Review: NCAA Football 10 (Xbox 360)

Meet the new boss Same as the old boss

The Who

The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"

Right before tearing the shrink wrap off NCAA Football 10, I had a thought: "Why do I do this every year?" This is the third year in a row I've bought EA Sports' NCAA Football game, and on previous console generations I purchased multiple copies as well. The problem is I'm getting strict visions of déjà vu. It is, clearly, an annual thing for me — all within the same repetitive cycle of pre-release excitement, post-release honeymoon, and over-analysis of missing features that need to be in next year's version. Rinse, wash, repeat.

So let's take a look at how NCAA 10 fits into this cycle — because, despite tweaks and improvements that fans have clamored for, there are a few minor steps backwards and features that have been given little more than a fresh coat of paint.

The tackling technology in NCAA 10 has been rebuilt, allowing strong runners (like Florida's esteemed starting quarterback) to drag defenders for extra yardage, or even break free.

To preface: I've played far too much NCAA 09, sinking probably 120 hours into last year's edition. With college football season rapidly approaching (just over two weeks now!) I've picked NCAA 09 up again and poured more hours into a couple of offline, single-player dynasties. I get killed by a few of my friends but they're also insanely good at football games.

That said, the basic on-the-field impressions after play of NCAA 10 are very, very positive compared to its predecessor. The graphics and on-field presentation have improved, and the speed of play in the game is slowed down and feels much better balanced. Speed has been nerfed a lot — it still pays to have super-fast wide receivers for deep home-run passes, but breakaway speed is handled much more realistically. Wide receivers find passes more realistically, and good quarterbacks can thread the ball through the eye of a needle just like in real life. It's subtle compared to NCAA 08 and 09, but important.

The running game has been improved to feel a lot more hard-hitting — powerful running backs who run over defenders can be just as successful as quick quarkbacks who avoid defenders altogether. That goes for powerful quarterbacks, too — Tim Tebow feels like a killdozer, but even lesser QBs can successfully pull off designed QB keeper runs. It's now possible for power runners to really push a defender away with a stiff-arm, truck right through a cornerback, or shrug through contact at the line, and it's all the more satisfying for it.

Defense is a bit looser than last year — I've been whiffing open-field tackles left and right. New for this year is the capability pre-snap to guess what type of play the offense is going to call, and sell-out for that — so if you think they're running up the middle, defenders will crash in on the line of scrimmage. It's a cool risk/reward setup, but DEFINITELY can burn you if you're not careful. Actually playing a game of football with NCAA 10 feels much, much better than NCAA 09 — in that way, it does what a yearly franchise update should.

New risk-reward defensive play guessing adjustments allowed skilled players to gamble pre-play. Guess right and you'll stop the offense dead in its tracks; guess wrong...and you'll be hearing the band play.

A quick moment on the graphics: NCAA 09 animated well and had good textures, but Madden 09 was clearly a step ahead. Now, though, it looks like NCAA 10 is sporting that technology — the uniforms are insanely detailed, players look great, and the animation has been improved. The only creepy thing is all the player faces in the recruiting and roster screens — it works better in a game where the art team puts effort into making the players' faces look realistic, but is just weird in NCAA 10.

Unfortunately, off the field, NCAA 10 feels like it has just a fresh coat of paint as opposed to major revolutionary changes. Okay, so there is one huge addition: The ability to create your own team has been added in (for the first time in HD-generation NCAA games), and is now available through EA Sports' Web site. This is an anticipated return because the creation tool is incredibly powerful, and being able to play with it through a Web browser instead of clunky console menus is welcomed.

However, everything from the single-player Dynasty mode to the Road to Glory RPG-style experience feels identical. The menus have changed (and Road to Glory gets a new dorm room-style interface and some more ESPN college football talent to flesh out the mode — namely sideline reporter Erin Andrews), but almost nothing beneath that has — or, at least, it doesn't feel like anything has changed.

There are so many opportunities to improve on the game. Road to Glory could be much more of an RPG and have a true storyline to it, as opposed to staying stagnant. Season Showdown could be a cool addition...if it weren't for the fact that most players taking advantage of it are using the best team in the game, the Florida Gators.

A minor but useful addition is the ability to choose helmets, jerseys, and pants independently before each game. It's definitely useful for Oregon Duck fans.

Most importantly — and related to what I wrote about in the Beginner's Guide to Sports Games a month or so ago — they could have added in a tutorial to teach newcomers and interested parties both how to play the game and how to watch the sport. Even somebody like me, who has watched football as long as I can remember, has struggled at playing football video games not because it's hard to run the ball or pass it, but because it's incredibly hard to decide what plays to call when — especially against a human opponent. Tutorials to instruct about basic and advanced offensive and defensive schemes, strategies and techniques would both teach players not just the difference between a Cover 1 and a Zone Blitz defensive play, but also how to make use of the convoluted control schemes football games are known for. Teaching piece by piece would allow new players to eventually put it all together in the form of playing a full game on offense and defense, and then go from there.

Imagine: if the game could teach players new and old to the degree where they could decide "you know, I'm tired of this West Coast offense, I'll switch to an Air Raid playbook on offense, and try out the 3-4 on defense this game," and it all makes sense....the game will be worth the platitudes it currently receives.

This sense of sameness I'm getting from NCAA 10 must be what it feels like to be a Japanese RPG fan. Japanese RPGs fall into very set formats as a matter of course — the gamers want very specific things from those games, and get frustrated with deviations. Combat systems are all very familiar, the narrative structure is very familiar, the mixing of story-driven areas and finding places to grind is very, very familiar. Sports gamers crave that amount of familiarity from year-to-year, too — there were revolts when EA Sports tried to change up how you passed the ball in Madden a couple of years ago.

Instead of just relying on a receiver with a speed rating of 95 or higher (out of 100), the deep pass in NCAA 10 requires strategy — making it a satisfying prospect.

Yet here I am, eagerly anticipating free time to tear through the game some more. Despite that feeling of same-ness, it's still incredibly fun. Is it the buzz of months of build-up to the new product, combined with "new car smell" from working the fanbase (including my friends) into a lather? Is it that the new features are enough to satiate my want and need for the year, $60 price tag be damned? Are EA Sports the bad guys for not adding more, or are sports gamers (kind of like JRPG fans) not too hard to please — more of the usual, please and thank you.

What it comes down to is more of the same...but in a good way. Yes, there is new material here for experienced armchair quarterbacks, but nothing revolutionary off the field of play. This is easily the best of the current-gen NCAA Football games, but that applied to NCAA 09 this time last year. Some issues were addressed in NCAA 10, but still more remain. It may not be a case of "two steps forward, one step back," but more "two steps forward when three were needed."

That said, I tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution, pick up my controller and play...just like yesterday. Then I pray I don't get fooled again next year.

NCAA 10 is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation Portable. The reviewer played games in Dynasty, Road to Glory, and Quick Play modes, as well as online games both ranked and unranked, with a variety of teams.

Recommended for:

  • Diehard football game fans, who will find plenty of positive tweaks in this year's edition.
  • Motivated newcomers to the NCAA 10 series — this year's version is appreciably better than NCAA 09 for non-fans.

Not Recommended for:

  • Non-football fans who aren't terribly interested — unlike games like FIFA 09 or NHL 09, this isn't friendly enough to make non-believers into fans of either the series or the sport.
  • Football fans expecting more than a fresh coat of paint for the Dynasty or Road to Glory modes, or any other true feature innovations for the series.