There comes a time where developers have to realize that a recurring game such as a football title must go through a change, or else their fans will eventually stop buying the game. EA Sports came to this realization last year by promising that the NCAA Football franchise would no longer get the hand-me-downs from Madden NFL Football. The result of this was far better gameplay that encouraged long time followers of the franchise into believing that it was no longer the stepchild of the big brother. Still, fans wanted more, and more they got with this year's title, NCAA Football 12. There is a lot to cover with this year's version, so let's dive into the pile.
EA Sports has always prided itself on giving a title that is slick with its graphics as well as a clean look when it comes to the menu system, options, and features that are offered. There was little change from the menu system of last year's version to this year, other than the actual start up has changed. If you're playing on any TV over 40 inches, then you are going to have one big “PRESS START BUTTON” appear on your screen once it's done loading. Of course, this is just a minor thing that people will either like or hate, but it's just a simple observation regarding their means of going big with the title.
Opening up, you will notice a couple of different additions to the menu itself. First and foremost, cycling through will give you selections such as coaching a game, creating your own playbook, and editing coaches, including offensive and defensive coordinators. We've been clamoring for this for years, especially since coaches don't fall under the improper advertising clauses of the NCAA list of violations. Granted, you still have to go in and edit these yourself, but if you are diligent enough, it adds a fantastic element to the game, especially in Dynasty mode.
Custom playbooks are one of the best additions to this game. You go into the selection screen and pick a base playbook to start with. From there, you go through and add in or take away plays that you don't want, as well as formations. You are limited to 40 formations and 374 plays, which is more than enough. I find that, even with my own playbook fully loaded at 374 plays, I only have 26 formations. On top of this, I'm still only using a rotation of about 25-30 unique plays a game. Still, if you are a control freak and absolutely want to hand pick your entire offense, then this is going to be the best addition to the game.
Most of the changes to game this time around comes in the form of tackling animations and minor changes to the play calling and adjustments screen. While the system itself was completely revamped with last year's version, the developers built upon that by adding far more realistic animations and motions when it came to tackling, running, catching, and anything else you can think of. You will notice smoother animations when it comes to running backs who are attempting to escape a tackle, whether they do or do not succeed. The first time a running back high stepped out of a tackle made me sit up and get excited, considering I had given up on the play.
Another change to the gameplay itself was the improvements upon defense, specifically to zone defense calls. In past versions, players that did a zone drop, such as linebackers in a mid-zone while in a cover 2, would drop straight back and that was it. There was no flow with the play, no move towards players that came near them, and their reaction times were generally terrible. This has changed, as players will now move where the players go. It makes for tighter passing windows, especially on post, post corners, and deep hitch routes. Kicking it up to Heisman makes things extra difficult as defenders sometimes make you believe that they are in the huddle with you. It will force you to have balance to your offense.
Initially, it seemed that EA had taken the proverbial “Superbackers” out of the game. Anyone who has played the game in the last year or two knows exactly what is meant by this. Linebackers have a vertical leap that would make any basketball player jealous, thus making it difficult to impossible to hit those 10 yard hitch routes, slant-corner routes, and standard post patterns. To be fair, it does seem to be limited to middle linebackers this year and not just the entire defensive squad. Last year was infuriating to have a zone blitz and watch a 300 pound defensive tackle practically jump five feet in the air to bat down a ball. In this year's version, its not few and far in between, but its getting better.
Certain motions on offense have changed as well, although they are subtle. You may not notice them at first, but you will after running the plays a few times. Case in point: Power option plays, usually out of the Ace, I-Form, and Wishbone/Flexbone, have a different feel due to a change in the way the quarterback options out into the play. It past versions, the quarterback would take the snap and actually take a step or two towards the side of the line that the play did not go to. It allowed the line an extra half-second to a second to block and get to the second level, but that little bit of time is gone as the quarterback now does a counter-spin just about every time. Power options and speed options practically look the same, and if you are a football purist, this is a minor flaw that can alter your play-calling as it has made power options a lot more difficult to run.
Most of the changes beyond the ones that I listed are subtle, such as a change in the kicker camera on kickoffs, removal of celebrations with the mascot, the change in how you make play calls now on the menu, and so on. Many of the changes have resulted in either no change to the style or just enough to give an improvement.
ROAD TO GLORY
EA has taken a lot of flack since they launched the popular Road to Glory mode, considering that very few changes have been made to it since its inception. This year, it seems that EA finally listened to the fans and revamped just about everything with it. Gone are the days of basically picking whoever you want to go to by simply turning down the initial scholarship offers. You have to earn it by playing out your entire senior year of high school, which has added an entirely new element to the game. You can even go in and change the names of the schools you play against to add a level of realism that we haven't seen before in NCAA. Playing throughout the year will earn you points and garner you attention from schools. To start off, you will deal with lower tiered schools. As you improve and put up bigger numbers, you will have larger schools begin to show interest. You will have to earn enough points playing these games in order to max out the interest bar and have your top schools actually offer a scholarship.
What has really become stale with this mode, however, is the game play itself. It used to be that, if you started as second or third string, all you had to do was build yourself up enough in practice and, once that top spot was yours, it was yours for your career. Now, you have to earn it and keep it. It forces you to do more practices and actually develop your skills depending on your position. Now, most everyone chooses a quarterback at some point when playing Road to Glory, which is what I went with in my testing. As you progress your player throughout games, you earn experience points that will garner you temporary boosts in ability as well as earn you more freedoms from your coach, including the ability to call better audibles, change the original play call in the menu, send players in motion, etc. It is beginning to feel more like it should, though the argument for the play calling has always been a heated topic amongst the hardcore players and whether or not you should be able to right out of the gate.
The meat and potatoes of the extra modes has always been the Dynasty mode. Taking control of your favorite school gives every fan the control that they desire, and this year's mode has gone through some simple changes to give a great overall product that, while having a couple of flaws, has shown promise to be the best Dynasty mode that EA has offered since they included possible probations on programs several versions ago, which I would love to see come back. After all, with all of the scandals out there in the world of college football, it would certainly be realistic, right?
Dynasty starts out like it always has in the past: pick your school and away you go. You will have to recruit as always, set your depth charts, etc. This year, though, actually creating your coach is a big thing as you generally will start as a coordinator and not a head coach. This means that you will only play one side of the ball until your coach builds up enough prestige and ability to take on a head coaching position. This is a nice twist that was added in with the coaching carousel, which it is highly recommended that you hunt for a roster that not only has players' names filled in, but the coaches as well.
Recruiting has not changed much, and this is a bit disappointing. EA, despite plenty of criticism over their “slot machine” style recruiting system, has kept it in. For those of you who are new to the franchise, what happens is that, when you lock onto a recruit and decide to give him a phone call to determine his interests and to give your pitch to him, you do not have full control over what you can talk to them about. EA believes that it adds to the difficulty of recruiting, though all it does is give you a headache when it keeps giving you your weakest selling points and makes recruiting less fun and more of a chore. Even if the slot machine was pulled out, your school's strengths may not be what the recruit wants, so I have no idea why EA thought it was best to not only create this system, but to keep it as well.
Probably the best change to Dynasty mode, however, is the addition of conference re-alignment. You can change every specific conference to the way that you please. So, for instance, if you want to create the chaos that almost happened last year and destroy the Big 12, go right ahead. You can move teams wherever you want, create superconferences, change the rules for BCS automatic qualifiers, anything your heart desires. This is easily the best addition to NCAA Football that I've seen in close to five years.
Other than what has already been listed, nothing else has really changed. You will still have your polls, BCS rankings, awards, etc. The coaching carousel gives it a great addition, but ultimately, the much ballyhooed changes didn't result in too terribly much in this game mode, although you can now manage your dynasty online whether it is a single dynasty or an online dynasty with your buddies. I just feel that this mode is one or two steps away from taking that next step from great to amazing. I eluded to it earlier, but I really feel that adding in possible violations and probations could really spice up the mode itself, giving a player an option to perhaps bend the rules and take the risk of getting caught. Maybe that's a little too realistic for the NCAA's liking in a game.
There are two modes that you can utilize to play your game online: Online dynasty and head-to-head matchups. Online dynasties are capable of taking 12 people without losing any of the features that were mentioned above. Unfortunately, though, EA is suffering in this aspect as their servers still show signs of problems. I have played about 20 games online in various forms, including online dynasty, unranked matches, teambuilder games, and ranked matches. Of these 20 games, I have been kicked off due to the connection being lost nine times. Considering that my internet connection is solid at 30 Mbps down/5 Mbps up, I don't think it's on my end. Plus, nine out of twenty is simply far too many for it to be a coincidence. While EA has continually defended their online capabilities, I really feel as if they have dropped the ball yet again with their online. I have read many instances of connection problems and, in order to keep these problems from affecting you, you should try to stick to playing people with as great of a connection as possible by going into the lobby rooms and finding players that have a great matchup ping and speed wise with you.
EA did the right thing a couple of years ago by promising that NCAA was no longer going to be the step-child football game in their development and receive hand-me-downs from Madden. This was the first year I truly felt that they lived up to those words by making a lot of changes that improved the overall feel of the game. Still, they aren't up to the standards that I want out of a football game. I really feel that football games as a whole have been incredibly stale since 2006, but we are starting to see signs of this changing. EA will see plenty of success from this title and can build upon it for next year. With the additions of conference re-alignment, gameplay tweaks, and a fully redone Road to Glory mode, EA is showing the commitment that we all want to see. The question, though, is whether or not this is a flash in the pan and we see the same game get pumped out for a couple of years before another title shows these promising signs.
There are still a couple of features that need to be tweaked, such as recruiting, but with the addition of custom playbooks, the coaching carousel, conference realignments, and a fully revamped Road to Glory mode, NCAA Football has shown great strides in the last couple of titles, and NCAA Football 12 is the result of a development team putting in some hard work to make the fans happy.
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