For as long as I can remember, NCAA Football has been the red-headed stepchild of the EA Sports empire of popular franchises. It has always sold and performed well once players got the controller in their hands, but there's always been a gap of sorts when it came to comparing NCAA to EA Sports' other mega-popular football franchise known as Madden. Well, wave goodbye to all that. EA Sports and the team at Tiburon in Orlando have gone to great lengths to separate the two products. NCAA Football 11 is the fruits of their labor.
The first and most immediately evident sign that you're playing a standalone football title is the new visual treatment that they've given NCAA 11. Overall, everything looks more realistic than it ever has before. The new lighting system brings great detail to the player models and their animations are more fluid and more realistic than I've seen prior. You'll notice cool details like player's faces grimacing as the opposing running back smokes by them for a quick score and the pain on a quarterback's face comes through in a big way once you see your first field-level replay of a sack.
Some of that authentic feeling probably has to do with the new ESPN graphics package that the game uses. The transitions are right out of something you'd see on Saturday; now, I just wish that Herbstreit and Nessler could keep up. Their commentary has gone in the wrong direction since last year and, believe it or not, I actually miss Lee Corso being in the box with them.
Beyond the (mostly) cool ESPN integration, the gameplay changes made with this year's game are almost all of a very high quality without a "quarterback vision cone" among them. Among the additions is new animation technology called locomotion that allows players to move much more realistically on the field. Despite the improvements, I still can't say that their animations are perfect. Clipping can still be an issue and I ran into a few problems in one online game, the worst of which was the opposing quarterback completely missing a handoff and also getting caught in the handoff animation. He wound up sprinting in the wrong direction, ball outstretched for about 30 yards. I was happy; my opponent was most certainly not.
Thankfully the feeling of cheap animations getting the better of you passes quickly as soon as you see what other moves have been integrated into the game. I'm happy to say that for the first time ever in an EA Sports football game, wide receivers can make sideline catches and grab balls in the back of the endzone on a consistent basis. It doesn't happen every time (nor should it in a college game), but the inclusion is still great to see. Jukes are also less effective than they were in the past, meaning it'll take some skill on your part to time your move just right (the same goes for hit stick tackles). You'll still break a few ankles, but this year it feels more like a real accomplishment.
Elsewhere in the animation department, you'll find the new twisting movements brought about by the dual analog control setup. Imagine your player's upper half is the right analog stick when he has the ball. Moving the stick up carries his weight forward, and moving it from side to side from there rotates his shoulders to protect the ball.
I actually didn't feel the need to use the dual analog stick abilities all that much during gameplay. There were very few situations where I thought to myself "If I had angled my upper body differently, I would've gained a few more yards." That's not to say that those situations weren't in the game, but I just wasn't incentivized to use the new swaying ability.
Also, AI players can now catch the ball and not run directly out of bounds when they're close to the sideline. Oh, and blocking works. I mean it really works. Players can now have faith that their fullback is going to be able to make it to the second level of the defense and stop one of those linebackers for a few seconds of daylight. All of these changes are wonderful deviations from the annoyances of the past.
That's not to say that the AI is perfect, though. There are definitely still moments when you'll be slapping your forehead wondering what the hell they were thinking. I've seen opposing quarterbacks slide in their own backfield for a one-yard loss on third down. I've also witnessed random bugs like my player diving to the end zone, only to have the ball inexplicably jump out of his hands and into the arms of the nearest defender. It looked totally unnatural and was hopelessly frustrating. Thankfully, it only happened once in a few weeks of playing a lot of NCAA. The other bug that I ran into a bit more often was a problem with the camera during extra point attempts. For whatever reason, it gave me a viewing perspective from the other side of the field. Here's hoping they fix these issues through a patch or two.
Still, overall, the gameplay you'll find in NCAA Football 11 is the best ever from the series. Animations are more fluid and true to life than they've ever been before and the game simply looks more like actual college football. There are still some AI flaws, but the first time in a long while the amount of success in terms of overall player intelligence far outweigh the blemishes. Even though I didn't find the dual analog control to be pivotal to my gameplay experience, maybe you will. If you don't, you can always hop into the options menu and revert back to the old ways.
Speaking of the old days, NCAA makes its biggest move in the wrong direction when you see how the list of modes rests on the laurels of past games -- at least for the most part. The offline dynasty and Road to Glory modes haven't changed much at all, which is a real shame. Road to Glory will offend gamers more than dynasty due to the fact that they used the exact same Erin Andrews cutscenes as last year. I understand that Erin is a busy girl, but surely she could've taken a day out of her dancing/commentating/being awesome schedule to record some new video segments. Sadly, that's not the case.
In the way of Dynasty Mode, users can expect to find a wonderful new world when venturing online but an all-too-familiar one when playing by yourself. Still, You can always just hop into an Online Dynasty and set it to private to enjoy the new interconnected functionality.
What am I talking about? Well, this year's game basically turns any of your many PCs, Macs or iDevices into your recruiting and smack talking hub. This year the Online Dynasty Mode can come with you wherever you go. Whether it's in the form of passive e-mail updates when a game or week is completed or the more active (and sure to annoy your significant other) choice of recruiting your roster of fledging stars from your laptop or iPhone, your Online Dynasty is always there. Sort of. See, while I'm sure the browsing experience will be improved in the future, the fact that my iPhone 4 chugs while trying to access my recruiting chart is disconcerting.
That withstanding, the PC browsing and feature set is very impressive. I had no trouble choosing a topic with my controller, cycling through the variety of pitches and promises, and completing a call before transferring over to my laptop and continuing from where I left off. I would've preferred a standalone iPhone app for the online functionality, but with a few tweaks, I'm sure they'll stabilize things for mobile devices.
Also included in your Dynasty Hub online are the new StoryBuilder and Dynasty Wire. StoryBuilder (similar in name to TeamBuiler, which is back this year and totally unchanged) allows you to select photos and videos, assign a headline and write a quick paragraph about how you just (or are going to) whoop your opponent's ass. It's simple, it's slick, and it works pretty damn well. Of course, if you're too lazy to generate your own custom stories, the game will take care of it for you automatically. You can then upload these stories to Facebook or YouTube and watch the real smack talking begin.
Talking smack to your pals is all well and good, but any real diehard football fan will let their performance on the field do the talking for them. The real star of Online Dynasty is clearly the recruiting. The setup gives you 10 hours per week to spend on talking to prospects. It's up to you to strategically budget your time across your top 35 prospects. You can do things like make them a promise for next year such as "You're going to get a lot of playing time" or "You'll make the Freshman All-American Team." You can also make a pitch that compares an aspect of your school against a rival institution. At the end of the day, all of this menu navigation on your various devices actually feels more like a managerial mini-game than simply trudging through a long list of items.
I won't lie and say that the game modes in NCAA Football 11 blew me away, given that the bulk of the content is old, but the new functionality and connectivity for Online Dynasty seems like it could usher in a new standard for multi-season multiplayer features. Sadly, the only other new member to the list of game modes is one-button gameplay, which dumbs down NCAA Football so that you literally need only one button to play. Personally, I think the development team's time can be better spent working on something new, like making changes (any changes) to Road to Glory or adding in the ability to customize my campus in Dynasty Mode.