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July 20, 2008

NCAA Football 09 Review

It's that time of year when next season becomes this season.

Electronic Arts NCAA Football 09 is the third college football installment on next generation consoles, but it may be the first edition of the game that represents its last generation counterparts in features.

While no one on our staff can be considered a hardcore gamer, we do consider ourselves hardcore college football fans. Across the board, we know detail and demand it from our gaming experiences. This review comes from a press box perspective.

In year's past, NCAA Football sacrificed features for looks. This year, XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 owners are treated to a great looking game with several great features. The most notable additions to NCAA Football 09 are Online Dynasty Mode, The EA Locker, Custom Stadium Sounds and Alternate Jerseys.

Those features give NCAA Football 09 more diversity; adding substance to the style gamers expect in next generation franchises.

The Look: NCAA Football 08 was already a good looking game with upgraded player models from the year before, but 09 takes aesthetics a whole level higher. Not only are the player models more lifelike per position, the stadiums they play in and the fields they play on are improved.

Playing at 12:30 p.m. on an overcast day, the grass turf at the Coliseum really comes alive. The lighting and textures in that particular setting are tremendous in 720p high definition or 1020i upscaling. Night games, however, give the players a slightly outlined look. The field also seems to reflect the lights from the stadiums giving them a glow pre-snap.

Unfortunately, natural grass surfaces show no degradation in 09. This could be a code glitch as dynamic field response to weather was a feature mentioned by game developers early in production. Turf appearance in snowy conditions has improved, but no midfield wear or footprints are visible.

Player models appear slightly smaller than in last year's version of the game, but there are more post-play animations and close-ups to give you a good look at Joe McKnight's black spat cleats or Brian Cushing's mud stained jersey. In fact, the animations in this year's game are some of the best you'll see in any sports title.

Whether it be the continued evolution of gang tackling or the upgraded juke system, players move more realistically than ever. The team and mascot celebrations get first billing by EA, but we've been most impressed by the additional mid-air collision animations in this year's game. Take a leap over the goal line and run the risk of James Laurinaitis pile driving you in mid-air. He lives to hate running backs.

On that note, there are still no injury cut scenes, which is only odd because they were in 07.

But the animations on the field aren't where the improvements stop. This year, one very noticeable tweak in the game is crowd dynamics. While the crowd would jump up and down with mind-numbing unison in 07 and 08, this year's version of the game brings a new level of dynamics to the stadium. Take a side in the Red River Shootout and watch the reaction of half the fans in the stands as Demarco Murray gives new meaning to burnt orange. In blowouts, the stands will also empty.

Unfortunately, sideline animations still seem to be a work in progress. While cheerleaders and mascots are a nice touch, those bloated, zombie-like creatures posing as players are back on the sidelines. With so much work put into play models, the game doesn't do itself justice when there's a sideline pan. Coaches, chain-gangs and a photographers row are on the wish list for next year.

Presentation is still lacking from the next generation series. There are no team entrances, nor any pre-game impact player breakdowns. Post-game highlights with voice over commentary are included as almost an afterthought.

The Feel: Player movement and controls have also been overhauled in NCAA Football 09. Both offensive and defensive players move with more weight and momentum. Even veterans of the series will need time to get familiar with the sticks. While momentum will make or break your ability to defend, it also brings new challenges to running the football.

Patience and good stick reflexes will open up your running game like never before. While most football games have centered around taking good angles with the sprint button, NCAA Football 09 forces gamers to approach running the football like a street fight - or better put, Street Fighter.

With the new branch juke system, running backs are finally capable of stringing together a combination of moves. Gone are the played out animations of ice skaters posing as running backs. This year, you hit the hole with a stutter step and look for a cut back lane in the second tier on the defense.

In 08, the speed option was an easy exploit for at least two touchdowns a game on All-American and Heisman levels. This year, running the football outside the hashes is a crap shoot against good defenses. You can use the slide protection feature to seal containment, but good linebackers are hard to beat on the edge. Playbooks with slot option and motion option do a better job of attacking the perimeter of the defense.

Playbooks is where NCAA Football really shines. EA took a big step last year in creating team specific playbooks, and they've expanded on that concept in 09. Many of the best new plays are of the motion variety. Often combined with playaction, the passing game can be unstoppable at times.

And while casual gamers may enjoy that aspect of 09, those looking for realism will become frustrated by the near perfect pass completion rates. Whether playing zone or man coverage, a combination of factors have led to the quarterbacks being too accurate.

Offensive players appear to accelerate to the ball, whereas defenders do not. Linebackers also are affected more by momentum than running backs and receivers, so they lack quickness on short routes across the middle. Pass rushing can also disappear, giving the quarterback too much time to pick apart the defense. Too often, multiple defensive linemen will end up on their butts when attempting to get upfield on a blocker.

The cure for the latter is to manually control the pass rush. Call different stunts at the line, and utilize the various pass rushing techniques available. Just as with running the ball, lay off the spring button and use the sticks for a combination of moves. In coverage, don't give up inside leverage on pass routes at the line of scrimmage. If anything, NCAA Football 09 forces you to rely on certain fundamentals that mirror real life.

The only gameplay defect which will cause headaches is in the kicking game. Both kickoff and punt coverage is atrocious. Vice versa, returning punts for touchdowns is way too easy. The only remedy for this is calling for a fair catch.

Last year, fumbles and interceptions seemed to mask any shortcomings the defensive AI had. This year, fumble are held in check, but there are still a healthy amount of interceptions - many returned for touchdowns. For some reason, defensive players make great blockers, and you usually find your quarterback on the ground when you need someone to get an angle on the defensive back high stepping into the endzone.

Of course, this is normally where sliders come into play. More on that later. But a nice addition to the game is the quarterback composure feature. After you throw an interception, you'll be asked which coverage the defense was in. Choose incorrectly and your quarterback's composure rating will suffer.

Home field advantage is back for the next generation series, giving more intimidating stadiums a unique feel. The Coliseum is ranked the No. 11 toughest place to play in the country. Rankings are based on a home team's success just as much as it is crowd noise. We'd rather see more weight given to the latter.

Now Featuring: When new features hit next generation games, they often arrive stripped down. With NCAA Football 09, Online Dynasty Mode comes stocked with everything you've come to love with the standard offline Dynasty Mode. A league commissioner will be able to invite up to 11 participants in an Online Dynasty, so gamers could play their own conference schedule, while waging their own recruiting wars.

During these online battles, you can now utilize custom in-game soundtracks. Users can play almost two-dozen audio clips for different in-game situations. Play Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" on third down or "Promontory" by Trevor Jones from the "Last of the Mohicans" soundtrack at kickoff.

The EA Locker feature is also new to the franchise. Sharing custom rosters with player edits is as easy as connecting to XBOX Live or PSN and typing in a gamertag. No subscription to XBOX Live is required for 360 users.

Don't Bug Me: Custom rosters is what brings us to the negative aspects of NCAA Football 09. Out of the box, there is a glitch that will cause the game to freeze when editing multiple team rosters. EA is in the process of putting out a downloadable patch to correct the problem, but it is a problem nonetheless. The patch, which is due to hit this week, will also fix the depth chart reset bug that plagued the game a year ago. Why this wasn't fixed in beta testing remains a mystery.

Sliders have often been an avenue to correct any gameplay issues in the past, but it appears the sliders in 09 are mixed and matched. Some work, most don't and there are times when working one slider appears to effect another slider.

In Dynasty Mode, you'll also notice that after the 2009 season, team schedules will revert back to 2008. Annoying, yet you can still customize your out of conference schedule. There are other small glitches that pop up during gameplay, such as statistical errors and ill-timed commentary.

Missing in Action: The Create-a-Team and Formation Subs that exist in the Playstation 2 version are still missing from the next generation series. Formation audibles and formation package substitutions do expand the variety of your play calls, but they don't allow you to utilize the depth chart the way formation subs do.

Double-number editing, a feature that has not been introduced in the series, is also absent from this year's game. With schools like USC, Ohio State, Florida, Cal, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon and others using jersey numbers on both sides of the ball, EA still makes it almost impossible to correct any default roster errors. And trust me, there are plenty of roster errors.

All in All: NCAA Football 09 is the best edition of the series for 360 and PS3. The awe of next generation graphics is beginning to wear off, and realizing this, EA has put forth the most in-depth incarnation of NCAA Football to date. The gameplay is fluid and more realistic, Online Dynasty Mode will be a hit, and the glitches that could kill the game are already being patched.

We're not fond of the arcade-style passing accuracy of the offense, and the kicking game is wide-left, but for the first time on next-gen, the feel of college football was back. The more immersive the better, and NCAA Football 09 is a step in the right direction for the franchise.


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