IGN Review of NCAA Football 09
At the end of every console's lifetime, developers of sports games typically run into the same problem -- as their attention moves to the newer systems, will they attempt to devote any attention to the dying system? While a majority of the innovative features, visual enhancements and adjustments are made to the next generation, the older version labors away with minor changes or bug fixes, slowly slipping into a carbon copy of itself in its final days. This can be said of NCAA Football 09 for the PlayStation 2, which is practically the exact same game as last year.
The largest addition that's been made to this year's game is a new feature known as Family Play, one which obviously takes its cues from the Wii's All-Play mode that's designed to simplify the gameplay mechanics. The concept is to make the game easy for casual football fans and newcomers to compete against the computer or another player by condensing the controls of the game to four basic game inputs. Regardless of what side of the ball you're on, Square makes a player dive, triangle makes a player catch and X makes a player perform a special move. Only Circle is different based on offense or defense (you spin on offense, while you change players on defense). Along with this basic control scheme comes a number of changes to the traditional gameplay. Players don't have to worry about selecting packages or formations, nor do they have to focus on knowing the best defensive scheme to stop a passing situation. Family Play removes this difficulty, offering a cleaner and simpler presentation of plays and even suggests plays that you might want to run in different situations. While it is somewhat disappointing to see the game immediately suggest a pass play during a first and goal, it can be useful if you don't know what would be best to run in the middle of a game.
Plays and controls aren't the only things that have been condensed. Players no longer have to worry about the play clock running out and penalizing them, making it much easier to get a hang of the controls as well as pick and choose what plays you want to run at your leisure. While you're performing on the field, the game will also provide hints as to what you can do on either side of the ball, such as shaking off would-be tacklers if someone gets a hand on you. The other significant adjustment within the Family Play system is a streamlined passing system, making it much easier for newcomers to throw the ball to a receiver. Instead of having to track which button corresponds to which receiver, quarterbacks only need to point the analog stick in their general direction (which highlights the man running the route, indicating that he's going to be passed to) and hit the X button. The ball is thrown, and if the receiver has a chance to make a play, the catch is made. It's simple and easy to perform and an interesting way to present the game, particularly because Family Play can be attached to any game mode in NCAA 09, meaning that beginners won't be left out.
Once they've started getting the hang of the game's speed, its intricacies and had some success against the computer, players may want to graduate beyond the Family Play Settings to the regular game. This can be a somewhat daunting scenario to face considering the depth presented in football titles and the number of options available to a player before the ball is even snapped. Fortunately, NCAA 09 presents the Mascot Challenge, a feature that's been cribbed from last year's Madden on the PS2 (albeit without the tackling dummies). Set in Mascot Challenge Stadium, players will go through running, passing, catching and defensive drills against an ever-changing number (and sizes) of mascots. Capital One (whose commercials seem to have inspired this mode significantly) has never presented a challenge like this, but it's a laidback way of brushing up your skills if you're a veteran or introducing new play features such as the new combo move system.
In previous years, halfbacks or receivers that were trying to break open a large play would have to essentially plan out their jukes and moves in advance because they would be trapped in their animations. Players would have to wait for one to be completed before the other could be triggered, inevitably leading to players not being able to break tackles and losing yardage. That has finally been broken within this year's game, as players can transition between a spin, juke and other moves to fake out defenders and break open a large play. For the most part, it works well and brings the game closer to reality, although you will have to be careful with your chaining together of combos -- depending on just how "tricky" you try to become, the game won't intelligently determine where you're trying to maneuver your fakes. For example, you could accidentally fake your own player out, spinning away from one defender and into the arms of two other players who are waiting to tackle him and strip the ball from his grasp.
While it's nice to see adjustments to the juke system and more accessible controls for newcomers, this does appear to come at a cost of new features across the title, with the exception of two features. First, there is the addition of a Super Sim option that allows players to fast forward through a play, possession, or quarter to cut down on the amount of time you're in a match. The second tweak is the inclusion of "interactive timeouts" that are deeper than previous years. In previous years, gamers could provide a motivational boost to their players during timeouts, "coaching them up" for a specific series or upcoming key play. You can still do that with these timeouts in this year's game, although now you'll receive information related to your opponent's offensive or defensive tendencies. This includes information such as their favorite formations, blitz probabilities and even the statistical breakdown of certain players. That can be particularly useful when you're trying to counter an opponent and exploit their strategies with something they're not expecting.
The Campus Legend mode does return in NCAA 09; however, it's the lack of innovation within the mode that is a larger issue. This is practically the exact same game mode as it was last year, which can be looked at as both a positive and a significant negative. On the positive side, if you've played the mode at any point within the past two years, you know exactly what to expect as you try to lead your athlete to glory for your school's squad, participating in events and dealing with the workload from any one of a variety of majors for your student athlete. On the negative side, nothing has been truly improved or tweaked. Majors and test answers are the same, as are events found within the game, so if you're looking for something that is radically or even slightly new, you're somewhat out of luck.
The Dynasty Mode comes close to suffering this fate, although there are a few tweaks that have been made to slightly affect your experience. One of the most significant adjustments for coaches is within the practice arena, where players can test their squads against the hostile crowd noise or even against your opponent's playbooks so you will be able to recognize what formation or scheme is being run against you during a game. On top of this, players will now be able to go through Play Preparation, where you'll select five running and passing plays that you're deciding to be key plays for your team. Depending on how successful you are at these plays in practice, your player's stats will be boosted whenever that play is run during a game situation. This can help your team overcome elements like crowd noise or other jittery effects they might have with a lack of confidence, and even give them motivation boosts whenever the play is called. However, failing with these plays can amplify these effects, so there is a definite risk/reward set up with this feature.
Along with this change comes some smaller ones as well, such as the inclusion of a school's strength of schedule and conference ranking within polls so you have a sense of your movement along the national boards. There's even an adjustment where coaches can get a sense of who the leaders on their team are by their performance after every game, listing their individual stats and what major accomplishments they performed during the previous week. However, even with these tweaks, there still isn't a vast improvement within the mode, leaving some problems from last year. Players still don't get enough information from prospective recruits for programs, leaving you largely in the dark as to why certain attention paid to a player works in some cases and fails in others. Considering that this is the second year in which this problem has existed, it's rather disappointing that this hasn't been addressed at all.
As we mentioned earlier, NCAA 09 provides for new breaks in animation, allowing players to perform faster cuts, spins and jukes to escape opponents. This works extremely well, particularly when it comes to weaving your way through a field of defenders and getting a large gain or taking it to the house. However, with that comes large grains of salt that you need to be aware of -- the engine for this game is very old, which will be extraordinarily apparent to anyone that's played the title within the past couple of years. Not only will you see the same kind of cinematics that you've seen in previous years, you'll see the same flicker, pop-in or player disappearance that you have in previous years. In fact, just about everything, including the same four college students that have been in the game for multiple years with the same signs crop up, which just feels like disregarding the presentation of the game. At least some issues such as the celebratory animations that would result in penalties and the camera angles that could get lost during gameplay have been toned down, so it performs much better. But that still doesn't help the fact that this title isn't receiving any more TLC from the designers. It's particularly true when it comes to the play by play, which, while still good, has additional moments of repetition. This is particularly true of Corso during the Mascot Challenge, who has a tendency to repeat the same phrase over and over again 'til your ears bleed.
©2008-07-15, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved