For many years, the NCAA Football franchise has lived in the shadow of Madden. While the collegiate level of football differs greatly from the pros, until recently most gamers could simply count on the new edition of NCAA Football to be virtually identical to last year's Madden, only with different team names. Lately, things have begun to change, and EA has started to pay more attention to the differences between football played on Saturday and football that kicks off on Sunday. The culmination of this renewed attention to detail is NCAA Football 11, a game which finally nails the look and feel of college football.
First off, EA has made a host of gameplay improvements to ensure that this year's edition is one of the most enjoyable ever. Lineman and backs have had their AI tweaked substantially so that they finally block running plays in a sensible manner. Pulling guards now create beautiful seal blocks on the edge, and fullbacks will hunt down linebackers in order to spring runners into the second level of the defense. For the first time in years, players can actually utilize dives, counters and sweeps effectively, finally putting an end to the old mantra of all passes, all the time. The only downside is that this newly revamped AI doesn't seem to be present in special teams, as blockers still let defenders run untouched at punt returners, and most kickoff coverage breaks down right about the 20-yard line, as it always has. In spite of all that, it's a great boon to actually have the ability to call run plays and see them work as designed.
Another much-needed fix came in the passing game, where receivers who are making grabs on the sidelines and in the endzone now work as hard as possible to make the play within bounds. In previous years, routes and fades were practically worthless because receivers would either catch the ball and immediately step out of bounds or never attempt to stay within bounds in the first place. Now you'll see receivers dragging toes and "dotting the i" whenever they're attempting to make a grab near the sideline. Much like the revamped blocking system, this new field awareness opens up the playbook and allows you to call plays that were practically useless in years prior.
In addition to all these great on-field tweaks, EA Tiburon has also gone to great lengths to improve the franchise's presentation. The lighting and textures have been substantially revamped, creating more realistic and less plastic-looking players. Also, certain schools are now shown with their specific pre-game run-out, so you'll witness the Michigan Wolverines running under the "Go Blue!" banner or Clemson players touching Howard's Rock on their way down to the field. While these may seem like small things, most fans know that tradition is one of the biggest aspects of college football, so adding wrinkles like these into the pre-game make a big difference. Couple all this with a television-worthy ESPN broadcast package, and you've got an experience that closely approaches watching the real thing.
EA's main centerpiece for NCAA Football 11 is the Online Dynasty mode, and this is possibly the most thorough treatment yet. In what may be the biggest productivity killer since March Madness started streaming online, several aspects of your dynasty can now be managed on your computer or iPhone. For instance, all recruiting can now be done online, giving you an easy way to kill at least 30 minutes of office boredom every week. Furthermore, the new StoryBuilder tool lets armchair sports journalists put together photos and video clips taken by the game and create blog posts to share with the whole league. Beat your buddy in the big rivalry game on an amazing fourth-and-goal conversion? Put the video in a story and send it out to the whole crew. Little wrinkles like these make it even more fun to start a league with friends and then proceed to trash-talk in whole new ways.
Unfortunately, for as enjoyable as the online aspects of the game are, the offline portions don't bode quite as well. Offline Dynasty is practically unchanged from previous years, but with a few new bells and whistles added to the recruiting system. Potential players now provide more feedback when you pitch your school to them, but the whole thing still feels considerably more unstructured than it should. Also, spending any time at all with the online version of the Dynasty mode absolutely kills any desire to play alone, so those who can't find a good online league are given cold comfort with the bare-bones offline version.
Worse than the dynasty offerings is the career-focused Road to Glory, which has turned into such a hot mess that Tiburon would likely be better off scrapping it entirely and going back to the drawing board. Players get the same old clips of Erin Andrews, the same old list of non-interactive activity options every day, and in general, a whole lot of time is spent staring at menus and not playing football. Every year, I expect the whole mode to quietly disappear without anyone realizing it's gone, and yet each season, it comes back just as boring and pointless as ever. Thankfully, the Dynasty mode is NCAA Football's showcase because the career mode is borderline pointless.
If you can abide the less-than-stellar offline options, you'll find that NCAA Football 11 is one of the best entries in the series. The Online Dynasty mode offers a ton of great features, and the enhanced gameplay and presentation go a long way toward making the game very difficult to put down. There are still some nagging animation, commentary and AI bugs that bring down the overall quality by a touch, but they're mostly so insignificant and inconsequential that they won't hamper your overall enjoyment. It seems the NCAA Football franchise has finally found its identity, and the end product is extremely impressive.
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