Thursday, July 24, 2008

NCAA Football 09: The Disconnect Between Reality and Review

Yesterday, I discussed the gameplay of NCAA Football 09, which is unfortunately badly broken. To review, let's take a quick look at the list:

Game design:
--speed differences are greatly exaggerated (breaks basic gameplay)

Special teams:
--kickoff and punt coverage (horrendous)

--CPU quarterback completion percentage (way too high)
--CPU quarterback pass selection (almost no deep passes)
--CPU quarterback response to blitz ("psychic" power)*
--CPU quarterback (ineffective as runner)
--CPU running game (ineffective)
--CPU running backs (overuse of jukes and special moves)*

--CPU defensive line (unable to pressure quarterback)
--CPU defense (unable to play man-to-man coverage)
--CPU defense (pursuit angles totally broken)

--penalties (almost none called)

Please note the * by two items: QB response to blitz and RB overuse of special moves. These are subjective evaluations, and hence have a different designation than the other items, which are easy to objectively document.

It's not difficult to see all of these gameplay issues. It doesn't take an expert or a perfectionist. All it really takes is some basic familiarity with college football and an open pair of eyes, because these issues are very, very obvious. Bill Abner (the dean of sports game reviewers) was one of the earliest people in the country to have a final copy of the game, and he quickly documented many of these problems.

If you go to Metacritic, though, the average review score is 84, based on 12 reviews!

84? What?

Out of curiousity, I read these 12 reviews, and noted how many gameplay issues were mentioned. As a reference, I listed 12 separate items in the post yesterday. Take a look:
1UP (score 9.1):
--"What's with the tackling angles? Instead of pressing us to the sidelines on All-American difficulty, we'd sometimes score an extra 20 yards."
--"CPU players sometimes wander out of bounds even with 10 yards of daylight."
--"One thing we're not high on: The new Ice the Kicker feature. If you call a time-out before a game-deciding field goal, the camera angle will change and the meter will literally show ice on it, making it harder for the kicker to hammer it through the uprights. Problem is that the angle goofs up a clear look at the goalposts, which is a bit strange."

Games Radar (90): none. Not a single word of criticism, actually.

ME Gamers (86):
--"The runner sometimes seems to run in the opposite direction for a moment while taking over the defence."

Gamer 2.0 (8.6):
--"There are some minor issues, such as pass defense being rather non-existent when in control of your defense on All-American difficulty or higher.""

Xbox Addict (8.5): none.

Official Xbox Magazine (85): none.

Team Xbox (8.5):
--actually, they throw this in as part of a larger quote praising the game: "The good news for all of you frustrated 08 players is that NCAA Football 09 is a much more dynamic and realistic affair from play to play. We’re not talking engine reinvention, of course. Yes, there are still stick-‘em catches, choppy animation breaks that upset individual player control and some underhanded tactics by the rubbery AI. Even non-elite running backs can drag their way to a first down in two plays. But it will still be clear a few plays in that a fair amount of work went into making NCAA Football 09 feel more like a real college contest looks on-camera."

IGN (8.5):
--"some cuts won't always be as smooth as you'd like them to be, particularly if you're moving laterally during an option. As a result, you'll find that either your player will sometimes move backwards during a juke or spin before they run forwards, making you lose yardage even if you're pushing up on the analog stick to direct the move. Additionally, their momentum will sometimes carry them out of bounds instead of making a cut up the field for a gain."
--"'ll find that a number of times your players will drag their toes near the sideline even though they've still got a couple of feet to go before they near the sideline."
--"You'll also find that many offensive receivers or halfbacks will get stuck on teammates as they go into motion, making it a little trickier to effectively pull off these plays because the timing of the play is thrown off."

Cheat Code Central (84): none.

Game Informer (83): review not online.

Gamespot (75):
--"When the game's on the line, you can now call a time-out to "ice" the kicker. This moves the camera down behind the kicker, which makes it tough to aim and literally puts ice on the kick meter. It's extraordinarily difficult to make even a short kick if you've been iced, which is completely contrary to what happens in real life, where the tactic has a minimal effect on the kicker."
--"Defenders seem to have been slowed down a bit, so you'll see a lot of long touchdown runs if the ball carrier gets past the first wave of defenders, the secondary simply can't catch up."
--"Huge plays are also common because there are too many broken tackles. Players often slip out of defenders' arms as if they've been coated in oil or bounce off 300-pound linemen like they're made of rubber."
--"You'll still get stuck in long animations and sucked into defenders by some magical, invisible force even if you're madly pressing buttons."
--"'ll be victimized by receivers who have an uncanny knack for getting open and who almost never drop the pigskin."
--"Although receivers have no problem getting open, they still have the propensity to catch the ball short of the first-down marker..."

GameDaily (70):
--" On offense, your team can put on a showcase, giving you wide-open routes to run into the end zone. Play on defense, however, and you'll occasionally find yourself cursing at the screen after letting a receiver slip right through your fingers when you swear you had him in your sights."

Many of these reviews sounded much more like previews, barely even mentioning the reviewer's own experiences while playing the game. Good grief!

What's particularly amusing (and discouraging) is that some of the highest scores were given by reviewers who both touted the brilliance of the online dynasty feature AND couldn't possibly have tested the online dynasty feature, because the servers weren't even up before their reviews were published.


The reason this is such a problem is that by (in many cases) writing glorified previews and slapping an "85" or higher on the game, it gives EA an escape hatch. Why, the game's getting excellent reviews, so there must only be a "few hardcore gamers" who aren't satisfied. That quote should be coming out of the gaming equivalent of a diploma mill shortly. The people doing these reviews, in large part, are screwing us, because nothing is going to change as long as they keep ignoring gameplay.

A few of the game's developers have been answering posts in the Operation Sports forums, and that deserves credit. I'll give them more credit if they release a gameplay patch that addresses most of these issues, and do so before it's so late in the season that nobody cares. Two questions remain, though: how in the world was the game shipped in this condition, and how in the world have almost all reviewers missed or ignored these problems?

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