I love this time of year. Being a fan of the gridiron when EA Sports launches its NCAA Football series I know that football season is almost here. While waiting on my Oakland Raiders to start their pro season I always love taking a dip into NCAA to get warmed up to the idea of various colored leaves and of course the sound of shoulder pads cracking. This is a perfect example of how the NCAA series fits into the EA Sports lineup. While not the most prominent in the stable, it definitely gets more attention year in and year out than most other yearly franchises.
Tiburon could have easily rested on its laurels and simply picked up all the enhancements from last year’s Madden game and fans would have been just fine with it. But the second you boot up NCAA 11 you quickly notice that this is a brand new game, with a brand new visual overhaul. Everything is improved from the ESPN style presentation, to the fluid movement of the players on the field. This is one damn fine looking game. Watching the players on field is simply gorgeous. It is hard to believe that none of them are actual players. New touches such as dynamic lighting and self-shadowing really bring you into the experience.
Speaking of which the new ESPN presentation really goes above and beyond to bring you an authentic college experience. Things like players slapping signs in the tunnel before the game, mascots cheering on the sidelines and of course the fans in the stadium really immerse you in the experience. Nearly everything is modeled perfectly and the addition of new stadiums and day-to-night effects are implemented fantastically. My only disappointment in this area was the commentary. While it is definitely not annoying like some in the past, it fails to keep up with the action as much as I would like, and sometimes really misses the call on huge plays.
Of course visuals are not the only improvement to this year’s game. Gameplay has also received a major overhaul bringing some of the more annoying instances under control. For starters in my first game I tossed a pass outside to a receiver that would normally have gone incomplete because of the wide receiver’s inability to make sideline catches. Instead he tapped both toes inbounds and made an amazing sideline grab for a first down. Anyone who has been playing this game for as long as I have knows where these frustrations lie, and Tiburon has done an awesome job of correcting a large portion of them.
The new animation system really looks great on the field and makes running a lot more realistic. In addition to this they have added a new dual stick control that allows you control your movement independently with each stick. My biggest gripe is that this never seemed imperative to the game. Sure having mastered the control and using it properly might gain you a few extra yards, but unless you are playing on the punishing difficulty, those yards won’t make or break any particular game.
AI has also been tweaked to create a more realistic experience. Players now block when they are supposed to block, don’t run out of bounds in ridiculous situations and generally just play better. Sure there will be instances where you run into a questionable call; but in my hours of both online and offline gaming, this was such a rare occurrence that it felt like an anomaly when it did happen. There are a few funny glitches that I hope Tiburon can iron out with a patch such as the extra point kick that happens with referees running around the field on occasion, but nothing game breaking.
As with any chapter in the NCAA franchise there is more than enough here to keep you busy for months. Dynasty Mode returns with a bevy of new features the most impressive being the Dynasty Anywhere feature. Basically this allows you to create, manage and maintain your Dynasty mode from any internet-enabled device with a browser. You can recruit, set up stats, view leaderboards and send messages via the website. This gives you unparalleled access to all your dynasty features. You can opt to play in a private mode where you only face off against CPU players if you choose, but the real fun is when you organize a massive league and throw down with your friends to prove who has the best school.
The online Dynasty mode also allows you access to a new feature called Story Builder. This little function gives you a chance to use images and text to create your own headlines. Think of it as a virtual smack talker and you get the idea. Basically I created a page calling out one of my colleagues from another site, showcasing how my Irish were going to take down his team. Team Builder also makes a return with no changes that I could tell; in fact I downloaded the same team I created last year. The feature is just as cool as it was, and being able to edit your players and such online makes things so much more accessible than doing it in-game.
Everything else here feels like your standard fare. The typical EA Sports options are present and accounted for. Online mode returns of course, but with every EA Sports title this year it comes with a catch. If you buy the game new you have nothing to worry about outside of typing in your code. But if you pick it up used be prepared to pay the one-time fee for EA’s Online Pass. All the matches I participated ran smoothly and per usual the community is solid and full of players who simply enjoy the game. Of course it is also mostly filled with players who consistently mopped the floor with my amateur skills.
NCAA Football 11 is a great game. I always enjoy the improvements Tiburon makes to the series, and this year’s online dynasty mode and improved animation system are some of the best in recent memory. The game will certainly not blow you away by any means, but if you dive in year in and year out you won’t be disappointed. I can only hope Madden is this improved because that means that I am in for a great year of virtual football.
Review copy provided by publisher.