Despite consistently strong annual sales, EA’s football franchises are often the subject of criticism and debate. Many feel that the yearly iterations are little more than roster updates, while others argue that each season’s incremental improvements almost always improve the games’ formulas. NCAA Football 10 does introduce some new game modes and features, but not enough to truly separate it from its predecessors, and its solid gridiron action is held back somewhat by some undercooked presentation and minor technical issues.
If you played last year’s NCAA Football game, you know how to play NCAA Football 10. Very little has changed since last year in terms of actual gameplay; the controls are identical, both before and after the snap, and play-calling has received only a small update in the form of setup plays. These are plays that, when run consecutively, set the defense up to expect them again. For example, an inside handoff to the left may be listed as your setup play, and after running it twice in a row, the defense will be prepped to cover it; that’s when you throw a play-action pass and catch them off-guard. New animations have made their way into the game, and players move and interact more fluidly than before, but there are still occasional collision detection and clipping issues. These aren’t glaring, however, and are rarely noticeable on a play-by-play basis.
Defensive AI has gotten a bump as well. Linebackers are much less likely to stand around ignoring a scrambling QB than they were before, and Defensive Linemen seem to make better decisions in general. On the offensive side of the ball, however, the computer AI seems to have the same problems as last year, and you’ll sometimes find yourself cursing the name of your Fullback for refusing to block a nearby tackler. Keeping in line with the rest of EA Sports’ offerings, NCAA Football 10 offers “Family Play,” a simplified method of controlling the game. This mode may make a few fumble-fingered fans happy, but for the most part, the functions of the various buttons on the controller aren’t anywhere near as complex as the myriad defensive and offensive formations, packages, and shifts that are intrinsic to football. Essentially, Family Play simplifies the wrong part of the game for most non-football fans; mom can find the Y button, but she doesn’t know a zone blitz from a naked bootleg. Family Play really should be called “Dad Play,” as it seems best suited for football fans that aren’t necessarily gamers.
Rather than focusing on upgrading the on-field action, EA decided to devote their efforts toward the game modes and online functionality. In addition to exhibition games, NCAA Football 10 features a Dynasty mode that takes players through multiple seasons running an NCAA football program. This is essentially a Career mode, but with certain aspects specific to college ball, like recruiting high school talent, and weekly award updates and BCS standings.
Replacing last year’s Campus Legend mode is Road to Glory. In this mode, players take control of a single player and play through his entire college career. Starting out in your state’s high school championship tournament, you’ll need to impress scouts enough to get picked up by a major school, then earn your spot on the depth chart through practice and game-time performance. The mode is presented as an ESPN feature story about your player, and each week, adult film star ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews will show pictures and videos of that week’s highlight while Kirk Herbstreit gives a loose assessment of your performance. It’s all reasonably well-presented, though there are a few gameplay issues. When playing as a Quarterback or Running Back, the camera is pretty reliable. Since the camera follows the ball and not your player, however, playing Road to Glory as a defensive player can be a dizzying experience, especially when the ball carrier passes you, resulting in a wild camera swing. Regardless which position you pick, you’ll be subject to the play-calling whims of your coach, and he can be downright stupid sometimes. You’ll often be forced to run plays that simply don’t make sense for the situation, and sometimes, to repeatedly run plays that previously ended in turnovers. As a Quarterback, you can at least audible out of it, but every other position is subject to the whims of the coach.
Perhaps the most interesting game mode, Season Showdown, isn’t really a game mode at all; at least not yet. Season Showdown asks players to pick their favorite team, then tracks and registers every win, loss, achievement, etc, both online and offline, and compiles them all to find out which school’s fans have put up the most points. This mode introduces long-overdue sportsmanship points, which give credit to those who play the game the way the real sport is played. Finally, players have an incentive to not run up the score on an opponent, and not to go for it on every fourth down. In addition to the “meta-game,” Season Showdown will also include a full online game mode once the real college football season starts. Obviously, since the season hasn’t started yet, the mode isn’t yet playable, but since every other online mode runs smooth and practically lag-free, it’s a safe bet that this will too. A few mini-games round out the package, but they offer little in terms of reward or fun, and will likely be ignored by most.
Even before NCAA Football 10 was released, tens of thousands of would-be designers made use of EA Sportsworld’s online Teambuilder function. This team creation suite allows players to choose from dozens of jersey and pant types, and customize them with their own colors, fonts, and stripe patterns, resulting in nearly limitless uniform options. You can even upload your own relatively hi-res logos and use them on your team’s helmets, uniforms, and stadiums. Once a team is created, it can be shared with the entire NCAA Football 10 community, meaning that there is an essentially unlimited roster of teams from which to choose. Best of all, EA seems perfectly content to allow the NCAA Football 10 community to police itself, allowing any image to be uploaded and leaving users to report inappropriate or unlawfully used logos. Custom rosters for the 120 real college teams are editable and shareable as well, circumventing the problem of nameless players.
Other than the game’s new animations, NCAA Football 10 does not represent much of a step up from 09 in terms of graphics. Player models look very nice, and stadiums look fantastic, complete with audience sections reserved for visiting fans, but gameplay can sometimes stall, and cut-scenes almost always suffer from serious slow-down. Crowds look good from afar, and fans wear the colors of their favorite team, but when viewed up close, the audience is extremely blurry and muddy looking, and resembles games from the early days of digitized graphics, like Pit-Fighter and the original Mortal Kombat. The excellent instant replay function loses some of its luster when up-close shots reveal phantom tackles and frequent collision detection issues. Fortunately, viewed from the default camera angle, the game looks good, and none of its visual shortcomings are too glaring.
Moreso than the graphics, what is lacking in NCAA Football 10 is a sense of presentation. A college football game should feel different than a pro game, and EA hasn’t done a great job in giving this game a unique college identity. There are cheerleaders on the sidelines, but every team has the same cheerleaders, and their animations are extremely repetitive. There are marching bands during the pre-game festivities, but with a few exceptions, almost every team’s band uses generic marching patterns that spell out “WIN!” or “GO TEAM!.” And I’m sorry, but throwing in an all-mascot game does not add to the college atmosphere; it’s just stupid.
Much like last year, NCAA Football 10 is a solid football title that won’t shock or amaze anyone. It’s a by-the-numbers EA football experience with some new online features and a thin, college-flavored candy shell. It’s in no way a bad game, or even a mediocre one; it’s just that it fails to innovate in terms of gameplay. At its core, it doesn’t look, play, or feel much different than the previous game, but there’s enough play options to satisfy those desperate for a quality football experience. The well-rounded online features will keep college die-hards happy, but casual fans will probably be better off waiting for Madden 10.