For as long as I can remember, NCAA Football has been in the shadow of its "big brother", Madden NFL. EA's professional American Football franchise has always been more lucrative, which has traditionally given Madden substantially more public attention - at times NCAA's development reflected this reality. However, NCAA Football 11 looks to start erasing that perception.
Has this year's NCAA Football truly come into its own? Well, while it's hard to speculate as to whether or not anything changed on the development side, NCAA Football 11 is definitely a solid American Football experience, able to be judged on its own merits. Some areas - a few blatant glitches and the occasional menu lag - lack a little polish, but these slight blemishes are easily outweighed by the game's numerous great additions - such as a comprehensive online dynasty mode, and improvements (for the most part) to the core running, blocking and catching mechanics.
I've always been primarily a Madden player when it comes to American Football games, so don't expect a comprehensive overview of the most subtle changes and intricacies from year-to-year. That being said, when I have sat down with NCAA in the past, the series' unique features have always drawn me in. Whether it's using plays or formations that aren't commonly used in professional football, celebrating with the college mascots on the sidelines, or taking advantage of the much greater disparity in each player's skill on the field, NCAA has an appeal all its own.
This year's iteration of NCAA Football features a variety of improvements to the core mechanics of running, blocking and catching, although it's still far from perfect. In terms of the run game, NCAA makes use of a new dual analogue stick control scheme, courtesy of the revamped Locomotion engine. In keeping with many other EA Sports products, the right stick now controls the finesse actions of the running back - i.e. dodges, speed bursts and sidesteps. The control scheme works quite well, giving players who master it a real edge, but casual can still get by without using it.
That being said, improved running doesn't translate into successful plays without effective blocking. Thankfully, NCAA 11 features improved AI blocking - linemen will generally hit the first couple of blocks. Unfortunately, the improvement is marginal at best, as the unexplained missed blocks from past games still make frequent appearances. Having such an essential part of American Football easily broken is something gamers are going to have to continue to deal with, making NCAA's improvements harder to see.
Players failing to keep their feet inbounds around the sidelines is another common headache football fans have had to endure for far too long. To everyone's delight, the team at EA Tiburon have cast away that problem with the introduction of proper sideline catches. Say goodbye to players inexplicably running well out of bounds on side routes, or failing to keep their feet down on routine passes. It's a fantastic mechanic. Now all we need to know is why it took so long for such a seemingly simple concept to be implemented?
In terms of game modes, NCAA 11 features the tried and true pairing of Road to Glory and Dynasty mode, with few major enhancements to either that haven't already been implemented across numerous titles over the years. The one exception being the online dynasty mode's greatly enhanced functionality. This comes primarily in the form of avenues outside the game (a handy new web interface), where players can access their dynasty. PCs, Macs and iPhones/Pads can be used as hubs for recruiting, managing your team, and general interaction between friends. The StoryBuilder further increases the interaction by allowing players to create their own photos and/or videos to hype up an upcoming or post a recap, and upload these pieces to Facebook. If you have friends who are really engaged in an online dynasty, there's plenty to do.
NCAA 11's presentation is definitely a step above years past, mainly due to improved lighting, character models, and a slick ESPN broadcast set up. The ESPN license isn't new to NCAA, but 11 has taken the level of realism up several notches - the broadcast presentation feels very similar to its televised counterpart. On the other hand, some of the sound design doesn't hold up nearly as well. In particular, commentary continues to be a weakness. The dialogue quickly gets repetitive and frequently doesn't match the situation on the field, both problems common in past iterations.
Overall, NCAA Football 11 is a solid entry in the long running college franchise. Noticeable improvements come in the form of a fully featured online dynasty mode, sideline catches, dual stick run controls, and a slick visual presentation. However, many past issues remain - such as inconsistent blocking and sloppy commentary - which can hamper the experience. The difficulty comes in deciding on NCAA 11's value if you just bought last year's edition. An eager group of friends willing to invest in the online dynasty definitely helps, as that functionality is a big part of what makes NCAA 11 unique.