In many ways, EA's NCAA Football franchise mirrors the recent fortunes of Boise State. It wasn't that many years ago that the Broncos were written off as nobodies, and then they shocked the world by knocking off Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The school's profile has grown in the seasons since, and this past year, they found themselves on the cusp of playing for the national championship. Ultimately, they came up short. The same story is true of NCAA Football, as a series that was once little more than a warm-up to the yearly edition of Madden has now asserted itself as a genuine powerhouse. NCAA Football 12 carries this notion forward with welcome tweaks and a few major overhauls, but the franchise still hasn't quite put together all of the pieces.
The cornerstone of college football is its traditions, and last year, the series began to encapsulate this by adding team-specific introductions and pre-game rituals. This year, that concept has been greatly expanded, and now schools with live mascots and special "touch rituals" have been added to the mix. It's cool to see Ralphie the Buffalo charge the field at Colorado home games or catch sight of Bevo guarding the end zone at Texas. This continued attention to detail, coupled with conference-specific transitions and extremely strong ESPN-branded presentation, makes NCAA Football 12 feel like the most true-to-life mimic of major college football yet.
One of the primary gameplay changes EA is touting is the introduction of collision-based tackling. In previous years, whenever players got within a certain proximity of each other and a defender initiated a tackle sequence, the tackling animation would begin even if the players weren't yet touching. This led to a lot of sliding and "vacuuming," as characters were quickly smashed together in order to complete the preset animations. Now, the tackling system is much more reactive, as defenders must first make contact with the ballcarrier, and then factors such as strength and momentum determine whether the tackle will be successful or if the player will break free for more yardage. While it doesn't quite feel perfect, it's highly improved over the old hitting model, and all those years of frustrating suction between players seem to finally be a thing of the past.
One of the primary draws of the NCAA Football franchise is the Dynasty mode, and the latest edition gets some cool new features that put a greater emphasis on the men who wear the headsets. For the first time ever, players can opt to begin a career as the offensive or defensive coordinator (instead of the head coach) on the team of their choice. You are then offered a variety of goals both for the current season and the duration of your contract, which are directly tied to job security. Do well, and you'll see your fortunes rise as you're offered lucrative contract extensions or head coaching opportunities if you start out as a coordinator. Fail, and you may find yourself on the hot seat and ultimately expelled from your dream job. The entire experience is tied together by the new Coaching Carousel, and the game does a great job of capturing the struggle of deciding whether you want to be true to your school and see how far you can take it or leave behind your players in the hopes of landing a better job at a bigger school. We hope the idea sticks around and EA finds some cool new ways to build on it for next year's game.
The other major shake-up in Dynasty is the ability to edit conference memberships and the rules that govern them. Want to kick pipsqueak Vanderbilt out of the mighty SEC? It's gone. Think that the Big XII should have a Rose Bowl berth instead of the Big Ten? Done. For the first time, players can change conference memberships, bowl tie-ins, automatic qualifiers — pretty much everything. Conferences can range in size from four to 16 teams, and the bigger conferences can be split into divisions and have their own championship game. The system is deep, exhaustive and fun to tinker with, and armchair commissioners are going to love reshaping the college football landscape to their liking.
If Dynasty is NCAA Football's strongest selling point, then Road to Glory mode is the perpetual weak link in the chain. The flat, unimpressive mode has seen a major overhaul this year, with practically all the old ideas thrown out the window in favor of fresh ones. The revamped career mode has improved by leaps and bounds, but a few elements still border on broken.
Upon starting up Road to Glory, created players can be assigned a role on both offense and defense, and then you play through the entirety of your senior year of high school in the hopes of being noticed by a major program. Offensive and defensive recruitment is handled separately, so by the end of the season, you might have to make the tough decision of whether you want to be the quarterback at USC or middle linebacker at Alabama, all based on previous performances.
Once you make your decision and set foot on campus, though, things are just starting, as you're still an unproven commodity in the eyes of your coaches. Thus, you'll initially have to prove your mettle on the practice field, earning enough of the coach's trust that he lets you try out as a starter. Don't get a swelled head when you succeed because you're still some no-name kid who happened to win the starter's job. Thus, early on, you're restricted to only running the plays the coach calls, but solid efforts in practices and games earn you more freedom. Soon, you'll be able to flip plays or reject the current play call and choose from a few other options. Truly assert yourself, and you'll eventually get all the freedom the game's greats enjoy, calling audibles at the line of scrimmage and sending receivers on hot routes to beat the defense.
This new trust system keeps gameplay exciting and engaging, but the structure of unlocks means that early appearances are bound to be frustrating. There's nothing worse than walking up to the line of scrimmage when you're down by a touchdown late in the game and knowing your fourth down conversion attempt is going to fail because coach is making you run a dive play into what is clearly a blitz coming right up the middle. These moments hurt because you're utterly powerless to stop them, and it's not until much later in your development that you'll actually be able to do something about these situations. When you finally have all your pre-snap abilities unlocked, the game hums along nicely, but be prepared to completely write off your freshman season (and possibly even part of your second year) due to poor coaching.
Adding to the woes are the fact that you can only control your created player in Road to Glory, and your AI teammates seem to be completely unaware of the first down marker at nearly all times. I lost count of the number of occasions when a halfback or receiver got the ball and was well on his way to a first down when he suddenly stopped and began running sideways to follow his preset routine. This invariably led to tackles short of the line to gain and punts, which would have been completely avoided had the player just run in a straight line down the field. This abject failure also doesn't even account for sweep and toss plays, which prove to be effective exactly 0.0 percent of the time. It's downright rage-inducing that there are several moments when drives will stall and you'll lose a game simply because of dumb teammates.
Though these issues hamper the experience, NCAA Football 12 still stands as one of the strongest recent entrants in the series. The presentation and gameplay have both been ratcheted up to new levels, and the renewed emphasis on coaches in Dynasty mode is a fun change of pace. Road to Glory is also much improved, and if the team at Tiburon really buckles down, then next year, they might finally nail down what has been a thorn in their side until now. Though the season may not start for another month, NCAA Football 12 should do a fine job of tiding you over until then.
More articles about NCAA Football 12