Tuesday, August 16, 2005

NCAA 2006: The Kitchen Sink Post

I spent 40+ hours with NCAA 2006 and I wanted to share my impressions with you. There are many, and they often conflict. This seems to define EA team sports games at this point in time—excellent design, flashes of brilliance, but highly uneven. NCAA this year is no exception.

First, let’s look at the brilliance.
--Home field advantage is wonderful design, and it’s very well done. It is extraordinarily hard to play on the road in highly rated HFA stadiums. Even better, those ratings for the most difficult stadiums change by year. Seeing one of your receivers run the wrong route because he didn’t hear your audible is a great moment.
--Impact players. It is absolutely correct that impact players define college football to a much larger degree than in the pros. The implementation is problematic at times, but conceptually it’s excellent.
--Ratings matter in this game. It’s fantastic to see your Dynasty team as their skill levels and athleticism improve. It’s tremendously impressive.
--College atmosphere. Just fantastic. The best crowd sounds of any sports game ever, the outstanding fight songs—it’s all here.
--Dynasty mode. This is the most enjoyable Dynasty or Franchise mode I’ve ever played in a sports game. Two different recruiting periods with different elements in each, but enough elements in common that it feels cohesive. And while the execution of recruiting isn’t without its warts (in particular, recruiting as a five-star team and above is way too easy), it’s excellent up to that point. The Sports Illustrated covers this year, which you see each week at the menu screen, are just superlative. There are even article covers as well. It all combines to create a very immersive world.

That’s some excellent stuff, A+ features in my book. I wish everything was like that.

Here are some of the warts:
--The deep ball. So this game has a huge budget and an even bigger advertising campaign, and the deep ball is a money play? Are you kidding me? Talk about sad. Now, after thirty hours I finally had slider settings that greatly reduced the problem, but should anybody have to do that?

--The playcalling A.I. is horrific. Even on Heisman, it’s possible to be successful only calling three or four different defenses a game. And the A.I. doesn't gameplan or adjust effectively to control impact players. You’d think if I had an impact receiver with six catches in one quarter that the A.I. would start double-teaming him. Nope.

It’s just as bad for the CPU offense. Do they effectively utilize their impact players? If you’re really lucky they do. Otherwise, Adrian Peterson gets six carries in a game and Vince Young scrambles twice.

This playcalling problem really pisses me off. How hard is it to track what plays the Human opponent is calling? Well, it’s not, and it also wouldn’t be hard to counter the Human opponent if he was using the same plays over and over again. But they don’t. Inexcusable.

Don’t even ask me about the two-minute A.I.—I’ll have to take nitro for my heart. A brief summary: the CPU is much more likely to try to run the ball in the last two minutes of a half or a game than at any other time. Wow, that’s, um, shitty.

--Default slider settings are just embarrassing. This game is just totally unbalanced out of the box. I put THIRTY HOURS into the game before I reached slider settings that were workable. Ninety percent of the people who play this game will never touch the sliders, and every game they play will be 48-45 with five hundred yards passing.

--The animation is also very weak. This is the most bastardized mix of multiple years of animations that I’ve ever seen. Some of the animations truly look excellent. Others just look absolutely terrible. In particular, guys just bounce off each other all the time instead of engaging. And Mario running is STILL in the game. What is that, four years in a row? How can this not be considered a priority?

--Run for the Heisman mode is just absolute CRAP. It’s a terrific idea with awful design. One little mini-game to determine your scholarship offers? And when you get into a game, you’re not even necessarily controlling yourself, but just playing a regular game? Man, that’s so poor. The right way to do this mode is to let the player participate in about twenty plays a game. And you can only control your guy—no one else. You’d watch a little sim of the game (like in Madden), then it would jump into the real game situation when one of the key plays came up. It would create tension and play quickly at the same time—having a limited number of plays to impact a game would be pressure-filled and dramatic. In other words, it would be fun. It’s no fun the way they executed it this year.

--This isn’t a big deal, I guess, but I could do without players pretending to PISS ON THE GOALPOSTS after they score a touchdown. Remember, those celebrations are illegal in college. You’ve got it in the game—it’s just the WRONG game.

--Lots of stuff that’s “in the game” isn’t actually “in the game.” Dropped snaps? Never. Fumbles on pitches? Almost never (I saw one in over fifty games). Blocked kicks? Never saw one. Missed field goals by the CPU? Even with the kicking accuracy slider on zero, I saw a grand total of ONE. Punts bouncing? Always in the same direction, always at the same speed, always for the same distance.

--Lee Corso is an abomination. Here’s what’s gone wrong with announcing in sports games: everyone felt like they had to add a third guy to the booth. That’s the color guy, and all he does is tell funny little anecdotes, sing show tunes, and bark like a dog. That shit is so tired after about fifteen minutes. Just tell us what’s happening in the game and it sounds realistic—try to whore it up and it sounds ridiculous.

Talk about a mixed bag. There are plenty of “A” features in this game, and there are plenty of “D” problems. I don’t know if the size of this game makes it inevitable that it will be uneven, but I know that it’s become a huge problem.

Here are some features or fixes I’d desperately like to see.
--The in-game sliders are conceptually unsound. A “0” setting should mean just that. If it’s quarterback accuracy, then quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to hit the broad side of a barn. If it’s set at “100”, then the quarterback should never miss. Something in between those extremes will be very playable. What’s not playable is when quarterback accuracy set to 0 is still way too accurate, or when the kick accuracy slider at 0 means kickers might miss a field goal every decade.
--Difficulty levels should not be based on speed cheats. It’s not “Heisman” level, it’s just a CPU speed cheat. How about developing the A.I. instead of just making players run faster? And there should be a slider for Player Speed while you’re at it. It’s not possible to be speed-neutral in this game, as far as I can tell. That’s conceptually very poor.
--It’s great that ratings matter so much, but the spread between the best players and the worst is too great, and that produces some really outlandish performances. That could be toned down and the game would be significantly improved. Better yet, give us a slider and we could define the degree of difference.
--Where in the world is the sim-to-end option? That’s an unbelievable omission. Having to play out a game when it’s a blowout is just ridiculous. We should also be able to watch as a game sims and jump in and out as desired.
--How in the world, in 2005, can there be no dropped snaps or blocked kicks? Good grief.
--Retire that damned kicking meter. The analog stick is a perfect way to mimic the kicker’s leg motion. And you could use the other analog stick for the holder to adjust his hand placement if the snap was off. It then looks like you’re playing a game of football instead of watching a round meter, which doesn’t feel like football at all.
--We need an accelerated clock, even with the collegiate 25-second play clock. Having twenty seconds at the line of scrimmage to make adjustments is totally unrealistic, but I can have that much time every play. I only need to call four plays a game, remember? And if we don’t need an accelerated clock, why do I have to play eight or nine minute quarters to get the correct number of plays for a game?
--Where are the in-game cutaways to highlights of big games? It would be especially cool to see highlights of a big conference game that’s taking place while your game is going on. There should be half-time highlights and post-game highlights of Top 25 games as well. That’s the kind of feature that really solidifies the game world.
--Those animations need to be sent to the glue factory. And if you can’t get rid of players pinballing and Mario running, then you need some new blood. And while you’re at it, please record some new sounds. The hitting sounds are muddy. Listen to ESPN NFL2K5’s in-game sounds—they were crystal clear and made you really feel the hits (so did their animation—you should take a look at that as well).
--Please fix the side linesman getting run over constantly. That was kind of a funny mistake last year, but it’s ridiculous that it wasn’t fixed this time around.

In the end, I had a good experience with this game, but only after putting in huge hours developing sliders. So if I actually gave a score to this game, I'd have to give two scores: first half and second half. The first half would be around 60. The second half would be around 90.

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