NCAA Football 09 (Xbox 360)
There is one basic test that every sports game should pass: It absolutely must be better than the previous version. If it's not clearly a better game then why bother putting down 60 bucks for it when the older version is sitting in the bargain bin for half the price?
This is precisely the problem with NCAA Football 09 from EA Sports. There are areas that are vastly improved from the 08 edition, from the new animations and gang tackling to the ability to import custom fight songs and stadium sounds, but there are also numerous bugs, broken features and serious gameplay gaffes that in the end make it impossible to recommend for serious football gamers.
That isn't to say that the game can't be fun. There are times when it plays like a dream, teasing you with its massive potential to be the first-rate college football experience that fans want it to be. The running game is quite possibly the best in any football game to date. You need to follow blockers, hit the hole when it's there, and generally take what the defense gives you, and with the new controls and animations it is by far the most satisfying aspect of the game. It's simply a blast to take the ball off tackle, spin past an outside linebacker, and deliver a shoulder blow to the safety for the first down.
As fun as the running game is, the passing game is a mess. Even though 09 doesn't carry with it the massive amount of interceptions that plagued the 08 version, there are still serious problems with the gameplay. The interaction between the offensive and defensive linemen is basically broken. The front four of the defense stand literally no chance against the offensive line and it doesn't matter one bit who the teams are -- you can play as Ohio State and the offensive line for a much weaker team such as Akron (sorry Zips fans) will dominate the Buckeyes' front four. Once a lineman gets his mitts on you, you're done. You can try all of the spin, swim, and power moves you want but it doesn't make a difference. To sit back and watch as powerful defensive linemen get knocked on their butts nearly every play drains a lot of the fun out of playing defense and is one of the most unrealistic aspects of the game.
EA Sports is touting its new "wide open gameplay" in NCAA Football 09and the company is certainly right -- it's very wide open indeed. Basically, the game increased the difference between players with various speed ratings. For example, in old versions of the game you could barely tell the difference between a player with an "85" speed and one with a "90" speed. You could see it but it was subtle. This made it tough to break a long gain, which is a staple of college football, because most skill players were all nearly the same speed. So it was an area that needed tweaking, but EA went too far with it.
Sure, now you can catch a pass in the flat, make a move, and take it the distance for a touchdown, but by doing this the developers broke the short passing game because linebackers cannot stay with running backs and wide outs that run short crossing patterns. It's literally impossible for the artificial intelligence to stop these routes because of the drastic speed difference between the players. Combine that with the minimal pass rush as described above and you have a recipe for disaster. You can complete 90 percent of your passes and move the ball seemingly at will and never throw it more than six yards downfield. That's a broken passing
Also broken this year is the kicking game, particularly the kick and punt returns. It may be fun for some to average 30 yards per punt return but if you want to play a moderately realistic game of football the broken coverage makes it impossible. The AI doesn't hustle down the field to cover kicks, leaving you wide open to jog 20 yards with the ball before being challenged by a defender. Your best bet is to use the Super Sim function to simulate the kick and punt returns to keep this in check.
Playing games against the AI is a surreal experience. The computer opponent is simply scatterbrained. It rarely looks to pass the ball deep, nearly always settling for those wide-open underneath crossing routes, which leads to laughably high completions rates, it has no idea where the sidelines are and will run out of bounds for no apparent reason. At times defenders seem to shut down like a battery that has run out of life -- standing there doing nothing in particular. It even tries to fake out defenders who aren't even there with a juke; this usually happens near the sidelines and looks positively strange when it happens. Running backs that run pass patterns out of the backfield will catch the ball a yard out of bounds -- and sometimes the game will rule it a completion. You may not see these every single game but they pop up enough to cause a lot of frustration.
Finally, in a true example of how messed up the game is, the gameplay "sliders" -- the settings that allow you to tweak the gameplay to fit your taste -- don't work. The sliders for human-controlled teams also affect the CPU, so trying to get it to work as intended is impossible. The CPU settings have somehow been deactivated.
The game could have been salvaged if the new Online Dynasty mode worked as intended. Being the first time EA Sports has tried something like this for the NCAA franchise you expect some hiccups. You don't expect your dynasty to stop working due to an apparent database error. You also don't expect to lose a game's data because the servers go down unexpectedly. This happened in our online dynasty after playing a 31-30 instant classic only to lose all of that data because the servers were offline. Playing a career online is the future of sports games, but this first step has proven a bit tricky, and right now it's best to wait for an update from EA before diving in.
EA Sports is well aware of the game's issues, and spokesmen have said that the company is working on a series of patches for those with Xbox Live to fix the major problems. Let's hope that happens, because there is still a lot of potential here, and if EA steps up to the plate and fixes what's broken, it will be an easy game to recommend -- the pieces are in place, they just aren't put together, yet. Truth is, right now you're paying 60 bucks to be a glorified beta tester.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.