The NCAA Football franchise saw some notable improvements last year. With so much attention put into the gameplay and dynasty mode, it appeared EA Sports had found itself in a position where it would be unable to improve upon the formula for the 2012’s entry. On the surface, NCAA Football 12 has a respectable facelift. The new lighting offers dramatic effects on the field, casting deep shadows as the game drifts into the evening hours. The players and their uniforms look better than ever, and even the 3D grass effect is a welcome addition—although, you’ll only notice the enhanced turf during replays. But beyond that surface polish, EA Tiburon has improved upon what it got right in the 2011 version, and added just enough extras to give fans of the Saturday afternoon game day a reason to give NCAA Football 12 a try.
The casual football fan will likely pick up Madden instead of NCAA largely because of brand recognition, but if you live and bleed college sports, you have every right to put NCAA on a pedestal. EA Sports has tried very hard to capture that college athletic atmosphere with the return of the realistic ESPN broadcast, unique tunnel entrances and stadiums, and your favorite mascots. Everything about NCAA Football 12 is made to look, feel, and sound like a real game—all the way from the broadcast booth, to the muddy field and camera angles. There are still some issues in the visual department in that it’s not uncommon to see players run through each other or shadows mysteriously vanish, though these are relatively minor niggles.
Overall the presentation works quite well, but there is one massive element missing from that authentic feeling. The crowds lack any depth, uniqueness, and they show virtually no emotion. I say massive because they take up a fair amount of the screen, but in reality it’s not something you will dwell on. Sure, you can still pump the crowd and earn their audible support, but don’t expect to see the crowd lining up to do the wave, and don’t look for more than three or four different spectator avatars. This is such a petty complaint, but as you read on you’ll see that there isn’t all that much wrong with the game; rather, there’s just a few things that were left out that keep it from offering the perfect college football experience.
Beyond that killer presentation the upgraded collision system works quite well. Just like with FIFA 12, it’s clear that the EA is trending towards more attention paid to individual body parts, joints, muscles, and what should happen when two unmovable forces collide. There is just enough precision to the collision system to make it unnoticeable, but that just means it works well. It’s not more realistic when your halfback rolls around lineman and is hit from the left side by a safety. If he’s caught high enough, he’ll go down. But, if that halfback manages to take one small step ahead of that safety, he may simply stumble and make a break from the end zone.
The gameplay is virtually untouched outside of that collision system. It’s still remarkably easy to run the ball and perform simple moves with the analog sticks—a system I think more sports games should pay attention to. It’s hard to fault a game for not changing the gameplay when it wasn’t broken, but I hope next year we see more effort put into the actual game mechanics instead of the game modes.
And this is where NCAA Football 12 shines. The online trash-talking of last year’s dynasty mode sets the groundwork for the 2012 version. This year we get a deep system that puts players in the role of a coach. So what, you say? Well, it’s done extremely well and is one of the best examples of finding entertainment on the sidelines. I typically dislike coaching or managing in any sports game, not including FIFA, but NCAA Football 12 is all about customization and role playing—yup, you read that right. You get to create the conference, team, plays, you name it. You can start as either a defensive or offensive coordinator, sign a contract, recruit your team, earn some credibility as you complete various goals, and eventually move around the country to take over the head coach spot at your favorite team. This is all done through the new Coaching Carousel, which is essentially the tool used to recruit coaches.
The absolute best change to NCAA Football 12 is the Road to Glory mode, which allows you to play as a high school super star, get recruited, earn the trust of his new college coach, and eventually become his school’s rock star. Since you are rookie, the coach picks your plays as you start. In high school, colleges will scout you. By the end of the season you’ll get to pick your new home. It’s not just about picking the school with the best reputation, though, as the best schools have the longest line to get you in the first string. To get that top spot –as mentioned previously – you’ll have to earn the trust of your coach. This is done via a point system, which essentially has you earning experience by playing your role well in practices or on the field. As a quarterback, it took me about two practices to throw my hat in the ring to try and take that top spot. Overall, it was a fairly easy process — a bit too easy, to be honest.
Road to Glory is one of the best single-player experiences in a team-based sports game. I got attached to my nimble quarterback and cheered when he threw his first end zone pass. I yelled at the line for letting me get sacked twice in a row (resulting in a loss of trust from my coach), and respected the game for letting my team lose even though I led my offense to victory when it had the ball.
This is where the AI comes into play. While EA touts this as an improved feature, I still think it needs quite a bit of work. There are a lot of players on the field, a lot of variables, but there are just too many times I wanted to yell at my received for letting the ball hit him in the chest and he didn’t even bother to try and catch the old pigskin. On the other hand, the defense is exaggerated, and at times they seem larger than life, constantly swatting away at every pass or finding every hole just too big to make a good move. This goes for both your teammates and your opponents. The AI may be improved from last year, but the issues are still noticeable, only adding to frustration when you are down by seven and your receiver decides to simply avoid catching the ball—literally, one of the last games I played my receiver was making a break for the end zone but neglected to turn and look at the incoming ball (and he was wide open!).
NCAA Football 12 is better than last year thanks to the improved game modes and fresh presentation. Still, it seems EA Sports is feeling a bit too comfortable in the gameplay area as there are practically no improvements beyond the enhanced collision system. Luckily the game is built on a great engine and there is little reason to complain when it runs so smoothly. For true college fans, this should replace your copy of 11, and newcomers may find themselves spending many hours in the addicting Road to Glory mode.