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Review: NCAA Football 11

11:00 AM on 07.09.2010 // Brian Szabelski

The NCAA Football series has long been considered the little brother of EA Sports’ Madden franchise, not just because it’s often received Madden features the following year. There have always been questions about how much effort Electronic Arts has put into making the NCAA Football separate from Madden, and with this year’s edition, NCAA Football 11, it appears that EA is finally trying to answer those concerns.

And just how have they planned to do that? With a focus on recreating as much of the each college team’s identity as they can, from traditions to coaching tendencies to offensive styles. Of course, it’s one thing to include the elements of the college football experience, and another thing to actually make it feel like the real deal. The latter part is where EA has struggled at times, but could this year be when it all comes together?

Read on to see if EA has pushed the series forward, or just rolled out what amounts to another yearly roster update and "Madden clone." I’ll try my best to avoid any dumb football-related puns, too.

NCAA Football 11 (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2)
Developer: EA Tiburon/EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: July 13, 2010
MSRP: $59.99, $39.99 (PlayStation 2)

To achieve its goal of creating the most realistic college football experience to date, EA has made a few changes to the old NCAA Football formula. One of the most notable changes this year comes through the improved running mechanics. Rather than having players stutter or quickly cut to what appears to be a canned animation, spins and jukes are seamlessly incorporated into a player’s run. Part of this is because of the improved dual analog stick controls for running, which now senses how far the analog stick is being leaned, rather than if it is simply being pushed in one direction or another.

This sensitivity does take some getting used to, but after a short time, it becomes easy to use and helps make runs more precise. Only five of the actual controls -- high stepping, jukes, spins, trucks and shielding the ball from contact – are mapped to the right analog stick, and that’s probably a good thing. Otherwise, you might go to do a stiff arm and end up juking right into the arms of an opposing linebacker.

The run game also gets a little buff with improved blocking from the offensive line. Offensive linemen react a bit better to picking up their targets, and while there’s still a few blown blocks or bad choices during the game, it’s noticeably easier to get the running game going in NCAA Football 11 … or noticeably more difficult to effectively stop the run when teams are balanced, even on lower difficulty settings.

But enough about the running game and how it’s a bit better this year. What’s really going to get college football fans excited is the fact that EA have tried to give each of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools a unique feel that accurately reflects them. This year, that’s not just adding in new mascots (one of which is from my alma mater, Bowling Green State University) and keeping up with new stadiums for some teams: it’s giving 30 of the most well known teams their own unique pre-game run-outs.

In this area, the crew at EA Tiburon and EA Canada have done very well, both in picking the teams to use for this, and in recreating their run-outs. Notre Dame’s players slap the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign in the locker room before heading out onto the field. Michigan’s virtual team runs under the same “Go Blue” banner the real team does. Miami emerges from its giant helmet in a cloud of smoke. A Texas player leads the charge out of the tunnel with the American flag flying high, just like in real life. Some of the more complex ones aren’t in this year’s version (Colorado and its buffalo are absent, for example), but these all add immensely to the feel that you’re actually playing for one of these schools, rather than just having a generic run-out like in previous games.

Likewise, EA has decided to put its ESPN license to good use, incorporating “ESPN College Gameday” and other elements into the series. The full ESPN broadcast presentation package is in NCAA Football 11 for the first time, including the ESPN transition wipe, and while Lee Corso’s antics are missing from this year’s game, I think I’ll survive without hearing his canned lines every fourth or fifth play from scrimmage. Besides, ESPN reporter Erin Andrews has apparently taken his place in that regard with heir sideline reports, as she seems to say the same couple of things every time one of your players gets injured. Yes, Erin, we know he might not be coming back to the game after he broke his leg; you just told us that about the guy with the concussion.

In this year’s game, each team has a playbook tailored more to its actual style, rather than just a generic one with a few unique plays thrown in. Sure, there is some overlapping (as there is in real college football), but seeing these little tweaks and different formations goes a long way in making you feel like you're actually in control of the team you've picked, be it Nebraska’s traditional option running attack or any one of the many variations on the spread offense. Of course, this is on the offensive side of the ball; on defense, you don’t quite have the same variation in play choices.

On top of the ESPN license, the playbooks, and the run-outs, NCAA Football 11 looks a bit better than last year’s game, in that the player’s skin textures have lost a bit of their "sparkle." That’s quite a good thing, because instead of looking like plastic dolls or vampires from Twilight standing in the sunshine, they actually look like human beings … even if the mouth animations still look as awful as they did back when I played NCAA Football 2003.

On the other hand, if one of the game’s improvements was better lighting, EA has both succeeded and failed. It's succeeded in that the lighting on the field and on the players looks better, of course. But it's failed in that the fans in the stands look like they’re radioactive whenever the sun is shining at a game. Note to the guys at EA Tiburon: chill it on the bloom effects, okay?

While there aren’t any new game modes in NCAA Football 11, Dynasty mode has undergone a major expansion, most of which is geared toward the Web. A new Dynasty website allows you to manage your NCAA Football 11 dynasties online and even recruit players. Yeah, you read that right: you can go through the recruiting process both in-game and online, which seems both interesting and a bit unnecessary for anyone but the most hardcore NCAA Football 11 players.

Dynasties are searchable and can be made either public, allowing anyone to join, or private and password-protected. And if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a new feature called DynastyWire for hardcore fans and wanna-be journalists. This features allows you to create stories for game recaps in a blog for your dynasty, then share them on social networking sites. While the inner writing geek in me loves this (as I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for years offline) the social networking part of it seems a little much. Do I really need to know how friends are doing in their Duke or North Texas dynasties? Probably not.

As for the actual Dynasty mode mechanics, they remain largely the same except for changes to the recruiting process. Coaches can talk directly with recruits on a number of topics, from fan base and athletic facilities to whether they’re a championship contender and how much playing time they’ll get. Recruits will also ask about your school’s weaknesses and after each talk, and you’ll get a grade on each topic to see how you scored compared to other schools. That really turns up the pressure to sell your school in the best way possible, something every athletic program has to go through on a yearly basis, and players can and will pass on you for other schools that will better match their desires. Of course, if all that is too easy for you or you’re something of a videogame masochist, a difficulty slider has been added, as well. The changes tie in very well with the whole “recreating the college experience” theme for this year’s title, as it puts more emphasis on the skill of being able to make a good pitch rather than simply going undefeated and raking in the recruits.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. This year’s control set-up is essentially the same as last year’s, with the exception of the dual analog stick controls for running. TeamBuilder is once again online only, with the only new additions being the ability to play online against other created teams and add custom text on the front of team jerseys, something that should have been doable last year. Road to Glory mode returns, and even with the new name, it’s essentially the same as the Campus Legend mode from NCAA Football 06 to 09, down to the choices you have to make for evening activities. Oh, except this time, Erin Andrews is the “host” and the game will follow your college career with in-game highlights and discussions about your performance. Thankfully, if it sounds as annoying to you as I actually found it to be, you have the option to disable it when you start a Road to Glory save. I’d advise you do so.

There’s a handful of other glitches, too, from players continuing their timeout motions and not getting set for the play, to the camera being totally off-center on referees when they make calls or going through players during instant replays, to a noticeable bit of lag toward the end of some games each time after the ball is snapped. Even the ESPN graphics in the game will lag out or be choppy at times, and it’s somewhat distracting. 

NCAA Football 11 is also a sign of what’s to come in regards to EA’s plans to make you buy games new instead of used. Each copy of NCAA Football 11 comes with a code that unlocks online multiplayer and the ability to actually use your TeamBuilder teams for free, as well as recruiting reports for Dynasty mode. If you buy it used later, you’ll have to pony up for these features, and in either case, you’ll also have to register an account with EA if you haven’t already done so. It seems like such a hassle, and having to pay just to make good use of TeamBuilder would upset me if I had bought it used, but with no competitors on the market, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about it.

When it comes down to it, though, all of these small things don’t take away from what the teams at EA Tiburon and EA Canada have put together: the most realistic college football experience on videogame consoles to date. Sure, the “glowing” fans and the occasional hiccup might remind you that you’re playing a game, but with the new team introductions, the improved and individualized team playbooks, and heck, even the familiar “ESPN College Gameday” logos and theme that plays during the loading screen, NCAA Football 11 feels much less sterile and fake than some of its predecessors.

EA Sports’ slogan has always been “It’s in the game,” and while for many years that was a half-truth for the NCAA Football franchise, this year, it’s more of a “four-fifths-truth,” if I may say. There’s still room for improvement, but for the first time in I can recall, I actually feel like I’m playing a college football game and not just Madden: NCAA Edition. If you like college football, definitely pick this one up, because EA’s scored a touchdown with this year’s installment.

Crap, that was a pun, wasn’t it?

Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

Brian Szabelski,
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