IGN Review of NCAA Football 09
College campuses are bastions of education -- ivory towers of learning, where students acquire skills and knowledge for their future. But every fall, these institutions are transformed with pomp, ceremony and pageantry that's rarely seen in other sports by a phenomenon known as Game Day. From the tailgating in the parking lots to the school chants in the stands, the energy surrounding a game can be truly electric and is only amplified when rivals face off against each other. EA Sports put the college atmosphere at the center of its latest installment of NCAA Football 09, which features a large number of adjustments from last year's title. While the Campus Legend mode has suffered in this year's title, elements like the addition of the online Dynasty balance out segments that have been lost, making this version of the game an impressive representation on the field.
There are a number of changes that have been made to this year's gameplay, many of which expand the nature of the offensive game on the field. For one thing, players will find that they are no longer trapped in animation when performing a juke or spin in this year's game. In NCAA 09, players can literally chain these moves together, spinning in one direction before spinning in the opposite direction or chaining a juke together with a hurdle to evade tacklers and break a play for additional yardage. It can be extremely satisfying to appear to be completely stopped by defenders, only to perform a couple of agile moves and weave your way through the crowd, driving the home crowd crazy. What's also cool is that you can use these maneuvers in concert with the larger holes and cutback lanes that will be made in defensive coverage to make big plays. Your ball carriers aren't the only ones with such evasive maneuvers, either; your quarterback can attempt to fake out defenders at any moment with a pump fake from the right analog stick and get defenders to leave their feet.
For the most part, these features work well and manage to include the fluidity and creative nature that many star athletes can bring to the game. There are a few caveats, however -- while it's easier to make cuts and spins within the game, players can accidentally fake and juke away from one player directly into the arms of other defenders who have no problem laying into the ball carrier. Another issue that crops up is that some cuts won't always be as smooth as you'd like them to be, particularly if you're moving laterally during an option. As a result, you'll find that either your player will sometimes move backwards during a juke or spin before they run forwards, making you lose yardage even if you're pushing up on the analog stick to direct the move. Additionally, their momentum will sometimes carry them out of bounds instead of making a cut up the field for a gain. This can be frustrating for many players as they try to establish a ground game or make a comeback only to put themselves farther in a hole.
On the defensive side of the ball, there aren't a lot of adjustments that have been made. There are stronger gang tackling mechanics, so you'll frequently see two or more defenders jamming a running lane and stuffing a ball carrier for a loss. You'll also see new hit animations that simply look painful, so linebackers have no problem blowing up a receiver that cuts across the middle of the field with a well placed shoulder that leaves him standing and the receiver laid out. On top of that, there's more attention paid to tipped balls and possible shoestring catches, so even if a ball seems knocked away from its intended target, it could easily wind up in the hands of a defender and going back for a gain or a score.
Now, traditionally, if you were playing a football title and managed to toss an interception (or the ball was tipped into the hands of a defender), you'd find that your quarterback's confidence would plummet, making you have to work to bolster his rattled nerves over the next few series of downs. That's somewhat mitigated with a new "mini-game" in NCAA 09 known as the Quarterback Quiz. After an interception and ensuing action, players are presented with a set of pictures and three different defensive schemes. By analyzing the photos (as a quarterback would on the sideline with his coaches), you can make a decision as to what defense was run against you on that ill-fated play. If you manage to choose correctly, your QB regains his composure and shakes the interception off as an accident. Pick the wrong play, however, and your QB will be completely rattled, potentially folding under the pressure and committing more mental mistakes. While the frustration of tossing a pick is significant, at least you can do something proactive about the situation, which is a great idea, and if you mess up, you're at least learning defensive schemes.
As I mentioned, if you manage to blow this call, your QB will lose his poise. Home crowds will feed on these situations, and with the noise that they generate, they can completely fluster shaky players. The twelfth man feature has been used before, but now nervous quarterbacks will find it practically impossible for them to accurately read routes prior to the snap which can potentially contribute to additional turnovers. The controller will also vibrate, giving you a tactile sense of the energy flowing through the stadium and washing over your players. Along with this, the noise can sometimes cause a number of mistakes from linemen or other players, causing stupid penalties to occur. In many sports situations, coaches will call timeouts to compose his squad. In NCAA 09, you can now take advantage of this strategy by directing your players on your offensive and defensive squad, telling them different strategies like getting the ball back, getting open or ignoring the crowd noise and focusing on their assignments.
Using your timeouts effectively even becomes a tactical strategy in this year's title, as astute coaches can disrupt kickers from accurately making field goals when the game is on the line. By calling for a timeout right before a key attempt to tie up a game or put one team ahead, you can trigger the Ice the Kicker mechanic. Not only will the kicking power meter be visually iced over, but the camera angle for the attempt will be dramatically changed along with a rumble in the controller and a thumping heartbeat. It's a hell of an effect and can put you on the edge of your seat as you keep your fingers crossed to send the ball through the uprights. It's enough to make you break out into a school fight song as the kicker becomes a hero.
Then again, you can leave that celebration up to the crowd and the cheerleaders. After every score for the home team, school squads will find mascots celebrating, cannons firing, fans chanting and the band striking up a rallying cry for their players. You'll even see flag carriers waving a large flag for the team or running along the sidelines. All of these help contribute to the ambience of the gameplay and how exhilarating a game can be. Players aren't restricted to a passive view of these events, either -- every time they score, they have an option of various celebrations. Depending on the team you play as, you can trigger a school-specific celebration, like a Tomahawk Chop, V for Victory, Hook 'Em Horns or Gator Chomp amongst others, which can get a large cry from the crowd.
If you're looking for a more energetic response, you can look for your mascot, who will be performing at one of the two end zones. If you happen to score at the end zone that he's stationed at, you can use the right analog stick to trigger a number of celebrations. Some of them may be school specific, like swordfighting with Knightro or tiger taming Mike, while others are more varied, like striking the Heisman pose. While amusing, it's somewhat unrealistic, as many of these mascot celebrations would easily result in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That's particularly true were a player to hand off the football to a mascot and have him spike the ball. It's also rather strange in how it's handled because the game frequently eliminates these celebrations from replays or game movies, reducing the impact of these moments.
Apart from these gameplay features, there are some new twists to the other gameplay modes. For example, this year introduces the Coke Zero Mascot Mash Up, where players face off against the computer or a friend with squads comprised of the animated characters. The mode plays exactly like the standard game, with a few exceptions: instead of pulling off a traditional juke to fake out a defender, your mascots will spin or flip in the air, which can completely throw off your opponent. In can be extremely tricky to take another player's legs out only to have him nimbly flip over a diving tackle and keep running up the field. There are also new special teams mini-games where you play tug-of-war with your special teams or kick field goals from different spots on the field in a game of Horse (or Pig if you'd rather have a shorter game).
As for returning game modes, the Campus Legend mode makes a return with its focus on building your created athlete from high school star to college phenom. New this year is the ability to run through an entire week's worth of practice back to back without exiting back to the calendar. At first, this might seem like a useful tactic, especially if you're trying to climb the depth chart from the bench to a starter. However, the disadvantages of this far outweigh the positives, because you'll completely skip your evening activities, potentially ruining your GPA and not augmenting your stats outside of practice. With there still not being any team expectations of starting player performance or challenges to your starting spot in this year's game, this becomes another example of an unbalanced gameplay function in a large mode for the game.
Adding to the nonsensical nature of the Campus Legend mode is the removal of the evening activities that made players feel like they were actually contributing to their player's presence on his school's campus and his legend there. Last year, you could attend pep rallies, help out friends or play in pickup games amongst other actions; things that you'd expect a college student to do. That no longer applies in this year's game. Your Legend will only perform one of four tasks: hit the books, go to the gym, study your playbooks or visit the trainer. Not only is this extremely dry and boring, but it doesn't make you feel any connection to your school or your legend's success because the boosts that you get are even more anti-climactic than they were last year. Why this was removed when it only needed a few minor adjustments is truly a mystery.
By contrast, the Dynasty mode has a number of improvements that makes it seem much more detailed. Players gain a new set of recruiting tools that can be used to help coaches in their goals. This year, players can set specific tasks for their assistants to fulfill on their own, leaving you with more time to focus on pitching the players you really need for your squad. What's more, if you find that you're too busy to find out everything on a player but still want to engage their interest in your school, you can place a quick call into them, setting a specific amount of time that you want to devote there and immediately get a summary of random topics that are of interest to them. The more time you devote (up to an hour for this condensed discussion), the more of a snapshot you receive on a player.
The more significant addition is the ability to convert your offline dynasties into an online dynasty and vice versa. Up to twelve players will be able to enter a dynasty and vie for prospective students from the same pool of athletes across the country as well as pit their skills against each other to see who has the best team in the dynasty. If there's another team on your schedule that a player in your dynasty hasn't chosen, the game will substitute a computerized team for you to face off against. While you can join up to five dynasties, you can only be the commissioner of one, but that position has an incredible amount of power, including automatically advancing the action of a game week in case members of the dynasty go on vacation or don't actually play their games in a timely fashion. This way, everyone else isn't hampered by someone slow. This is a phenomenal addition to the franchise, and one of those things that reinvigorates online play, especially because you can save off a copy of the dynasty if you tire of playing online and wish to push ahead with your own experience.
Visually, NCAA 09 is much sharper than last year's game, and the animations highlight many of the changes that have been made. As I mentioned earlier, it's much easier to perform different cuts, jukes and spins, although there are some odd hitches that will crop up now and then. For example, you'll find that a number of times your players will drag their toes near the sideline even though they've still got a couple of feet to go before they near the sideline. You'll also find that many offensive receivers or halfbacks will get stuck on teammates as they go into motion, making it a little trickier to effectively pull off these plays because the timing of the play is thrown off. While much of the attention has been paid to the field, elements off the field seem to have suffered. Crowd animations are rather flat and repetitive, with characters that frequently repeat over and over again in the stands. Players on the sidelines have a rather wooden appearance to their faces and have a bland reaction to items on the field, while the photographers and other sideline bystanders don't contribute much. Even worse are the textures, which substitute some generic textures just off the field. Parking lots are bare, buildings are sometimes shown with little detail or randomly become transparent, and other sections outside of the stadium lose their visual fidelity, which is disappointing considering that there are brand new camera angles to show off a new presentation of the stadiums in the game.
The sound, on the other hand, is excellent, particularly because of the crowd atmosphere. The inclusion of a ton of chants definitely helps, although the true standout is the inclusion of custom soundtracks, which lets players assign sound effects or music cues to various gameplay moments. I personally think that playing "Take the Power Back" whenever my team gets a fumble or an interception is an excellent way to pump me up for the next series, and putting on Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" after a PAT feels particularly appropriate, especially since the drive summary is sponsored by Pontiac. The largest problem that occurs with sound, even apart from some dialogue repetition by Corso and Herbstreit, is the fact that school fight songs and cheers will frequently play over the NCAA Football theme music, degenerating into a cacophonous mess.
©2008-07-15, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved