It seems that the NCAA Football series has always played second-fiddle to Madden. That makes sense, after all; the sales numbers show that it’s not even close. Still, the past treatment of NCAA as a re-skinned version of last year’s NFL title has always irked us a bit. Now, though, it seems NCAA is making more steps out on its own.
It starts with a familiar base, though; on any given play, it feels like it always has, and that’s probably how most like it. There’s a new collision system to make tackles look more realistic, and the grass is three-dimensional now, but those really don’t affect how the game plays. (Don’t get us wrong, they’re nice to have.) No, the changes occur in the game’s various modes.
The dynasty mode has been tweaked somewhat, and we’re glad to see the changes. Most of the focus was put on implementing the new Coaching Carousel functionality. Each coach has a contract with individual goals, and how well you execute those objectives determines your job security. You can be a head coach, as you always have been, or you can choose to be an offensive or defensive coordinator. This makes for an interesting dynamic, as much of the team controls are off-limits as a coordinator. You play one side of the ball during games, and you handle recruiting. (Why you handle all recruiting instead of just your side’s players is beyond our comprehension, but we’re thinking it’s just to avoid reworking the recruiting to work in that way.) Recruiting has been retooled over the last few installments, and we’re finally enjoying ourselves pursuing top prospects.
The Carousel itself is interesting: after coaches are fired, jobs are filled starting with the top, and as things progress, more jobs are opened up as good coaches take better offers. Whenever it gets to the level you’re in the running for, you start to get contract offers. Generally, if you do well at one star level, you can move up to the next one, and if you’re a coordinator, you usually get offered head coach jobs two star levels down. Unfortunately, where this could have been compelling it falls a bit flat, and here’s why: you can start wherever you want. We get why they did it, as that gives players full control. We just wish there were a mode or something that forces you to the bottom and lets you work your way up, because as it is it just seems like a waste of time to not start at your dream job. Similarly, you can reconfigure conferences to make them various sizes and change BCS berths. It’s a lot of fun to set up hypotheticals, but we would have loved some sort of simulated realignment not under our control.
The Road to Glory mode has been fleshed out a bit, with a senior high school season to kick things off. The idea here is to create your own school through TeamBuilder and play your actual opponents, which does seem nice. (Next year, can we get the option to play completely through high school?) Once you get to a school (which is determined by your high school performance), you work your way up the depth chart and gradually get more options and such. It’s most obvious at quarterback, as you get the option to flip plays and call audibles as you gain trust and prestige with your coach.
There are a few other additions to the game, mostly done to enhance college atmosphere. Many schools have new pre-game animations, meaning that Chief Osceola rides out on his horse at Florida State and USC players touch the “I’m In” sign as they run onto the field. It’s not everyone, which is disappointing, but hopefully more will be added in the next installment.
Ultimately, there’s a lot you can do in NCAA, and it’s finally a worthy standalone product. We just wish it were more of a game and less of a sandbox at times.