College is many things to many people, but my four years at Mizzou were defined by football. Faurot Field, the colors black and gold, and waking up at 5 a.m. to be at the tailgate spot long before kickoff are the memories that define my college experience. If you're an NCAA football fan, chances are you have some kind of memory similar to this -- college is all about tradition, and that's what NCAA Football 12 brings to the forefront this year alongside a bunch of other bells and whistles.
NCAA Football 12 is EA Sports and developer Tiburon's latest stab at boiling down one of America's most revered pastimes to something you can play in your living room. Luckily for players, NCAA Football 12 is great at this. It takes all the teams, stadiums, fight songs as well as pomp and circumstance we'd expect and shoves it on a disc for you to enjoy.
It starts with the way the game is presented. The ESPN integration is back from last year, and it's more interwoven than ever before. The games kickoff with an introduction pulled from Saturday's cable line-up, the commentary is energetic and interesting, and camera angles make it feel like you're watching the real thing. Tiburon put in a bunch of tunnel entrances and touch traditions to make your school feel like your school. The Wake Forest Deacon riding in on a motorcycle, slapping the NIU Husky statue, the LSU Tiger roaring in its cage -- it's all there, and this attention to detail makes the games feel more like the real thing than any NCAA game I've played before.
Of course, then there are the little things that pulled me out of the experience and reminded me I was playing a game. A shadow would freak out on the ground, a cameraman would be cut in half by the field goal net, and so on. Anyone who has played NCAA Football in the past few years is used to these little moments. Seasoned players are also going to be used to the gameplay in general.
Yes, NCAA Football 12 packs a new collision system that makes tackling more lifelike and the 3D grass makes for some breathtaking replays, but the nuts and bolts of gameplay feels largely the same. That's fine, as it's as awesome as ever to read blocks and break a big run or pick off a cocky QB, but it does keep NCAA Football 12 from feeling like it made any massive leaps forward. Last year's game was great and this year's game adds a bunch of flair, but the additions are all about presentation and leave the meat of the game feeling familiar.
Dynasty was great last year with its ability to run an online league with friends from a computer, call recruits, and create your own stories. All of that is back, but Dynasty in NCAA Football 12 is about customizing the experience. When I started my dynasty, I was able to create conferences, tweak bowl game settings, and rename divisions. When I had it just right, I created a coach and took the hard road -- choosing the new option to start as an offensive or defensive coordinator. This restricted me to only playing one side of the ball, but it made the rise of my coach -- Fran Mirabella III -- more realistic. I signed a two-year contract and got to watch my job security rise and fall based on whether I was hitting my contract's objectives.
In the past, I've always watched my record and the school's prestige, but the coaching contracts put a new twist on that. Even when Fran's offense was rocking, we'd lose games thanks to the defense falling apart when I was off the field. In the grand scheme, though, it didn't matter as my contract was judging me for yards gained and records broken -- not the number of wins we were pulling in. That's a worry for a head coach.
When my contract was up, I got to get hands-on with the new Coaching Carousel. Here, teams fire, rehire and sign on new coaches. I chose to investigate my options rather than immediately re-sign, and that let me field offers from teams looking for a new direction. This is where you'll make your moves, and it was a bit nerve-wracking for me to pass on my current school's final offer in hopes of getting something better down the road.
The Coaching Carousel is a welcome addition to the NCAA Football franchise -- even though I'd like to see some tweaks. No matter where you start (coordinator or head coach), you're in charge of recruiting for the entire team. That's a bit unreal and should be another honor saved for landing the top slot on a program. I want to be locked out of options until I have the big job so the move feels like a big deal.
The part of NCAA Football 12 getting the biggest overhaul (thankfully) is Road to Glory. Last year's mode was pretty much a rehash, but this year's takes the idea of playing as just one player from high school through college to a different place. Now, it's like a role-playing game. You earn and lose experience points as you practice and play, and this leads to you leveling up in your role on the team. You can go all the way from third string to a campus god, and it unlocks various options along the way.
I chose to be a quarterback, and when I first started, my options were severely limited. The coach gave a play, I executed it. However, as I leveled, I began to take more control. I could flip the play. I could call hot routes at home. I could get additional plays to choose from a certain number of times. It's a really fun mechanic. After years of playing football games, it's interesting to have the choices I've taken for granted stripped away and be left to re-earn them. It makes Road to Glory feel like something other than just another football mode.
Boosters are a part of that, too, but they also tend to break the experience. You can spend the experience points you're earning on career and one-game stat boosts. I could improve my throwing accuracy and power for a game or make my agility better for my entire career. Again, this is a cool idea I dug, but there's a flaw -- it's too easy. By the middle of my freshman year, I was already a 99 overall thanks to boosters. I still struggled in games and didn't have an amazing record, but it was silly to be done with this new option less than a fourth into my career. I hope Tiburon balances it for next year's installment, as it has a ton of promise.
Outside of all that, though, you're getting the NCAA video game you probably already know and love. Passing feels tight, running's fun, loading still takes too long, and online action has the tendency to be a split second off. Little additions such as Road to Glory's online leaderboards and the ability to create your very own playbooks are cool, but the majority of the experience is what you'd expect.