NCAA Football has been around for a long while – since 1993 – and has built quite the devoted following. When you start talking about football games, however, the name that sticks in the average person’s mind is Madden. It’s NCAA‘s big brother that just happens to be a 800-pound gorilla, and is unavoidable because it’s always in the room.
That’s not through any fault of NCAA‘s though. It suffers only from not being an NFL game, not from a lack of playability. In fact, over the years NCAA Football has consistently taken more frequent and bigger steps than Madden to being a better football game. One could argue that due to Madden‘s position EA Sports is more careful about introducing changes that might be ‘too much’ for their user base and damage its sales figures, while NCAA has more freedom to explore.
It says a lot about the latter that it has retained more of its introduced gameplay features over time, while Madden has had a number of duds (QB vision, anyone?) drop out of sight, never to be heard from again. NCAA also sees many of its features added to Madden, making it something of a testing ground for innovation. Both games have been accused of having years that are nothing but roster updates, but the criticism has been leveled at NCAA far less than its big brother. How does this year’s version hold up? It has a few problems that keep it from being a perfect entry, but it certainly avoids being ‘just a roster update’.
EA Sports hasn’t given up on Road to Glory, the roleplaying-esque mode where you take a high-school athlete into college and attempt to make them a campus legend. This year EA expanded play time to include an entire high-school football season, rather than just the state playoffs it had covered in previous years. Also for the first time, you can be an Ironman athlete and line up on both sides of the ball. This provides an interesting wrinkle to your potential choices down the road; colleges will recruit based on how you play both positions separately, which means you’ll see different interest and scholarships flowing in depending on how you play. Ultimately, you will have to choose between positions, because you can only play one side of the ball in college.
(Pictured: Not my Road to Glory player, but it gives you an idea)
Having a full high-school season is good move on paper, sadly it doesn’t fly so well in practice. This is largely a fault of bad play calling and AI at that level. As a RB/MLB Ironman, I was put in zone on defense 90% of the time. The computer also tends to play away from you on defense, sending running plays and throws in the opposite direction. This leaves you bored and watching the CPU send other linebackers on blitzes and picking up sacks/fumbles/fumble recoveries. Combined with the fact that your progress with prospective colleges is based entirely around your stats, you can see how it’s a problem.
Offensive positions fair better, but still have similar issues. I got the ball in my hands more as a running back, but the CPU seemed to have a fetish for taking the ball to the air on play after play (and just using me for play-action). Without fail, any time I would get the ball and charge down field for a big gain, or eat up 10 yards a play on 3 consecutive runs (a happy rarity), I wouldn’t see the ball again for almost a full quarter. It was like being punished for doing exactly what I was supposed to, especially when the game designates you as a star player.
NCAA‘s SuperSim still hasn’t been fixed from previous years, and will lead to some of the oddest possessions you’ll ever see when not on the field. The high-school AI also has no head for clock management, especially during the two-minute drill before halftime, and the last minutes of a game. There was more than one occasion where my team was up a field goal or a score, and without fail they would keep the ball in the air with only a minute or so on the clock, then go three-and-out and give the opposition a chance to get back into the game. I was fortunate that the other team wasn’t able to take advantage, but that won’t be everyone’s experience.
Things improve greatly once you reach signing day and start your college career. I’m not sure if it was a conscious effort to make high-school appear more bush league by having their playcalling be all over the map, but the AI behaves a lot better with clock management and sticking to a gameplan. More features have been added to the college level as well. Now you can earn coach trust, which lets you fight your way up the depth chart to a starting position (if you aren’t in one at a higher prestige school), or gain new abilities (like flipping the play, etc., depending on your position) once you’ve secured the starting job. This makes practice an important part of each week, as it gives you more reps with which to impress the coach. As a running back, picking up yards, gaining first downs, and having successful catches gain you trust. On the flip-side, dropping balls, fumbling, and losing yardage causes that trust to erode – something that can put your starting job in trouble.
In addition to building coach trust, doing good things on the stat line also gives your player experience points, which are used to build their skills. These skill boosts come in single game or permanent flavors, and all sport hilarious names and descriptions. Based on their potency and level of rarity, these packages range anywhere from 300 up to 12,000 EXP (I suppose they could go higher, but have yet to see it).
It may seem like a lot, but performing well in a game or even practice can net you thousands of EXP, so long as you’re playing the right position. With a batch of otherwise great additions that make Road to Glory a much better mode, there’s the rub: it’s heavily favored towards stat-heavy spots. Being a QB, WR, or RB will see you making progress an insane amount faster than on defense or in a skill position like offensive line. There’s no bonus for playing your position well or influencing a play if it doesn’t show in your stat line, and it makes playing those other positions boring (especially since the CPU constantly plays away from you on D), which is the kiss of death for a mode like Road to Glory. EA is moving in the right direction, and you can see the effort they’ve put into the mode.
(Get used to seeing this kind of imbalance in RTG)
Until those kinks get worked out, Dynasty is still the main course of the NCAA 12 experience; and it performs admirably. Not a whole lot has changed in single player Dynasty, but seeing as how NCAA has maintained possibly the best dynasty mode in any sports game for several years, it didn’t need to. There is now an option for conference customization, which allows players to realign up to 16 teams into new conferences and alter BCS bowl tie-ins. There’s potential to create much more lively competition than there might normally be when you stick the top seeded teams into a super-conference to battle it out.
Another new addition is the coaching carousel, where you try and fulfill your contract and stay out of the hot seat. You can jump right into a head coaching position and have full control of your program, from recruiting to playcalling, or you can opt to ease into things as a coordinator on either side of the ball. In being a coordinator though, not only is your playcalling limited to one side of the ball, but also your ability to play as your chosen team. The biggest problem with being a coordinator is, once again, SuperSim and all its weird outcomes. Either way you go about things, if you fulfill your goals, you can look forward to getting contract extensions where you are, or taking your chance on the carousel to land a job with a more prestigious school. Fail in meeting contract goals and, well, start packing your things.
Online Dynasty, as would be expected, carries the same tradition of greatness as its offline counterpart, and makes use of all the Dynasty additions previously mentioned. One player takes charge of the proceedings in the role of Commissioner and is given a ton of options for how to lay out the league. Participants also have the ability to upload their custom TeamBuilder squads for play. There is also a website for Online Dynasty, to give interactivity away from your console. The plan is to be able to do things like access all the news, stats, player postings to the Dynasty Wire (a social networking tie-in that lets you tell your side of the story about a game), and even do recruiting duties. Unfortunately, more than a month into the game’s release the site still isn’t live.
Other problems currently plaguing Online Dynasty include: voice chat not working in the hub (on either version, but it’s obviously more of a problem on PS3. Chat works fine in one-on-one match-ups), scores not uploading correctly after a game is finished (sometimes turning wins into losses and creating a lot of frustration), injured players not staying injured the correct length of time, dynasties sometimes not being able to advance into the off season, TeamBuilder teams causing issues in dynasty progression, and trying to advance your online dynasty’s week taking up to an hour due to server load. There is a patch slated to take care of all of these problems (except for voice chat in the hub), which EA is hoping to have out by the end of this month, but they don’t have a specific date yet. The voice chat problem is still being looked into and is sure to receive a patch as well (since they had the same issue with dynasty voice chat last year).
It’s a rather big list of problems that serve only to damage the Online Dynasty experience (at least until it’s patched) but the head-to-head online play is very seamless. There’s a tiny bit of lag at some points, but hardly noticeable in the course of the action. Unranked games get options as far as difficulty, length of play, using TeamBuilder squads, as well as an ‘even teams’ option that puts both teams used at the same skill rating (no matter what the normal rating is for that team), something of a novel idea in sports games. There isn’t an option to choose between day and night games or different weather, but the weather will occasionally be outside the norm of its own accord. Ranked games have a set difficulty and time (All-American, 5 minutes) which is plenty, considering the average player’s affinity for being pass-heavy in football games. Across both types of matches, players have the option to remain in the game after play and create highlights and screen shots, the same way you can in single player.
Custom Playbooks were added to NCAA 12 after much request, but it’s another feature that’s broken for a lot of players and needs to be patched (currently slated as part of the patch to fix Online Dynasty issues). A burgeoning aspect of the game that allows you to form your own playbook by picking from different sets, packages, and plays, then designating them into a limited number of slots – no playbooks with literally every play here – will eventually be a welcome feature to veterans of the series. It may prove to be too much for newcomers to wrap their heads around, but could be rewarding to wade through since the goal is to make a Custom Playbook you create accessible across every mode and type of online play. A useful addition.
NCAA 12 has made improvements to its animation engine, a statement that we’ve heard about every new sports game since the beginning of time. The changes are very tangible this time around though. It says a lot that I only saw a handful of ‘sticky’ animations over the course of a month of play. The rest is all glorious collisions that don’t always go how you’ve grown to expect a football animation engine to behave. Players shed arm grabs and spin off of sloppy shoulder tackles; not all the time, but much closer to the frequency you see in real life. They don’t keep perfect balance coming out of every contact either, leading to gang tackles or getting planted by the second contact when they’re off balance. Players have real mass, there was no clipping observed, and no instances of players being engaged in an animation with each other at a distance.
Focus was given to presentation, largely consisting of college game day traditions being added, like The Sooner Schooner, Chief Osceola, Auburn’s War Eagle, Georgia’s UGA, Notre Dame’s ‘Play Like A Champion’ board, USC’s Traveler, and many more. Marching bands and cheerleaders are present as well, which all help create an atmosphere the likes of which you won’t find in Madden. So much focus was given to the traditions though, that it seems like other things took a slide. The crowd is ho-hum, and player celebrations aren’t much to behold. The commentary is flat also, which stands out because of how much you hear it. The presentation is no slouch when taken as a package, but it’s obvious what things need to be stepped up next time around.
Aside from the tiresome trend of games shipping with big broken features that take a few patches to clear up – something not limited to EA Sports by any means – NCAA 12 is an excellent game, and I’ve gotten nothing but enjoyment from it. It continues the trend of forging ahead and adding more reasons to play an already great Dynasty mode, and Road to Glory is at least a decent distraction at the college level, which is more than I could have said for the mode before. The player base is going to be upset until all the Online Dynasty problems are fixed (rightfully so), but there’s still plenty of great game here well worth your time.