Given the relationship between college football and the pro leagues, it's somehow fitting that the NCAA Football series has always been overshadowed by its big brother Madden NFL. Of course, as fans of college ball know, dismissing the NCAA leagues would be a huge mistake, whether in a game or out of it. College football has a pomp and pageantry all of its own, far from the multi-million-dollar paychecks and sponsorship deals of the NFL. Fortunately, NCAA Football 11 captures the college football tradition and spirit as well as the series ever has.
There's no real point in going deeply into the mechanics for NCAA Football 11, because if you're even remotely familiar with the series or its NFL counterpart, you know what to expect: You play armchair quarterback-slash-coach, calling plays, making passes, and kicking field goals.
None of that has changed, though fans of the series who come back year after year will probably find that the core gameplay is more refined than it's ever been. The new collision engine renders hits and tackles in great fidelity, the running and passing mechanics feel solid, and the ability to adapt plays on the fly by changing the length and course of run patterns is a welcomed one.
While the dizzying amount of potential plays to call and the wash of colorful symbols popping up on the screen during a pass play, it's easy to imagine that newcomers to the NCAA Football series will find themselves overwhelmed. Thankfully, the latest iteration makes it fairly easy for newbies to still have fun with the 1-Button Mode gametype ... which is exactly what it sounds like. One button hikes the ball, one button passes it to a computer-chosen receiver, one button jukes and dodges from defenders - you get the drill. The game also helpfully suggests a selection of possible plays to run in any given situation, meaning that you'll really never be overwhelmed by having the entire variety of a playbook at your fingertips.
But you know what? Some people like complexity, and NCAA Football 11 offers that in droves with its Dynasty mode. In Dynasty, as with past career modes in the franchise, you become the coach of your college team of choice and try to lead them to glory. There is some serious detail here for the number-crunching gamer, and you're able to set starters and other-string players, manage injury charts and who's sitting on the bench, and even tailor your coaching style and playbook precisely how you want it. Hell, you can even create your team online without ever powering up your console.
The recruitment section of the Dynasty mode has been given a significant overhaul, and lining up the hottest high school talent requires more of an investment this time around. You're given the option to call up prospects, make them promises and answer their questions regarding the school and its athletic program (how much play time they'll get, TV exposure, how much support their students give the program, etc.) in order to sway their opinion.
In the grand scheme of things it doesn't mean much, and you'll start to see repetition in things if you tackle your recruitment obsessively, but it's a surprisingly engaging addition that makes high school talent searches more "game-like" and less like pushing a button to recruit a randomly generated name.