It Just Keeps Getting Better!
It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing color, there’s a nip in the air…wait a minute, it’s mid-July! Nevertheless, college football is already underway on your favorite home console. This year’s NCAA Football by EA Sports brings everything we loved from last year’s edition and throws in several touches that help bring the spirit and excitement of game day home. Of course, if you absolutely love the college football game you already own, there may not be a truly compelling reason to pick up this year’s version. That said, I’m ecstatic that I’ve upgraded to NCAA Football 2009 (NCAA 09).
Veterans of EA Sports football titles will feel right at home with the control scheme and gameplay of NCAA 09. Establishing the run, finding open receivers, blitzing the QB, and picking off floaters are executed with the greatest of ease. A few interesting changes have been made, however. For starters, the new feinting and juking system feels much more realistic and fluid. Instead of being shackled to a frustrating move animation, players can now change direction and link moves together mid-stride in response to closing defenders and open holes. As a result, running the option, using draw plays, and hitting receivers on the numbers are even more devastating than ever before.
Second, calling a timeout doesn’t just stop the clock. This year’s interactive timeouts actually allow for a bit of simplified coaching to be done in the huddle on the sideline. After calling a timeout, a list of several coaching options will fire up specific players. In other words, if you know the opposition is going to run, you can tell your linemen to get a solid push at the line and they will actually get an ability boost when play resumes. Along those lines, you can also ice the opposition’s kicker by calling a timeout in the waning minutes of the second and fourth quarters. This is loads of fun against buddies at home because the camera angle goes haywire, the controller starts vibrating, and the sound of a freshman heartbeat starts to thump. As fun as this was for me, I could see how some people would find it a bit gimmicky, as it can be a near controller-throwing affair when it happens to you.
I also really liked the new formation audible function. Like other years, players can change the play at the line if they think the defense has a read on their offense. What’s different now is players can change the play without changing the formation. The result is that the opponent thinks they still have you read, but you’ve been able to completely change the tactic. Furthermore, bluff play art can be initiated at the line by accessing the Coach Cam. By pressing to the right, left, or up, dummy play schemes will be ghosted on the screen to try and throw off your opponent. If you do find yourself making bonehead offensive plays anyway (i.e. throwing floaters into double coverage), you will be subject to the all-new Quarterback Quiz. For example, after throwing an INT, a text dialog and graphics will pop up on the HUD and have you decide what play the defense called. If you choose correctly, then your QB will regain his confidence. If not, he’ll feel rattled. These three new mechanics definitely enhance the football experience by making it a bit more rounded.
In addition to the new features, classic modes of play including Dynasty Mode, Campus Legend, Mini-Games, and even the Mascot Mash-Up are back and well accounted for. Subtle changes to these modes along with the improved environments and settings also help separate this title from its predecessors.
Dynasty Mode still allows players to take on their school(s) of choice as head coach and guide them to victory via deep recruiting tools, team management, and on-field prowess. This year’s iteration of Dynasty Mode is essentially unchanged from last year’s except for the enhanced recruiting features and the ability to take your dynasty online. Now, players can set an overall recruiting strategy by letting assistants handle the process and also make quicker, more streamlined calls to prospects in order to entice them to come to their program. These features definitely help to speed up the recruiting process while still giving players a somewhat hands-on feel.
But, the most important change to Dynasty is found in the online features. For the first time, players can join up with up to 11 other friends. Playing and recruiting against your buddies feels like an interactive fantasy league. Furthermore, progress you’ve made online or at home can be imported directly to an offline or online dynasty, respectively. This is an excellent feature that really integrates players’ experiences and won’t halt your progression if offline play has lost its luster or your friends have succumbed to your online mastery.
Disappointingly, Campus Legend mode hasn’t seen any upgrades. Taking on a high school athlete midway through their senior season or creating one from scratch, getting them scholarships, make the transition to the college game and lifestyle, and then becoming a campus legend is still loads of fun and quite compelling, just don’t expect any upgrades from last year.
I was surprised at just how good the Mini-Games mode is this time around. Familiar games include Option Dash, Bowling, and Tug of War. Option Dash has players start from their own 20 and awards them points for yards gained, touchdowns, pitching the ball, and keeping it. The object is to score as many points as you can in a two minute time limit. Bowling has players start at their opponent’s 10 yard line. If you score on first down, you get a strike. If you score on second down, you get a spare. Anything else just gives you a single point for each yard gained. Tug of War is all about field position and starts with the ball at midfield. Each player is only given one down before the ball is turned over to the opposition. The first player to score a touchdown wins. The new featured mini-games include Horse and Special Teams Challenge. Horse pits kicker against kicker. You get to choose where to place the ball, if you make it, then the other player must make the kick or gain a letter. Similar to Tug of War, Special Teams Challenge gives each player one down to work with. The difference is that this down must be used to punt or kick a field goal. The first player to run one back or split the uprights wins. All these modes are very addictive and produce more than their fair share of thrills.
I’ve never really liked the Mascot Mash-Up mode. It seems kind of trite to play a standard game of football just with mascots rather than players. Thankfully, the developers must have felt the same way. These years’s Mascot Mash-Up, excuse me – Coke Zero Mascot Mash-Up, has added in a bunch of crazy, almost Mario sports-like moves including flips that help bring a bit more levity and interest. Although, I doubt you’ll play it more than once.
Presentation in EA Sports’ NCAA Football titles has always been incredibly important. Happily, NCAA 09 follows suit and even improves upon previous offerings. The visuals are crisp and the animations are very fluid. The excellent rendering of stadiums, mascots, cheerleaders, and school-specific background art captures the spirit and pageantry of college football. Plus, the sounds and school fight songs make for some of the best audio in the entire industry. There really is nothing like a marching band to get you all riled up! Love ’em or hate ’em, Herbstreit, Nessler, and Corso lend a ton of authenticity. And this year, as an added bonus, you can actually set up custom stadium sounds. That means players can create playlists of their own music and set an in-game trigger for the sounds to begin playing. For example, after a score, a Colorado alumnus like me could plug in “Rough ’em, Rough ’em up, Go C.U.!” Are you beginning to see the possibilities?
When all is said and done, NCAA Football 09 is just the next game in a long line of great games. If you are content with the version you already have, then there isn’t enough staggering new content to warrant an upgrade. However, this is the best game in the franchise to date, and I’m glad I made the switch.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
Everything looks crisp and detailed. The animations are particularly fluid. Every once in a while things get mucked up by random framerate shuddering. 4.6 Control
Silky smooth! All of the functions can be remapped to your preference, and the improved feints and jukes mechanic is a welcome addition. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sounds are nearly perfect in every way. However, the constant replaying of my alma mater’s fight song drives my wife crazy! 4.1 Play Value
If you love college football, then you’re in for a real treat. The inclusion of online dynasties is a great feature. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.