NCAA Football 09: Game Time, Baby!

August 5, 2008


NCAA Football is often considered the little brother of the Madden series, and this has traditionally been a fair assessment. While the college game is much different than the NFL, features you find in the Madden games often take an extra season to make it into the NCAA product. This time it’s different, as NCAA Football 09 includes its own set of innovations, but many core issues still remain from prior games, and bugs are even more rampant.
When you create the same sports game year after year it becomes easy to build an impressive list of options. The NCAA Football franchise has definitely reached this point. Just about any conceivable way you can play college football is on the roster, including the ability to strap on the pads as a team mascot.

Where modes are concerned, the only new addition this year is online dynasties. Your dynasty can interact with those of 11 other human players and can stretch on for a whopping 60 seasons. That’s a whole lot of numbers to keep track of, and the dynasty mode hasn’t been truncated, either. You also get the ability to download and upload rosters online, and some kind soul has already created the players for every team in college football, effectively eliminating the absence of real player names and ratings.

The dynasty mode itself hasn’t changed too much. Recruiting has been a grind in past games, and despite some options created to make it easier, it’s still far too time consuming. It’s made worse by the crawling speed at which you can scroll and view players. With this much horsepower in the machines, there’s really no excuse for the lag. Even if you do use the quick recruiting tools, scoping out players and getting them to sign is way too much work, and after a season or two you’ll want to take what you can get and deal with it.

You also get the campus legend option that allows you to create a high school player at any position, play through his state finals, and then select his institution of higher learning. The campus legend option only allows you to play from one position. While playing quarterback or running back is great, taking an offensive line position stinks as you’ll only have two moves at your disposal. The simulation options are a huge help as you can watch or play as much or as little as you want.

Other additions include a couple new minigames like horse, where you take field goal attempts from anywhere on the field, and special teams challenge where you take turns kicking and returning kicks trying to get into field goal range.

Just like past games in the series, NCAA Football 09 is loaded with ways to play, but not all of them are a good time. The addition of online dynasties has been requested for years and finally EA Sports has done it.

Here’s where the problems crop up. There’s a new breakaway engine that allows you to shed tacklers that’s a little over powered. If you get past the defensive line and to the linebackers it’s far too easy to break one for a long gain. Other additions include a reworked home field advantage system that’s a little more successful. When playing on the road the controller will shake and your receivers’ routes will become scrambled. The best part is that there are ways to quell the stadium’s thunder. After throwing an interception you can attempt to guess the defensive scheme to keep the other team’s momentum from getting out of hand.

Another addition is icing the kicker. If your opponent is attempting a field goal in the second or fourth quarters you can call a timeout and cool him off. Ice will obscure the kicking meter, the camera angle changes, and his controller will shake. It’s effective—too effective, in fact. Interactive timeouts are also new, allowing you to coach your team on the sideline by selecting enhancements to particular positions. It can certainly make a difference, but the defense has the option to thwart any enhancements your team might have by selecting the correct defensive adjustments.

All the new additions are nice, but they come at the expense of the core gameplay. While you have just about any option to change the play at the line of scrimmage, it often causes problems. Flipping pass plays will cause your receivers to run across the line of scrimmage as they realign, and when using the new formation-based audibles it will cause some receivers to become completely dead when they run their routes or running backs to crash into the back of the quarterback after the snap.

Once the ball is snapped controls on both sides of the ball work well. On offense you can use the highlight stick or the traditional face buttons to juke, hurdle, and dive. On defense you can strafe to string out a play to the sideline, jump the snap, or otherwise do everything a real defender can. No matter which side of the ball you’re on, if you make plays yourself it will affect that player’s attributes and those around him.

Once you cross the goal line you have a couple options including celebrating with teammates by pulling off a team’s signature taunt, or you running to the mascot where they’ll celebrate together.

NCAA Football isn’t broken, but in a sport where each play matters, one of these small hiccups can cost you a game.

NCAA Football 09 looks basically identical to NCAA Football 08. There are some new animations, and players react to tipped balls a lot more accurately, but otherwise, it’s a replay of last year’s game. The crowds still don’t make much sense as terrible teams will sell out the stadium week after week. There are still no referees on the field, but at least cheerleaders have managed to up the college atmosphere a bit.

How the game decides whether there will be an announcer for the game in the dynasty or campus legend modes doesn’t make much sense. They’re normally reserved for televised games, but the TV schedule doesn’t adjust throughout the season, so don’t be surprised when two top 10 teams play and there’s no announcer. One cool addition is the ability to create custom stadium sounds—allowing you to set audio cues to trigger when certain conditions are met on the field. Creative types can really get into this feature and customize the game, but it’s a lot of work.

In the quest for improvements, the team behind NCAA Football 09 has overlooked some bugs and other issues. Even with these issues, it’s still predominantly a solid-playing game of college football with enough modes and options to keep players busy well into next season. It’s disappointing that some of the sticking points from last year’s game haven’t been addressed. Yet, if only for the option to download updated rosters and take their dynasty online, we recommend upgrading to this year’s game for the hardcore college pigskin fan. Everyone else will be more than happy to return to replay last season.