This is going to be my longest, most detailed review to date. I’ve only played the Xbox 360 version, but I’ve been told by friends with the PS3 version who have played the Xbox one that they are for all intents and purposes the same – so I’ll consider this a review for both systems.
There’s a major preface I need to start with – I love football. I watch more NFL than college, but all in all I’ve been watching both for years. I’ve been playing them for years as well – over several generations of video game console. It seems like each time we move up to a new generation of console, the sports games suffer the most from failed expectations and it takes them a couple of years to find their proper legs.
If you’re not a fan of football games – you probably aren’t going to like this one. If you bought last year’s game, you’ll have to decide if the $60 price tag is worth the updates. NCAA Football 2011 is my favorite so far from the series, but in the areas I care about most, I don’t feel like it’s made enough strides. The be a legend mode feels almost unchanged. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the Erin Andrews videos are reused from last year’s game. The online stuff is a lot better, but I tend not to use it as much. For whateve reason, most of my friends play Madden every year, but don’t get the NCAA games so it’s more fun for me to league up with buddies on Madden than NCAA, but there are some nice improvements on this front as well. I also felt like the Dynasty mode has finally made some nice strides – and since this is where I spend the vast majority of my time, this does tilt the review in this year’s iteration favorably. I’ve already played through 3 seasons with another about half done, and put a player about halfway through the created player mode – so I’ve definitely seen most of the good and bad that the game has to offer. Here goes:
Graphics – 8.5:
Overall, the graphics are good. Player movements are fluid, the game moves along at a crisp pace, the stadium design looks solid and I never had any trouble telling what was going on during gameplay. The crowd has some cool animations now, but they feel fairly generic – then again, I would imagine that more detail and movement would cause the framerate to stuffer more than it already does during some action heavy sequences. The replays from on-field look better than most of the other angles in my opinion. There is one graphical glitch I have gotten to occur about every 6 or 7 games. I tend to do a lot of no huddle/hurry up stuff and so I’m often pressing buttons and getting out of replays – it’s just how I play. Well, several times now I’ve gotten the game’s graphics into a goofy state where the live gameplay still looks good, but all of the replays and scenes behind the playbook menus wind up in this out of focus blur filter that seems to accidentally get applied for the rest of the game. Get out of that particular match up though, and the next one is back to normal again. It kind of reminds me of the most recent Angry Video Game Nerd video about Graphics Glitches (not appropriate for kids).
Music & Sounds – 7:
The commentary is effective enough, and I like the announcers but they are starting to get a bit stale this year. School theme songs boom nicely, fans react more loudly in appropriate situations and really help the home field advantage feeling. The hits on the field and the quarterback cadences all sound like you would expect them to. It’s not a game like Modern Warfare where stereo effects really play into the game and surround sound gives you an actual advantage. One oddity that has occurred twice to me – my sound cut out mid-game. Just… completely gone. Unlike the blur filter issue, it did not clear up the next game. I had to back out to my main Xbox dashboard and then it came back. I’ve never had that problem with any other game, and it’s only been twice, so nowhere near as problematic as the blur filter, but more annoying.
Gameplay – 7:
This is going to be a long section, but in sports games I can live with so-so graphics and sound – good gameplay is a must. I really wanted to give it a 9, but there were a few things holding this score back. I’ve had a few glitches during the gameplay. Probably the most annoying bug I’ve had yet happened only once, on a PAT. The opposing team had just scored on me, and the ball hit the upright and the PAT was no good. Odd thing happened then, the ball fell to the endzone and one of my defensive players plucked it out of the air. And then we lined up to kick and… I was lining up to kick. Somehow the game had read that since I had possession, I was to kick off? Just a weird, weird glitch in what was a very close game at the time. I’ve tried repeatedly to replicate it, but I’ve yet to have another PAT miss fall into the endzone like that.
Next up? The blocking is a lot better overall, especially the run blocking – in most instances. The Maryland formation is basically broken then. If I run a counter or power, it’s a complete crapshoot. The formation calls for three backs in the backfield, with two serving as blockers for the halfback. They just seem to bust out and up just a bit regardless of who is coming. Once in awhile they’ll latch onto the defender and block, but at least two out of three times, my blockers just barrel ahead and don’t move toward the logical blockers. At least once every 3 or 4 plays, I will do a counter out of the formation and you’ll see a linebacker run right through all three potential blockers and hit me untouched. This isn’t the linebacker racing through the middle of the offensive line after jumping the snap count, but a guy who moved laterally and then made a beeline right for my halfback without any of his blockers reacting to pick that linebacker up.
This leads me to one of my biggest football video game pet peeves ever. Offensive line pancakes just need to happen more. This was a problem for years on the Playstation 2 versions of both NCAA football and Madden football – your linemen simply would not get pancakes. At least, not at the rate of other simulated teams. I once had a center who dropped 13 points overall in Madden due to this programming oversight because he had no pancakes and gave up no sacks over a full season of starting. So the game viewed him as not having played at all. When a league leader has 125 pancakes and makes an All-American team, it’s frustrating when your 97 overall guard has 11 pancakes at season’s end. And it’s not like I don’t run the ball. My RB won the Hiesman all but one year – I run the ball a ton. Well, they fixed this during the last couple of years of the Playstation 2 generation… only to reintroduce this problem in the current generation of systems. I’ve seen people complaining about it on forums, I’ve submitted it as a bug/feature request/problem at least a dozen times over the last three years. The only way to get more is to jack up the line play for your team in the sliders menu, or lengthen the game, but all of the rest of the stats would be hugely out of alignment then. Anyway – this is still broken, much to my annoyance.
Next up – punt returns. Most punt return formations you get about 3-5 yards per return. On the hardest level of difficulty, you basically fair catch or fumble because they barrel into you so fast every time – it doesn’t matter which return formation you use – except one. I’ve had pretty good luck with punt block return – a formation that fakes like you are going to rush and try to block the ball, but you actually bring two guys back as blockers. Mostly it just makes the computer pack their punt gunners back behind the line for protection. It’s cheap – and it gets me about 12 yards each time. There’s absolutely no hope of ever taking back a punt return for a touchdown though with the blocking mechanic so badly broken at the higher difficulties.
Boy, I must really hate this game, right? Quite the contrary, these things are more exception than rule, and the things that the game does regularly, it does very, very well. Playcalling is easy. The pass blocking is pretty good most of the time. I don’t see the abundance of interceptions I used to see in older games – the db’s do more knockdowns than pickoffs. I once had a season of NCAA where my cornerback had over 75 interceptions. Now? My top one had seven and I loved it. Big hits happen, but whiffing on them can cause all sorts of problems. I used to try and level big hits with impunity – but now I have to pick and choose my spots. More than any other football game I can think of, this year’s version of NCAA feels the most authentic to date.
A couple of the big things I really like now, after all that whining before:
The blocking is improved.
Route running and endzone/sideline catches by receivers are much better. If a WR catches an out route, they stay inbounds now instead of just darting out of bounds. This new sideline awareness is amazing.
Menu navigation is solid.
The new running controls utilizing the right stick for moves and balance is cool.
Defensive moves along the line feel better to me than they did the past.
Intangibles – 9:
There’s a lot that goes on in these games. The different modes are cool, though I still get the majority of my mileage out of Dynasty mode. I like saving out the draft classes, because I know I will be importing them into Madden in a few weeks when it comes out. The Dynasty mode is deep and the recruitment process feels great. It takes up a bit of time, but not too much time. The online modes are pretty cool and the way you can access them from online away from the console is a really nice innovation that should help keep the seasons moving. My experience in the past with these is that sometimes online dynasty/franchise modes would buckle because of inactive players. The system for creating highlight videos and images works very well and the variety of angles that the videos can be created from is very cool. With so many modes, the game gets some serious replay value.
Overall – 8:
Your mileage may vary of course. You have to like football. It helps to like college football. It helps if you don’t own last year’s version, because while there are obvious improvements over last year’s model of the game, there are some areas where the strides taken were not so great. However, this game usually drops in price in a few months once it’s been out for a bit and Madden has steamrolled onto the store shelves, so it can be had at a lower price if that is a point of contention for you. All games have bugs – the fuzzy filter and audio cutting out can be forgiven. For me, the blocking/return game stuff is a bit tougher to swallow, but I’ve had a chance to acclimate to it over the years and I’ve learned it’s part of the package and to deal with it. It’s just disappointing that such obvious problems still have not been fixed after all this time. My goal is to have at least 7 or 8 seasons under my belt before I pick up Madden. Inevitably I wind up playing Madden in favor of NCAA and I like having those classes to import. The game is a lot of fun if you can live with its shortcomings, which I certainly have and can.