Getting a new NCAA Football video game every year is as sure a bet as they come. Though it’s sometimes viewed as Madden-lite, over the past few years, NCAA Football has grown into a respectable franchise in its own right. This year’s NCAA Football 11 brings a few new game mechanics like locomotion and TruSchool to the table, in addition to expanding on an already robust dynasty mode. With those upgrades over last year’s entry, it’s clear EA is looking to improve on an already solid model. Though there are a few issues, NCAA Football 11 just might be the best version of the title to date.
Upon starting up a game, there are a few differences you’ll notice almost immediately. First off, there’s no longer a sprint button. How fast your player runs depends entirely on how hard you’re pushing the left analog stick. Pushing it all the way forward will put that player at max speed where juke moves will be much more exaggerated and pronounced, while lightly pressing it will have them running at a medium pace, and able to move with more subtle and precise jukes. It takes a little getting used to, but once you adjust to the new control style, running with the ball feels more natural than in years past. The game’s blocking has also been improved tremendously, and makes a huge difference on offense and defense. The offensive lines almost play too well, and teams who are good at running the ball will be exceptional, and even harder to stop than they were before. Because line intelligence far surpasses that of last year, it makes for a much more realistic gridiron experience, and though it can be too easy to move the chains unless playing on the highest difficulty, running the ball has never felt so good in a college football game. Getting behind your offensive linemen and following their blocks is actually a viable strategy this year, and really makes you feel like you’re in control. The computer tends to cut back to the middle way too often, which is a strange bit of AI programming. It’s particularly noticeable on toss plays, and watching an opposing player come rushing back into traffic can take you out of the moment. NCAA Football 11 also reworked the right analog controls of last year, which is supposed to give you greater control of your ballcarrier’s body. In concept, it’s an interesting idea, but the execution isn’t as strong as it could have been, and the control you’re supposed to feel is negligible at best. It’s much tougher to truck people over, and juking with the stick doesn’t feel much different than last year. Receiver intelligence has been adjusted so that they’ll actually make an effort to stay in bounds, and it’s easily the most welcome change to the game. The mechanic still isn’t perfect, but you won’t be complaining about horrible route running nearly as much anymore.
TruSchool is NCAA Football’s new AI that replicates how each and every school plays the game. It’s actually pretty impressive how well the game translates a particular coach’s tendencies, and on defense you will feel like you’re actually strategizing against the real life team. However, TruSchool will occasionally rely too much on gameplans like the hurry-up, and a game can end up feeling like you’re playing against someone who’s never played a game of football before instead of an intelligent computer program. Those instances are rare, but that makes them stand out even more. For this being its first year, TruSchool is off to a good start, and with a little tweaking it could be great. As of now, computer coaches are a little to stuck in their ways, and don’t really adapt to different game conditions. This year’s game makes use of the best hurry-up playcalling system in any football game, allowing you to pick any play from your playbook while your team rushes to the line. It works on both sides of the ball, and replicates the sense of panic and rushed excitement of the real game situation almost flawlessly. Offensively, you can snap anytime after your team is set, leaving the defense helpless and scrambling if they didn’t get their play in. The hurry-up offense is also helped by the new formation subs strategy where you can place any player at any position in any formation. If you put a wideout in at fullback in the I-Form, their ratings will change accordingly. However, if you use that set in a hurry-up, and then switch to a single-back, three-receiver set, you’ll be golden. I wish that you could do formation subs on the fly in the play-calling screen like you can in Madden, but it’s still a nice new addition.
Aside from the standard options expected of a sports game, the much-improved Dynasty Mode is likely where you’ll be spending most of your time. Playable both on and offline, the already deep game mode gets even more intricate this year with a bigger focus on personal attention to recruits. This year you actually make phone calls to your prospective players to discuss your plans, the program, and the recruit’s future. There are a few limited dialogue options to use, but saying the right thing at the right time can go a long way in convincing a five-star player that your school is the right place for him. The recruiting uses a point-based system to show how favored your school is, so it’s really easy to see just how far behind another college your program is in the recruit’s choices, and thus you’ll be able to better determine how much time you should devote to a great prospect in a given week. Ranked games, rivalry games, and games within your conference do actually play tougher than if you were playing another unranked school, adding a level of depth missing from the past few years. The online Dynasty plays almost identically, save for the welcome addition of new Dynasty Anywhere. You can now manage your team and recruiting from your computer, as well as create your own news stories to populate the weekly highlights for everyone else involved to read. I love that I can now write my own recaps for everyone in my Dynasty to read, and though it’s a small touch that doesn’t affect the way the game plays at all, it’s a nice new flourish that I’d like to see seep into other EA Sports titles in the near future.
While EA has once again brought back Road to Glory, this time as a campaign in which Erin Andrews follows your career from high school to the NFL draft, it’s still the one game mode that needs the most work. After all these years, the fact that it’s nearly impossible to play as any other position outside of half-back, quarterback, or defensive line is a disgrace. Perhaps it’s time to finally call it quits on this particular game mode because when the biggest change since the mode’s inception is that you’ve added Erin Andrews cut scenes, it’s clearly time to move on. Team Builder is back this year as well, and any team created within last year’s game can be used again, though it should be noted that the slight creation tweaks made for NCAA 11 do make a difference. You can also play with created teams online this year, though only with the specific Team Builder online versus option. The game’s One Button Mode is a cool way to ease newcomers into the game, but there isn’t much use for it outside of that.
This year’s presentation is really great. ESPN is all over the place, and the real televised feel is more detailed than ever. This year also marks the first time that schools will enter the field of play like they do in real life. Whether it’s Notre Dame’s sign slapping or Miami’s run through the fog, it’s a nice touch to see just how far EA’s gone in ramping up the television aspect. The game’s character models look really good, especially with all the new dynamic lighting. Players don’t look like plastic action-figures anymore, which is a big step forward graphically for the franchise. The Locomotion engine provides for a great deal of new animations, and the head and shoulder tracking is truly impressive. Hand off the ball to a running back, and you’ll see he keeps his shoulder square to the line of scrimmage, looking for a hole to break though. The same is true of defenders, which is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s great that your defense follows the ball much more realistically, it also makes a player much more susceptible to jukes, and will often lead to a missed tackle. And believe me, you’ll be seeing a lot of those. When the game is moving at full speed, it’s tough to notice all the little animation flourishes, but when watching a replay, or creating your own highlight, it’s easy to see the subtle nuances of player movement. For whatever reason, the game’s highlight maker still takes some awkward photos, but it’s hardly anything that will detract from your gameplay experience.
It’s certainly easy to write off any yearly sports title as nothing more than a roster update. Thankfully, NCAA Football 11 happens to be an exception to that misguided idea, and is probably the best entry in the series in the last five years. All the changes made to the way the game is played are big improvements, and even though it can be a bit too easy at times, NCAA Football 11 is still incredibly fun. Like a freshman blue-chip prospect, this effort is only the beginning of what’s sure to be a few great years for the franchise. Even if you’ve strayed from the game in the last couple of entries, this is the perfect time to jump back in.