To some, it is a silly game that eats up a Saturday. To others, it is one messiah shy of being a religion. Wherever your interest in college football lands, the game is undeniably an important part of American society that draws a slew of fans. Because of that, half of EA Tiburon’s work is already complete before each new iteration of NCAA Football is released. It also doesn’t hurt that there is no competition.
EA’s NCAA Football games have never received the attention that their big brother Madden has received, but they have always been solid games. Because they mine a nostalgia-tinted and fanatical fanbase, they tend to receive a pass on a few shortcomings, especially when it comes to innovation. Last year’s aptly named NCAA Football 11 was a somewhat major step forward for the franchise, relatively speaking. It added a few new features, but more than that, it fixed several problems. It was easily the best game of the series (as the newest game in an annual franchise should always be). So does NCAA Football 12 advance the series enough to justify its own existence? (Please note that I deliberately avoided saying things like “does it fumble,” or “does it advance the chains.” You’re welcome.) Yes and no.
NCAA Football 12 is the best game in the franchise, as it should be. But the real question then is, is it a big enough improvement over the previous game to warrant shelling out $60 for it? If you are a fan of the series, absolutely. Of course, if you are a fan of the series you were probably planning to buy it regardless. But while NCAA Football 12 won’t blow you away with innovations and new features, it retains the gameplay that fans love, fixes at least one major problem with the past game and added to another, and again shows why NCAA Football is among the best sports games on the market.
The basic mechanics of NCAA Football 12 are the same as they have ever been, and identical to last year’s game. The tackling is refined and made a bit more realistic, but only the hardcore fans will notice the changes. Also gone are the passes that defied physics and seemed to be “remote controlled” into the waiting hands of receivers, who would sometimes use mutant powers to take a ball out of reach and magically pull it towards them for an improbable and rage-inducing catch. Part of that is a correction in the physics of the game, but part of it is an improvement in the game’s animations, which looked great before, but are now more realistic.
For the most part, the game takes a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it approach” to the mechanics, and until someone comes up with a new way to play the game of football that no one has considered, that is the right thing to do. You can add all the bells and whistles you like, but the core gameplay mechanics are what matter. These are tight and responsive, plus the better animation means that you can truly react to the movements of the opposing team and react accordingly. In previous games you might have been beyond the reach of a tackler, only to apparently trip and fall. The game registered a tackle, but the animation looked off. You could always challenge calls, but you could never challenge faulty animations. That has been vastly improved over the years, and this game is the best in terms of timing. When you play online, you will still see that a bit due to lag, but it is a minor issue.
The integration with ESPN remains a staple of the EA games, and NCAA Football 12 is no different. While right now you can see the results in the form of a customizable ticker and the odd audio segment, when the season begins that is when it will really shine, as the game will feature commentary from the upcoming real life games, as well as real-life news and stats.
The online mode returns, and as before you can join leagues, create dynasties and track your friends’ progress. It is a decent and sizeable online offering that should keep everyone happy.
The biggest change in NCAA Football 12 comes in the “Road to Glory” mode, which has seen a significant overhaul. Once you create your player and position (or positions if you want to play iron man and try both sides of the ball), you then begin your road from pimply-faced high school scrub (or a 6-foot-nine, 225lbs high schooler in my player’s case) to god of your selected campus. For each move you pull off in game, you earn points which go towards your recruitment score. As you accrue points, the game will ask you to choose your top three schools. But as you play, more and more schools will show interest and you can rank them in order of preference. The more prestigious the program you want to join, the more points you will need to earn to gain their attention.
Nothing in the Road to Glory is given to you — you have to earn it. If you are playing as a QB (and most people probably will at first), you have only a bit of control over the offense. As you mature in the role, the coach will give you more freedom to call audibles and hot routes.
There are also booster points you earn, which will increase the stats for either a single game, or increase an ability for your character. This is a good and bad thing. It is fun to build up the stats, but it is ridiculously easy to finish your freshman year totally maxed out, or near enough. If you are a longtime fan of the game, you should play the harder settings to make the points you earn feel worth the time. Regardless, it is a big improvement over the older incarnations, and fun to take your character through his career from noob to soon-to-be millionaire. Once you have completed his college domination, you can then import him to the upcoming Madden 12.
The Dynasty mode has also seen a revamp of sorts. Rather than just jumping in as a head coach, you can now start your coaching career as an offensive or defensive coordinator and either earn a new job when your contract runs out, or hope to outlast the current head coach and take his job. If you prefer, you can jump right to the head coaching job, but playing as the coordinator and making your way onto the coaching carousel is fun.
Each coordinator job has a set of goals you are expected to reach to ensure your job security, and the more prestigious the school, the higher the expectations. For the offensive coordinator you have to achieve a certain number of yards, touchdowns and other offensive specific stats, while the defensive coordinator is required to hold offenses and make defensive plays. When the actual game begins, you play whatever side of the ball you are coaching as you would a normal game — you call the plays and run them. It is an interesting game and fun to call and run the offense — right up until your defense blows a massive lead against a rival, and vice-versa. It won’t affect your job security as long as you are hitting your goals, but it is annoying.
You can choose any school you want to start at, and along with the game duties, you will also be in charge of recruiting. Oddly, you will be in charge of all the team’s recruiting, even if you are only the offensive or defensive coordinator. It is a minor issue, but it makes finally earning the head coaching job feel underwhelming since nothing changes behind the scenes. Since you can begin as a head coach, there isn’t much advancement beyond taking over play calling for both sides of the ball.
You can also take the Dynasty mode one step further and create everything from scratch — everything. You can create your own school, make your own conferences, change the bowl guidelines and then recruit away. It may not appeal to fans that want to play with their alma maters, but it could give even more options for hardcore fans.
The graphics in NCAA Football 12 are hit or miss, but the animations look as good as any video game. The way the players move is natural and helps with the gameplay as well. Watching the new introduction animations is also fairly impressive, and helps you feel the excitement of a Saturday game — at least until you see the crowds, which are basically just blotches of color. Compared to other sports games where the crowds are incredible, the NCAA Football 12 crowds are just background.
The sound is also a bit off at times. Kirk Herbstreit, Brad Nessler and Erin Andrews take over the commentary, and most of the time they do a good job, but not always. Don’t be surprised to hear the same exact comment repeated in the same game — and not the odd “Wow, what a hit” type comment, but several sentences espousing the virtues of a particular player. There are also a handful of phrases that sound suspiciously like last year’s commentary. In general the commentary is fine, but it never really impresses.
NCAA Football 12 doesn’t exactly push the envelope, but then again, it doesn’t really have to. It delivers a great gameplay experience and continues to improve upon controls that are already top notch. The additions to the Road to Glory and Dynasty modes are also welcome additions. They aren’t perfect, but they are fun and incredibly addictive. You might look at the recruiting in the dynasty and think it is tedious — right up until you get in a war with your school’s rival for a much-sought-after recruit. Six hours later when he has agreed to sign, you can pat yourself on the back and finally go to sleep.
EA Tiburon did exactly what it had to with NCAA Football 12, crafting a good, safe game that improves upon the last title. For those who own last year’s game and are on the fence about whether or not to pay the money for 12, the choice will come down to inches. This game and its predecessor are both well above 10 and earlier, and there is enough to justify the cost of 12, but just barely.
But if you are a fan of the series or haven’t picked up one of the games in a few years, then NCAA Football 12 should keep you happy for a while — at least until next year when NCAA Football 13 is released.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)