NCAA Football 09 hands-on: Part one

Posted May 1st, 2008 at 9:04 pm

After getting a significant amount of time with NCAA Football 09 I’ve compiled my initial thoughts on the game and details on features. The games were played on All-American difficulty and five minute quarters and I took part mostly in head-to-head. You can check over at NCAA Strategies and PSU for more hands-on details as well.

Because of the vast amount of info there is to lay out I’ve broken it into two parts the second of which can be found here. Part one goes over things that relate more to the gameplay and part two will concentrate more on the new features (homefield, online dynasty, ect). Keep in mind that this is an early build still very much a work in progress and that some of the issues mentioned can be improved on or fixed by release time and hopefully the feedback will help lead to that happening.

Overall the game felt relatively polished for this point in development, a stark contrast to the early build that was played of NBA Live 08 last year. Visually it looks excellent. The comparison screenshots that were released accurately represent the improvements that have been made in both environment (stadiums, grass, lighting) and player models. It seems like they really made an effort to make the game feel more like the college football experience through the atmosphere.

Got to play both the 360 and PS3 versions. They are virtually identical. I did notice that the PS3 version seemed a little more responsive and loaded slightly quicker. I asked regarding build dates and it wasn’t known whether the PS3 build was more recent which could’ve explained those things. But for anyone concerned about the PS3 version there is nothing to worry about.

At first it took a little while to get acclimated to the player weight, momentum, and foot planting. Movement looks and feels much more natural but at first felt a little heavy. After a few minutes playing though it really began to feel like it was just right. User control is big especially in the running game or in the run after the catch. Elusiveness and acceleration attributes are huge. You can really see the burst and taking bad angles as a defender is punished severely.

The wide open gameplay is the big thing this year. It is refreshing to be able to get big plays through the running game and by running after the catch following years of relying on the deep bomb as the main source of big plays. The moves you can do with the stick are very responsive and a lot of fun to use. We saw so many moves that would not have even been possible in last year’s game.

One thing I came to realize quickly is if you concentrate on stopping one aspect of the opposing offense you’ll be leaving the other open. So if you play defense to try and stop their running game it gives much more opportunity for them to move the ball via the pass and vice versa. Balance as an offense can really pay off. At times though it felt like you were picking your poison when playing defense. Stopping the opposition on a consistent basis just didn’t happen.

When it comes to the offensive-defensive balance I’d say the leaning is clearly towards the offense. However in most of the games that were played the scores ended up realistic. It brought about more excitement due to the big plays. Scores will likely depend heavily on the styles of the people playing. With longer quarters (7+ minutes) on All-American the scores would probably be unrealistically high.

Penalties play a more significant role this year. If you watch the replays you can even see the holding which generally proved to be the right calls. LG #75 on UCLA was the biggest culprit we saw as he held three times in a single game. Also seen were pass interference, facemasks, offsides, and roughing the passer (see later in the write-up for more on roughing).

Offensive line slide protection is in and seemed to work pretty well. Options are to hit to the left or right for those sides or the left trigger and press up for “aggressive” or down for “pinch”.

In general the offensive line blocking is superior to any year I can remember as is the downfield blocking. One of the most frustrating things for me has been taking play action out of my gameplan because of the likelihood it would result in a sack. I was able to run play action effectively with time to look at the receivers which was a very big relief. That is one of the improvements that had me most pleased.

Gang tackling is better than last year, probably more on par with Madden 08’s. I didn’t notice nearly as much “bouncing off” players as the second or third defender in would assist in the tackle.

In a blowout the stadiums will empty out. There was one where I had used super sim to the end of the game and the stadium only had a couple fans sprinkled throughout except in the student section where it was still pretty well populated. Looked neat like that because it was really deserted outside of the student section and band.

I didn’t have much time to spend in Campus Legend. The one major thing I noticed (which was something on my list of things to improve the mode) is that the camera doesn’t swing around after a turnover which previously created a lot of confusion. While I didn’t see any returns or turnovers while using an offensive player I would suspect it would be the same way there too. Apparently they also made it so you don’t have to go back to the menus after doing an activity such as practice. You can do several practices in a row saving a lot of time that would’ve been spent with the game loading. Other than that in the short amount of time most of the things appeared to be unchanged from last year. High School is the same, menus look the same, off-day activities the same. Some of the areas that contain stories have a new rotating menu system which is really nice. When it comes to equipment I took note of the shoes (adidas, nike, generic) and gloves (swoosh, train track, generic colors).

CAP equipment wasn’t fully implemented as the clear visors were not an option and all the others looked the same. In this build it listed Nike, UnderArmour, Oakley, Dark Nike, Dark UnderArmour, Dark Oakley.

Depth chart lag was not evident in the build that was played. That was something that was extremely frustrating last year but it seemed like they fixed it.

Replay cameras look to be the same as last year. So the same options are there when taking the screenshots or videos for EA Sports World. There is still just the one camera angle for gameplay.

There are a lot of minor visual enhancements that need to be seen to really understand. Everything just looks more natural in terms of movement and gestures (for example just catching the ball on a kick return looks much better).

Completion percentage seemed to be on the high side. There were not all that many incomplete passes. It was relatively easy to run an efficient offense and move the chains on a consistent basis. I don’t know if that was due to the increased time thanks to the improved blocking or defensive back AI not covering very well. It may be a combination of both (although I really enjoyed the improved blocking so I wouldn’t ever ask that to be reduced). Because of that it seemed as though forcing a turnover was your best shot at stopping the opposing team from scoring. Still the final scores tended to be varied and realistic. There were some high scoring games, some low scoring, and most in between. This was on five minute quarters though, any longer and I think the scores would be on the high side most of the time. Maybe Heisman difficulty would offer a better experience for longer quarters.

There were a high % of interceptions returned for touchdowns. This seemed to be due to the speed/acceleration and taking bad angles that are impossible to recover from. Off the top of my head I’d say on average 1-2 every game. This got to be a little frustrating that they were occurring so often and there was little recourse to preventing them being taken the distance.

High jump catches are effective but I don’t think it had to do with spectacular catch. They just made a good deal of jumping catches. Actually I don’t think I saw any spectacular ones completed, a few times there were attempts at it that resulted in the player getting hit in mid-air and dropping the ball.

We didn’t really see the CPU throw deep which is a concern when considering this has been an issue for a while.

I’m not a heavy option player so my success with it may not mirror others. I did see some pitches that were probably made a little late considering the timing of the QB getting hit.

Mobile QBs continue to be effective (it is college football so that is as it should be) however QB Spy seemed to work a lot better than in years past. So attempting to contain a QB can be done but you’ll be opening up other options for the offense by doing so.

We saw a couple times where players returned missed field goals. The CPU actually reacted well to it. Considering the kicking in the game it’s doubtful there will be a lot of them (we only saw them when setting them up on purpose) but it’s a nice addition.

Despite the variety of penalties one that wasn’t being called appropriately was roughing the passer. We did see one called but there were several blatant late hits that weren’t. Hopefully that can be adjusted by release time.

Interception returns and other big plays sometimes would have the ball carrier with a lead blocker but no one out ahead for him to block. In that situation he continued to run ahead instead of turning around to block someone who was trying to catch the ball carrier. It looked awkward but I don’t think it ended up costing any of us because it’s so rare to see a player get caught from behind.

The sideline catch animation had an issue where even a few yards off from the sideline they would try to “get their feet in” and then fall straight down.

Playbooks still default to special teams after punts/fgs/kickoffs. This was an annoyance last year and hopefully they’ll fix it.

The cheerleader cut scenes are shown a little too often. I would rather see more post play continuation than so many cheerleader scenes.

No squib kicks again. This is something they should really bring back.

Ball carriers when in the open field had the tendency to carry it held out away from their body in one hand. It didn’t seem to increase fumble risk so it likely was just a visual bug.

There were a few other minor bugs/irregularities but in general less than I had expected to see.

Overall the game is a lot of fun and instantly a lot of improvements are going to be seen. Player movement feels better than ever before and the blocking is excellent. The wide open gameplay brings back a lot of excitement but I suspect that over time the ease of moving the ball, making big plays, and the INTs for TDs may wear on those who play the game a lot. There is still time though and hopefully they take the feedback that we have given act on it.

Part Two