A century's worth of traditions spread over 100 teams makes college football one of the top subjects when sports fans start gumming How It Really Oughta Be: Who gets into what bowl, what rivalry should be rescheduled, what schools should be in which conference if everyone wasn't so fixated on starting their own TV network.
The level of manipulation NCAA Football 12 now gives you over what was already a darn good alternate sports reality is at times startling, considering how staid and rigidly self-interested its licensing partners are. They've approved a game that allows you to carve up the landscape, and carve through their Orwellian bullshit, to make the college game the more equitable, meritorious campaign it pretends it is every time the bowl bids go out.
Bowl Championship Series? I now command you invite the champion of the Mountain West Conference. ESPN? You have fouled the airwaves with so many East Carolina, Clemson and Louisville borefests that I now dread the words "Thursday Night." I have banned all but Saturday games from now on.
Rose Bowl? You have been such obstructionist bastards to the slightest concept of a playoff that you are now hosting the champions of the Sun Belt and Conference USA. Have a nice day and choke on it. Big Ten? While I cannot rename your conference to something more mathematically accurate, I am shitcanning your division names, "Leaders" and "Legends," which came straight from a motivational sales retreat. Also, you're playing your championship game outdoors, which is How It Really Oughta Be.
If NCAA Football 12, for the Xbox 360 and PS3, has any compelling appeal over its excellent predecessor, it is in an ability to fix things just so that borders on cathartic. The core of the game, however, shows that we may be at the point of diminishing returns with high definition simulation sports.
The biggest change in NCAA Football's gameplay mechanics can be seen in a play almost unique to amateur football: the option. Decision-making with it has long been a pick-it-and-pray proposition before the snap. Now, thanks to better AI and more refined animations that don't begin until contact, you can react to what you see. If that defensive end crashes through, take it in the other direction.
That's on a QB Choice from the shotgun, where you're seeing a lot of teams running the spread with mobile quarterbacks now. The flipside is that running the option from under center—and of the four teams who do this, three are service academies—is a tougher job. The defensive ends still shed too many blocks (released too early by your linemen), even on standard difficulty, that my triple option was effectively reduced to one, fullback up the gut.
In formations more orthodox to the modern game, I was impressed by the viability of running between the tackles. With the improved AI and contact animations, your line can clear off some choice real estate in the middle of the field. While this also is true when you're on defense, I found that a steady diet of blitzes and man-coverage schemes, at the easier difficulties anyway, were perhaps a little too effective at neutralizing the threat.
The game has added one new control: A tackle button (X on the 360 controller; square on the PS3) that, combined with the defensive assist (A/circle) cuts down on the problem of overrunning plays. It isn't a cure-all though. If you key it too early your defender will whiff on the play and go flying. But if you do hit the guy square, or if you get a shoulder into a guy sprinting for daylight, the collision will change the ballcarrier's momentum more than it did in the past, delivering some hits and stumbles that look more organic.
With better defensive back AI, running the ball is more critical than ever and I was pleased to see it as a more viable security blanket than the good ol' slant route, which will get jumped and swatted a lot more by linebackers and corners this year. Hook routes have also been a staple of mine, but now the DBs are adept at hanging behind the guy, suckering you into throwing that way, and then stepping in front of the pass to bat it down or, worse, pick it off altogether.
The strength of NCAA Football, year after year, has been in the model railroad you create in the game's Dynasty Mode. As mentioned above, the new level of control here is what really sells the game. Conference memberships are fully alterable, from four to 16 teams, with control over protected rivalries, location of championship games, even whether a team plays at night in November I created some exceptionally balanced conferences that I truly considered expressions of art.
Then I set off into my reality and, for the most part, forgot about the doings elsewhere in the world I created. The game is still dragged down by menus, never more so than in Dynasty, and the load times (throughout the entire game) are simply unbearable. If you want to know what's going on in the season, you have to go hunt for it because the update panel in the main menu wastes half the screen telling you about the game you just played and the two preceding it. I can't believe I'm criticizing menus of all things, but cycling through them is a sludgy process of sticks, triggers, and loading waits that definitely discourages you from reading up on your hallucinated reality.
Recruiting is still the most fascinating player-management mode in sports simulations but that process remains time-consuming and inefficient, especially early in the season, and also suffers from menu sludge. I still can't fathom the changes made to Pipeline recruiting and how they either help me or guide my prospecting. I'm constantly checking back to my team needs screen to make sure I'm not wasting too much time on a prospect who doesn't fill a critical need. That's information that should be conveyed, somehow, at the menu where I'm deciding who to call.
Through all of these disappointments, though, Dynasty still is a one-more-game role-playing obsession that takes me late into the night. NCAA Football 12 has added a "Coaching Carousel" that formalizes the mode into more of a coaching career. You begin with a two-year deal, and can even start out as a coordinator working only one side of the ball, which is great for those who like offense and hate having to manually super-sim the defensive possessions (or be penalized in something like the Season Showdown for not playing enough of the game). When you begin, you may choose any school, even No. 1 Oklahoma, but your coach will be given a two year contract set of expectations commensurate to its rank, covering victories, bowl bids, and how well you recruit. Some count more than others. Fail those, and your job is in jeopardy.
One last thing I appreciated about Dynasty is how the custom playbooks, reintroduced this year, can be edited from within the mode. This is crucial because loading into and out of Dynasty (as well as loading into a game) is just unacceptably long. Xbox 360 users who plan on putting a lot of time into the game should consider a hard drive installation.
Every year, the first mode I play in this game is its single-player career. It's a compact experience and a reintroduction to the pacing of a game I haven't picked up in a while. Typically, one season is enough, and then I move on to Dynasty.
This year, Road to Glory has added in a role-playing game element that establishes a solid new footing for the game but does not go far enough. "Coach Trust" is now your primary goal, and it is something you acquire by being effective at your job. It's best illustrated at quarterback, a position I suspect most will play.
When you begin, your coach trusts you to do nothing but run the play he has called. You can't audible from it, call a hot route, or flip its direction. You earn the ability to do this by progressing through ranks, separated by 1,000 points, which you're awarded for gaining yards (or, I suppose, making tackles if you're on defense). Admirably, this makes practice critical as it gives you 25 reps which can supply more coach trust opportunities than actual games (especially for non-quarterbacks).
Unfortunately, progression in both Coach Trust and in your player's ratings comes far too quickly. I reached 99 overall by the second game of my sophomore season, with an arm that was far too accurate for an underclassman and too underpowered out of high school. Typically you see cannon-armed QBs with no touch at that level. With your experience points (earned alongside Coach Trust) you may buy packages of skill upgrades in a marketplace that changes its stock every week. Some upgrades last a single game, some are permanent. This approach left me feeling like I wasn't fully in control of how I developed. The marketplace would have been better as a single-game boost resource, with your overall career development allowing the more traditional application of XP to attributes.
After Coach Trust and an extended high school career, Road to Glory still unfolds like past editions. I would say that in the early stages of Coach Trust, the feature makes some games more challenging and therefore realistic. Playcalling AI is a little better and not as repetitive, and will be attuned more to a team's offensive style. But I still lost a ton of momentum in Road To Glory after my first year, and it's partly because my progression was so rapid. The game simply needs to save some surprises for your senior year.
The debate in visual design for sports games these days is whether to show a sport as it is played or as it is seen on television. While NCAA Football 12 is, in many regards, a very beautiful game to play, it makes some presentation choices that try to have it both ways, and satisfy neither.
The pre-game runouts should be a centerpiece of the game, and it really does bring a smile to see Ralphie the Buffalo go tearing across Folsom Field, or the Ramblin' Wreck, festooned with Georgia Tech's cheerleaders, who are unaccountably prettier in this game than real life. Yet they are shown in a sequence of jarring broadcast silence, and it isn't clear if you're supposed to be a player on the team, a fan at the game, or a viewer at home. Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit are two of the best, longest-tenured voices in sports gaming, and they really need to continue their dialogue over these shots. As it is, I was still buttoning through them.
In the game, progressive lighting is the key to creating some beautiful panoramas that truly convey a sense of place. I was thrilled when, in the SEC, I got snow games on back-to-back dates, at Knoxville and Fayetteville, which had the aura of one of those where-the-hell-did-that-come-from snowstorms that occasionally hit that latitude. The screen was bathed in brilliant blue and gave the feeling of romping around in the snow as a kid. At Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower loomed over a sky that turned from marble blue to rust to purple, exactly as I recall in my mind's eye.
While undoubtedly the best entry in the series, NCAA Football sends a strong hint that transformative works this late in a console generation are simply not going to happen. The game's major appeals this year all lie outside the core experience, or are subtle refinements of it that, in some regards, make it a more difficult game.
It's still a tremendously enjoyable experience, held back only by some manageable disappointments. (There are, however, problems in online play, particularly in Online Dynasty, that still are being addressed at the time of writing. These include freezes encountered with created schools, and the lack of an administrative SuperSim feature that is offline until it can be fixed. Online gameplay itself is reliably lag-free.)
But those who are comfortably ensconced in their dream job with NCAA 11, helming a long-running dynasty whose rosters have completely deviated from reality, may not find much to write home about in NCAA Football 12 after toying with its new features. For those who redshirted last year, though, this is a great time to return to the field.