NCAA Football 10 Review: Be True to Your School

EA Sports appeals to your school pride and sportsmanship with this year's version of NCAA Football, encouraging you to play the game right and giving you the tools to make its complex tasks more simple.

But what motivates college sports fans about these games is the fantasy of it all - being a heavily recruited high school prospect, the leader of a national powerhouse or one of its star players, the tactician who takes a cupcake team and knocks Goliath on his ass, or the beloved figure who delivered his school's most indelible sports memories. NCAA Football 10 adds plenty of new features, but still keeps those dreams alive, like no other sports game.

Loved
Building a New Tradition: This game's model railroad, what-if fantasy has long been a core strength. The return of custom schools to the next-gen platforms restores the NCAA football franchise as the deepest and most detailed sports simulation on a console, baseball included. TeamBuilder - a since-patched roster problem notwithstanding - absolutely over-delivers. EA Sports took the feature online, where you can build and tinker with your program more elegantly by keyboard than you could with a controller in. If your school does not have a Football Bowl Subdivision program, or doesn't even have football at all, you can still play them against the big boys. Upload its official logo (this page is an excellent resource) on the TeamBuilder site - it will let you match uniform colors to the logo's values. No more RGB totaling or eyeballing it. You get four uniform designs and, if you're like me, you'll spend hours on them. TeamBuilder infinitely deepens your team-choice options, and allows die-hards of smaller schools to bring their squads into their homes.

Counter-Intelligence: This is hard to review for, but EA Sports promised fine-tuned player AI, and it seemed most noticeable in the running game. Particularly in runs featuring a pulling guard. Your line behaves more sensibly in NCAA 10 and following your blockers on outside runs is a much more reliable tactic. The running game has been difficult and discouraging for novices, but now you don't have to be an elite stick jockey just to establish your run, which as we all know sets up your pass.

Chain Mail: Speaking of, one new feature in your playbook are setup plays. Basically, two plays that are connected by a chain icon mean that one sets up the other. Halfback dive chains to a play-action; shotgun pass chains to a draw, that sort of thing. When you've established one half of that equation enough, the play-call window will show you the other play is X percent set up, and the higher that is, the more likely opposing defenders are to fall for it. Longtime playcallers may still prefer their method of fooling defenses, but this isn't reliant on or limited by audibles and is a great way to teach you how a playbook fits together.

Give ‘Em the Keys: On defense, I'll make a bunch of gratuitous pre-snap adjustments when when what I'm really thinking is, "You know, I'm really trying to stop the pass here," or "I need to take receiver X out of this play." Defensive keys, new to this game, are a great help. In a pre-snap menu, you can globally tell your defense to play against a run in a specific direction, or a pass, regardless of the formation you have called and are showing your opponent. You can also designate a receiver for the defense to key on. This is a powerful enabler for those who find football defense byzantine and frustrating, and are harried into uninformed decisions by the lack of time from breaking the huddle to the snap.

Prospecting for Gold: The recruiting simulation in Dynasty Mode gets another upgrade that deepens the football fan's obsession with finding talent. Now, budding Lane Kiffins can pick up the phone and talk garbage about rival teams, lessening a recruit's interest in them. Or, if your pitch is poorly timed, yours. A new progress bar shows you how successful your call to a blue-chipper is while the conversation's going on, helping you cut your losses if you've blabbed too long, or lay that scholarship offer and reel him in now that he's hooked. Most folks will lean on computer assist modes for the bulk of the dirty work. But it's always fun to get your hands dirty with this, and I can easily see some players simming all of their onfield action and doing nothing but recruiting - essentially acting as the general manager of a professional franchise.

Time is on Your Side: Whenever you're on offense, a new Chew Clock feature brings clock management into a game without requiring you to kill time in the playcall screen, or going up to the line and running the clock down. Turn on Chew Clock and you begin at the line of scrimmage, with no more than 12 seconds on your play clock, automatically, and the corresponding amount of time run off a live game clock. You can also use it if you want to play longer quarters for the stats gain, without making the entire game interminable. The only problem is that you can't set it for the CPU, which will only enable it at strategic times when it has the ball. Online, even though EA is touting this as a sportsmanship attribute, it can be abused by those whose game plan is to go up early and give you zero time to come back. It's best used in offline campaign modes.

Hated
Season Slowdown:This isn't hated in the sense that it's obnoxious or detracts from the game, I just find that despite the hype, there isn't much point. Season Showdown entices you to take some pride in what you do. Play right, play fair, play well, and you accrue points for your school - which you choose at the beginning of the year and which is permanent throughout out it - in a yearlong leaderboard challenge to crown ... well, a champion of something. Best football school? Season Showdown works in the background of games you play, online or offline, and you can play with any team, not just the one you pick for purposes of the competition. But it's not conspicuous enough to really motivate me to play specifically for whatever result Season Showdown seeks to achieve. And because this "competition" is purely followership-based, even a year's worth of gameplay isn't going to do much to budge my school, N.C. State, from where it sits right now., No. 47, which is the spot it typically occupies in every ranking, from Athlon to U.S. News & World Report. I think we'll find that Season Showdown just another reordering of the traditional top 25 schools, primarily for marketing purposes, in this case Coca-Cola Zero. And if you're a fan of any of the other 80 or so, it'll offer little to get fired up about.

Roadkill Glory: EA Sports ramps up its vicarious big-man-on-campus sports RPG to almost creepy levels with Road to Glory, but it's all in the presentation. The gameplay remains shallow, harmed by repetitive play calling. This time, Erin Andrews and Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN will narrate the story of your career, matching some generic highlight calls to footage and stills automatically saved from your games. The problem is just how limited you are on the field. No matter where you play, your idiot coach calls the same playbook you saw in high school, which is extremely disappointing to see for the third year in a row. One way to hybridize the experience would be to play a Dynasty mode with yourself as a created player, and now use the Player Lock cam - new to NCAA 10 - that allows you to zero in on a single player and play as him the way you do in Road to Glory. You'd have to manually do this before each play, though, and miss out on the atmosphere and minor role-playing, which is quite satisfying. Just not enough to play this mode the entire way, unfortunately.

Pay for Play: I'll kick the hell out of the paid DLC now and receive my standing ovation. The game will offer you bonuses or enhancements in certain modes - a "recruiting advisor" in Dynasty is one - but they ain't free. The game certainly works fine without these features, but it's another example of people paying to use content already on their disc. In this case, the content basically amounts to cheating your way to player or school boosts without earning them.

By itself, TeamBuilder would make NCAA 10 the finest offering since the series hit next-gen consoles. But the game offers much more than that, and the new features that fine-tune and streamline the gameplay, and make it more fun and less intimidating, easily make you feel like you're not just buying this year's version of a $60 sports game, you're buying something that's better, and unique and longtime fans will feel like they are finally playing a complete package.

NCAA Football 10 was developed by EA Tiburon and published by Electronic Arts for the PS2, PS3, PSP and Xbox 360 on July 14. Retails for $59.99 USD. Reviewed on Xbox 360. Played an entire season in Dynasty mode, created one new school, and tested all gameplay varieties.

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