Demos for EA sports games generally all take the same tone, attacking the flaws of the current version in an effort to promote the strengths of the new version. The numbers change year-by-year, but the pattern remains the same. It's particularly awkward with NCAA and Madden, because the college game tends to lag a few iterations behind the pro game in terms of innovations and improvements. So when the Madden devs talk about how much they improved on last year's terrible collision model or broadcast presentation, it's a sure bet that some of those problems are still front and center in the upcoming version of NCAA. But while this year's game suffers in comparison to Madden, the few new improvements to NCAA make for a more satisfying game overall.
NCAA's always had a better running game than Madden, so I'm glad the team spent so much time improving the passing game in this installment. Quarterbacks instantly drop back into the pocket now, so you can spend the first couple of seconds after the snap seeing who's breaking away from coverage. Even the pump fakes are automated in fake plays. This means the QB can focus more on reading the receivers than managing the details. And rather than tossing early and hoping the receivers are ready, the new game includes awareness icons over each receiver's head that lets you know at a glance which players are looking for the pass.
The new automated features don't mean the system is less subtle, however. You can use the left stick now to add more finesse to direct your passes , and there's a much greater variety between bullets and lobs. Some of the distinctions are based on context as well, so a bullet over the heads of opposing linebackers looks very different from a bullet down the sideline, for instance. Having this kind of control and sophistication over the passing game makes NCAA a much more enjoyable, more realistic game.
While most people still tend to go for pick-up-and-play exhibition games, NCAA still offers career and dynasty modes for hardcore fans. While those modes have been improved with additional online options, the real big feature here is the addition of Heisman winners. Now you can take to the field as Herschel Walker or Doug Flutie and play through their entire career, trying to match, or even beat, their accomplishments. While it's loads of fun for longtime fans, using these superstar players makes beating the record a bit of a no-brainer. I beat Barry Sanders' single game rushing and TD records in my very first game. It's fun, but the opposition is so overmatched that the games start to get a little predictable . And since the coaching AI knows it has Barry Sanders on the field, he's used on nearly every play.
The Heisman mode and the new Road to Glory, where players can create a single character and lead him through high school and college, also include the brand new Reaction Time. This allows players to slow down the action on the field to better get through coverage, to outmaneuver a defender, or to find an open receiver. It's actually an intriguing concept, but it works better with the freshmen starters in Road to Glory than with the already overpowered stars of the Heisman mode. Gamers who want NCAA to be a straight up simulation may object, but when it all works and your QB finds a gap in the line and glides through to a first down like he's Neo from The Matrix, you can't help but smile.
This year's installment improves on the overall presentation by using even more ESPN elements. The ticker at the bottom of your own game will show the scores from simulated games the system is running in the background. It's a bit hand-wavy, sure, but having that little bit of information really helps sell the idea that you're playing in a real division with other teams on a real schedule. Play a game early in the day, for instance, and you'll merely see the lineups for matches coming later that night. Play at night, and you'll see the scores from all that games that have already been completed. The game even throws to Rece Davis to talk about the day's highlights. The rest of the game's commentary has been improved a bit but still gets repetitive and still sometimes completely misreads what just happened on the field. The presentation of action on the field still tends to suffer from some of the series' usual pitfalls. The collisions aren't always believable, and you'll sometimes have a player go from flat-footed to full out sprint with virtually no hesitation. You don't notice most of this stuff while you're playing, but the gaffes really show up in the replays.
There are other small improvements here, from pre-season scouting to on-the-fly play action aborts to defenders that line up according to skill rather than position, and the sum total of these improvements is considerable.
Bottom Line: The improved passing game is the real star here and the other small improvements help sell the overall experience. Heisman is an enjoyable addition, but creates balance problems.
Recommendation: If you're attracted to the gameplay fundamentals, you'll have a good time with the new passing game. If you're more interested in the career and dynasty modes, Heisman isn't enough of a draw by itself.