PC. What makes Dynasty Wire even cooler is that you can upload video highlights in a game, which can then be utilized in your stories.
If you completed a hail mary pass to win a big game against a friend, show it off to everyone in your dynasty along with a witty story about how you made your friend cry. Want to write a story about the best recruit your school has ever seen? Well, complete the story with highlights from his four-year career at your school. How about making a highlight reel of your team's greatest plays? Basically, the possibilities are endless in Dynasty Wire and that is what makes it so cool. Look out world, thousands of aspiring journalists will be covering the virtual NCAA this season, and I can not wait to read some of the stories that will be out there.
As of the time of this review, there have also been a few hiccups in the Dynasty Wire service. To be more specific, many of the stories posted by the folks in the media-member dynasty have been removed by the game's content filters. As someone who made sure his story was clean as a whistle, I was extremely surprised to see that my story was visible online but not in-game. Other minor issues deal with watching video replays on the console -- at times the game struggles to play them without massive amounts of lag.
Our media dynasty is essentially a beta test on the servers, so I believe many of these issues will be ironed out by the time the game releases on July 12. And for those wanting to use an iPad to view Dynasty Wire stories, you will need Flash. You can still utilize Dynasty Everywhere on Apple's newest device, but you will not be able to view highlights.
A couple final notes before I move on to the next section. The dynasty-menu interface both online and offline has been completely streamlined. Now the menu tree is less jumbled, especially during recruiting, and large icons have replaced the typical wall of text that you have become accustomed to seeing over the years. This, coupled with the game's auto-save feature, makes navigating through your dynasty a breeze. Beyond that, coaching contracts are now included in Online Dynasty, which allows you to change jobs. However, conference invites do not appear to be included in Online Dynasty this year.
Offline Dynasty mode has received all of the same upgrades as Online Dynasty, and both feature an option to set the recruiting difficulty to suit your needs. In addition, there is a revamped telephone call recruiting system.
The new phone-call system is a fresh spin on an aging recruiting engine. You now will be able to decide how long you want to spend on the phone with a recruit, which ranges from 10 to 60 minutes. You then are taken to a screen where the various topics, such as television exposure, coach prestige, closeness to home, are spun around like a slot machine until the game finally chooses one. Once chosen, you can either pitch that specific topic if it is a strength of your school, focus on a weakness of a competitive school that recruit has interest in, or you can attempt to change the subject to focus on a topic that suits your institution better.
Each topic counts as a 10-minute block, and depending on how successful you are with your pitches, you will gain points in an arcade-like style for your school -- and even take points away from a competitive school. At the end of the allotted time period, all the points earned will be totaled, and you will move on to the next recruit.
The whole system works really well and speeds up the recruiting process while making it fun. Some people will not like the arcade-like point-style approach, but the simplicity of use is going to appeal to many.
NCAA Football 11 is the best game in the series since NCAA 06, and it is also the best football game I have played during this console generation. If you are a fan of college football, or you are just looking to relive the glory years of NCAA on the PS2/Xbox, then check this game out. There is really not much more to say: NCAA Football 11 is a blast and will keep the most hardcore sports gamer busy for a very long time.
On the Field: Locomotion and 120 Ways to Win changes how the game is played in a very positive way.
Graphics:Upgraded lighting effects have players, stadiums and even the sky looking beautiful. The ESPN presentation is a huge upgrade but there are some recycled cut scenes.
Sound Design: Herbie and Nessler are just average in the booth. However, the crowds and bands sound great.
Learning Curve: You will have to invest some time to master the new dual-stick controls.
Entertainment Value: This is the best football game of this generation, college or otherwise.
Online: Online Dynasty with Dynasty Anywhere and Dynasty Wire is the perfect integration of social networking and hardcore sports gaming.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)