IGN Review of NCAA Football 09
The PSP has had a two-year hiatus from NCAA football, and it's not because of a recruiting scandal or improper gifts from boosters. Instead, a running glitch found within the game improperly tracked rushing progress, and without patched UMDs, the title released in 2006 was relegated primarily to a passing game. With such a prolonged absence from the PSP playing field, the expectation would be that NCAA Football 09's return would be a triumphant one. Unfortunately, this year's title is much more streamlined and bare boned than it was two years ago, and a few strange adjustments to the passing game makes this a title to recommend to only the diehard football fan that can't go anywhere without some pocket pigskin.
Upon hitting the start button, you're immediately presented with the brand new mode for NCAA Football 09: Freshman Mode. Somewhat similar to the Family Play feature included on the PS2 version of the game, the Freshman Mode simplifies just about everything on the field, making it much easier for newcomers to the title to compete with the AI or even another player. Instead of having to focus on various buttons for evasive maneuvers, passing or tackling, players can simply rely on hitting the X button to pull off most moves. Sprinting is even handled for these beginners, so the only thing that you have to focus on is directing the pass to a receiver with the analog nub (by pushing in a specific direction as you hit X), using square to dive and circle to spin on the offensive side. Defensively, players only need to worry about using square to dive or circle to switch players -- the X is used to trigger hits, tackles, swats or interceptions.
Freshman Mode also throws in a twist when it comes to the playbooks because instead of forcing players to make decisions on specific plays, it will suggest the best play to run for a particular situation. That means that in short yardage situations, you'll find the game suggesting runs through the A gap or a sweep depending on the opposing team, while long yardage situations will have multiple receivers trying to push for as much yardage as possible as they run their routes. Unlike normal games where you focus on choosing the right offensive or defensive packages or formations, Freshman Mode presents generalized schemes.
Of course, even with such simplified controls, novice players will need some kind of help knowing when to pass to open players or when to hit the X button to evade a player or lay some lumber on a receiver. Fortunately, NCAA 09 features new icons and phrases that will pop up as various situations come up, telling players when they should press that button to experience a certain level of success. For example, if you're controlling a running back and a linebacker rushes at you, the phrase "Break Tackle" will pop up underneath your player, giving you an indication that you should focus on getting away from the defender to avoid getting knocked down. On the other side of the ball, you may see "Swat Ball" as a pass is thrown, giving you an indication as to when you should hit the X button to get your players hands up to attempt to knock down or potentially intercept the ball.
These visual clues even extend outside of the Freshman Mode, so players that use advanced controls will still find the phrases popping up under their players on harder difficulties. These are joined by redesigned passing icons, which highlight two different color schemes to indicate coverage. When a receiver's icon is ringed in red, the defender has them completely covered, would knock down incoming passes or easily pick them off. On the other hand, if the icon is green, then a receiver has at least one or two steps on their defender and has a much better chance of catching the ball and running for additional yardage.
However, just because a passing icon is green doesn't guarantee success; in fact, there are multiple instances where you'll throw the ball to a player that was initially "cleared" by this system only to have the ball arrive late enough for a defender to close and make a play. Even worse, the passing mechanic within NCAA 09 feels extremely sluggish -- even when your QB has his feet set and is scanning the field for an open receiver, you can hit the corresponding player button and easily count "one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three," before the ball is thrown. These tosses aren't rifled out of the QBs hands all the time either, which increases your frustration. It's one thing if such a delay occurs when you've had a five-step drop and your O-Line is providing significant protection, but it's another situation when you've got a blitz breathing down your neck and you realize that your QB won't get rid of the ball. Not only can this result in large losses in yardage, but it will also cause fumbles when you least expect it. Fortunately, the running game issues that occurred two years ago have been ironed out within this year's game, so you don't need to worry about getting hit at the line of scrimmage and finding that some yardage gain has been suddenly subtracted.
Now, there is one other issue that we noticed during some games, particularly during some of our ad-hoc play -- every now and then, the game will gray out various plays, removing them as options for you to select. Why this is done was completely confusing to us, but it was strange to find that the game wouldn't allow us to choose certain pass plays, fake punts or even runs as a match-up progressed. Then again, the ad-hoc play felt somewhat questionable. For one thing, the game hung for a couple of seconds a number of times, making certain plays appear to be intentionally frozen in time to add tension that wasn't necessary or planned. Greg and I both noticed this during one match where it happened at least twice a quarter. Another nonsensical addition to Ad Hoc play is the inclusion of a Friendly Quit option, which makes sense if you're playing via Infrastructure, but if you're playing with a friend who's next to you, this feature is unnecessary. What's more, it's rather odd to find that NCAA 09 doesn't have Infrastructure play when NCAA 07 did feature this prominently.
In fact, NCAA 09 feels a bit basic compared to previous years' sports titles. No longer will you find ESPN Ticker or Radio integration within the title, nor will you find ESPN highlights within the game that you'll unlock. In fact, the game is essentially limited to three main modes apart from the ubiquitous Play Now feature: Dynasty, Rivalry and Mascot Mode. While the large number of rivalry trophies is nice as are the match-ups to battle through games with mascots, the depth is rather shallow. Even the Dynasty mode feels somewhat lighter than other games; for example, when it comes to recruiting, you've got no impact on your pitches or the kind of information that you receive from these potential additions to your team. Instead, you find out randomly whether or not you get their interest after each week, which doesn't help you recruit what you need at all.
Visually, the title is quite strong -- in many ways, it doesn't particularly look as though the two year furlough degraded the visuals in any way. However, this does come with a certain grain of salt -- there aren't any visual enhancements, either. Many of the issues that appeared to plague NCAA 07 such as the random unsportsmanlike penalties during celebratory animations seem to have been addressed within this year's game, making it much better to play through. While the pop up of the event phrases can be somewhat unimpressive, as can the delineation between red and green coverage states, the other animations, particularly highlighted with camera angles and cutscenes after a play has occurred, are rather sharp and engaging. You'll still run into a few instances of clipping during player transitions in these scenes, but for the most part, the presentation of the title is rather nice.
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