[Editors Note: My entire hands-on was in regards to All-American and Heisman modes of play. I gathered the hands-on over about 20 hours worth of gameplay.]
Last week I had the chance to get some hands-on time with EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2009 before the PlayStation 3 cover announcement in New York. As most of you now know, Matt Ryan was selected as the cover athlete for the PS3 and DeSean Jackson was selected for the PS2. I’d like to mention that the build we were playing was not final code and there was obvious room for improvement as expected with any unfinished game. I had the opportunity to play both the XBOX360 version of the title as well as the PS3 installment. For those of you wondering if the two versions play similarly or if there is a drastic difference, you have nothing to worry about. EA Sports has made it a priority for both titles to play exactly the same, which is probably why they demoed both versions side-by-side at the event.
While the experience was quite enjoyable, the game wasn’t absent of certain flaws. Due to this being an unfinished build, it gave us (community guests) the opportunity to make note of its flaws to the producers of the game in order to rectify them. One of the more obvious issues was the streamlined control. This was most noticeable with LBs (linebackers) taking part in coverage. When clicking over to take control of a LB that was covering a WR (wide receiver) or TE (tight end) there is a slight delay before you can manually move them from their path in order to get a jump on the ball. It felt as though the game was forcing you to complete the animation process before you were able to take over. EA took note of this and it will more than likely be remedied.
Some other issues that seemed to plague the title were the overabundance of completions (whether they be INTs or Receptions). I counted several instances where quarterbacks were easily able to go 13-15 during a game without much struggle. This took away from the realism of the title as there were not nearly enough under throws and over throws much like you’d expect to see at the collegiate level. Combine this with the overpowered usercatch ability and you can do some serious damage offensively. While we tried to test to see if the cornerbacks had an equal advantage with the usercatch, it turned out that the wide receiver had the upper hand about 60-70% of the time.
There were a couple of key features missing from NCAA 2009 that may upset a handful of individuals, but it is nothing that truly detracts from the game. For those hoping to see D1-AA schools, referees on the field, and QB (quarterback) autopass to be available, you’ll be disappointed. I understand the desire and the simulation effect that the D1-AA schools would create, unfortunately they did not make it into this year’s version but will more than likely show up in the next. One of the other key features of past NCAA games was the Create-A-School option. This was also left out of the next gen version of college football.
Most of the other, smaller issues were due to the code not being complete, thus leading me to believe that they would be corrected by the time the game was completely finished. We still felt the need to mention them to the producers in order for them not to be overlooked, just in case they were. I decided to get the negatives out of the way in order to provide you guys all of the highlights of the game to end in a high note – believe me, there are a lot of high notes to this installment.
I’ll start off by discussing the new player models that EA has implemented and built from the ground up. They are a huge improvement over the past models. You no longer see pregnant linemen, steroid kickers or hulk-like punters; the majority of the player models appear to be very proportionate to the point of realism and really help give the field a larger "lifelike" appearance. If any of you care to remember, the larger player models made the field of play seem a tad smaller than it truly was, this is no longer an issue. Not only did they improve on the look and feel of the players, but they also recreated the college football atmosphere to near perfection.
When entering the game, you’ll notice through the presentation that you truly feel like you’re about to play a game of college ball. The sound from the fans is loud, the student sections are evident and the sea of your opposing team’s colors can be seen in a small corner of the stadium. On top of the great atmosphere, the weather is phenomenal. During rainstorms and snowstorms you actually get the feeling that you’re playing in the appropriate weather. While these are all improved, the lighting effects of the game are absolutely outstanding and may be the best improvement of all. Continuing on the theme of presentation, the continuing play and sideline emotion has finally been implemented very well. After a nice tackle that causes the ball to pop loose after the player is down, you may see a player pick up the ball as if it were a fumble and try to take it to the house. These little additions add to the excitement level of play and truly immerse you inside the atmosphere provided.
By now, I’m sure you’re saying, “Well that’s great and all but how the heck does the game play? Did EA just make everything look nice and then drop the ball or does it play as great as it looks?” The answer to that is simple; yes. The gameplay is definitely fresh and revitalized from the stale output EA released last year with the disappointing NCAA 2008. Players no longer move like they’re stuck in quicksand; the speed of the gameplay has been greatly increased to simulate a real-life game. This is one of the things you may pick-up on right out of the gate. The next biggest improvement is the agility and elusiveness of players.
Players that you expect to be able to break a LB’s ankles can now do so without even attempting a juke. The stick control of NCAA 2009 is off the charts. If you want to give your RB a little shimmy to completely fake out an awaiting safety, that option is provided so long as you have the thumb reflexes to pull it off. Now, this does not mean you can turn on dimes in an unrealistic fashion, not by any means. The direction you’re moving and the momentum your body carries are all taken into account. If you’re running to the sideline and try to cut up field, it’s going to take that brief second to turn; you will not just shoot up the sideline like in past versions. This brings me to the new juke system that was created specifically for this title.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the NCAA 2009 trailer that displays the branched animations that connect your juke options together and have wondered how effective it would be. Well, it works decently, but not always how you plan for it to work out. If you’re wanting to fake a spin in one direction and then rotate in the other, it’ll work flawlessly nine times out of ten. However, if you’re trying to side-step the defender and then spin, it won’t always branch perfectly and you may get squared up and laid out completely by an overbearing linebacker awaiting your move. The juke does not prevent you from being tackled like previous installments either. Your player can still be engaged mid-juke if the defender is in the position to make the tackle.
I think we can all agree that one of the weaker points in EA’s football franchise has always been the blocking schemes. It seemed like they were always close to getting it right, but then something would come along and turn it into a subpar fundamental. This seems to be a thing of the past as pass protection and run blocking have been tuned incredibly well. You’ll notice as you drop back in protection that if the defense isn’t blitzing, your linemen will give you a decent pocket to work with, and when the defense is blitzing it may collapse. Fortunately it won’t collapse all the time as the offensive line does a real nice job of picking up those extra attackers. Also, you’ll really recognize the running lanes opening up and the blocking up field doesn’t leave much to be desired either. Unlike previous versions of NCAA where the guy in front of you would walk around aimlessly, he’ll now push forward to engage the block creating nothing but daylight for that touchdown run to victory.
As long as I’m discussing AI, I’ll get into the defensive side of the ball where a lot of improvements were made. I understand that the defense has always seemed underpowered, but I got the feeling that this has changed for the better. The DB (defensive back) AI is drastically improved and though there are some questionable catches in double-coverage, the AI does a decent job altogether depending on their “play recognition ratings.” On top of the DB AI, I can say with confidence that the LB Spy AI has been improved exponentially. No longer will the LB commit to the run or the pass when spying the QB. He’ll strafe left and right until the QB makes his commitment and then the LB will attack. This means that you’ll rarely see the LB take one of those ugly angles that results in a huge run by the quarterback. This doesn’t mean that running QBs are now ineffective, far from it, but it does give you a solid option in containing that style of play.
Speaking of Quarterbacks, you’ll be glad to know that touch passes are now significantly improved as well. If you’re throwing on the run and you’re holding the analog to the left and want to hit a WR running to the right and you refuse to set your feet prior to the throw, you’ll throw the ball so far off target that you’ll only have yourself to blame if it’s picked off. Not only that, but the lob passes on the deep ball are now beautifully done and can result in a lot of air underneath the football. If you do happen to get intercepted though, you’ll be given the chance to redeem yourself via a new composure feature created this year. After throwing an INT, you’ll be given five photos to examine in order to guess what defense was called. If you guess correctly, your QB will gain composure and shake it off, however, if you guess incorrectly, he’ll lose composure and then you’re in for a world of hurt.
The new tackling animations showcase that pain in excruciating detail. It seemed like every game I played had around 5-10 new animations that I hadn’t previously seen. Some of them were absolutely jaw-dropping and left me watching replays over and over, so prepare for some exciting tackles. Along with the new tackling animations are the new celebration features. College football has never been so fun when it comes down to how you celebrate a touchdown. When you cross the goal line you’ll be given the option to run over to a mascot (your’s or the other team’s) to engage in an interactive celebration. From what I saw, there were several implemented into the game and each was as well done as the last. On top of mascot celebrations, you’ll also be given the opportunity to perform team celebrations (so long as you are home). An example of this is when you score as UCF, your player will flag the symbols U-C-F with his arms much like the song YMCA.
One of the more important features users wanted to know about was the Homefield Advantage and if it was ridiculously overpowered like in the past. The simple answer to that is no. Homefield Advantage seems to work perfectly in this year’s version and does not result in countless false starts or ridiculous momentum imbalances. It seems as though EA Sports has finally gotten this part of the game right and I didn’t see any reason or cause for concern in order to change it in any way.
As for Online Dynasties, you can play with up to 12 users and will be able to do everything you can do offline, but online instead. The dynasties will span over 60 possible seasons and you’ll have full control over everything your team can do. You’ll also be able to communicate with every owner within the league as long as they are online. From what I was told, the mode is running flawlessly and you shouldn’t expect any hiccups, though we know that those sort of promises don’t always pan out.
Overall, the EA Sports NCAA 2009 experience was a promising one. I wasn’t a huge supporter or fan of NCAA 2008 and I’ve always been very critical of football gaming. However, this installment not only had me excited to play more come release, but it also gave me the overall feeling that I’ll be playing it even once Madden releases a month later. If the designers and developers can work out some of the kinks that the community guests pointed out, I think you may be looking at one of the best football games released to date.