Year Two Improvement: Last year’s Wii-specific releases from EA Sports were uneven, occasionally awkward affairs. Forced to program new engines from scratch to fit Nintendo’s groundbreaking action-play hardware, Electronic Arts released just four games for the nascent console: the perennially popular Madden NFL, NBA Live, FIFA and Tiger Woods titles. Reaction proved mixed. NCAA Football 09 is the first game for the Wii in Year Two of the EA Sports marriage, giving the sports sim leader an opportunity to tweak, fine-tune and overhaul where necessary. In the end, the college football game depends heavily on the Madden NFL 08 engine but ratchets up the gameplay speed for a faster-paced and generally more casual (read: pleasant) experience.
Tecmo Rose Bowl?: EA Sports has pumped up the “wide-open gameplay” of NCAA Football 09 throughout the game’s promotion and with good reason. With bigger holes, more cutback lanes and speedy scatbacks galore, NCAA Football 09 frequently feels like NCAA Football 89 -- from the fun, poppy presentation, to the bang-bang gameplay, to the default three-minute quarters to the game’s throwback, arcade-like feel. While this might turn off some gamers who enjoy the thousand-button realism of more recent EA Sports offerings, it will thrill the NES generation whose sports gaming passions were weaned on action-driven titles like Tecmo Bowl and Ice Hockey.
A Game For All Ages: Those who played Madden NFL, NBA Live or FIFA for the Wii have become familiar with EA Sports Family Play, the underappreciated feature which allows novice players to compete against experienced users without pandering to either party. When starting a game, users can choose either Advanced or "All-Play" (as Family Play has been re-coined). Advanced players control dozens of gameplay aspects down to every last exhaustive detail, while All-Play users control basic movements like snapping, passing, tackling and kicking -- but the computer’s AI takes care of the rest. It ends up working much better than it sounds on paper.
The Option: In many college football games, running the option is a real thrill. That’s doubly true for NCAA Football 09. And thanks to the action-play element, a player actually has to swing his Wii Remote at the proper time to run the play to perfection. The improved response time between the Wiimote and the console in this instance is a huge benefit. There’s a considerable emphasis on option plays in NCAA Football 2009 -- even the computer opponents run them routinely.
Lots of Teams: One hundred years ago this season, the University of Pennsylvania shared college football’s national championship with Louisiana State. While the Quakers may have fallen behind the Tigers in gridiron reputation over the past century, NCAA Football 09 lets you help smaller schools like Penn close the gap in Dynasty Mode. Take control of the Philly school or any other Football Championship Subdivision program and face off with any of college football’s big boys. Or if you’re feeling particularly frisky, bite the bullet and make the jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in Dynasty Mode. (Hey, UConn did it!) There’s no shortage of features in this game. It’s got almost every trapping you could want: nearly 200 different schools, authentic stadium models, fight songs, 50 alternate uniforms and so on.
Check out NCAA Football 09 in action:
Things We'd Change
Where’s My Locker?: The most-talked-about new feature on the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of NCAA Football 09 is the EA Locker, which allows free and easy roster access through your console whenever you’re online. This allows players to share created roster files with other users or download rosters from friends. Anybody who’s owned a college football or basketball game -- particularly somebody who’s painstakingly entered the rosters of their favorite team manually -- knows what a revolutionary breakthrough this is. Too bad Nintendo users can’t enjoy it: EA Locker is mysteriously absent from the Wii version of the game. Which brings us to...
Complete Lack Of Online Mode: That’s right. No online mode whatsoever. In 2008, that’s just rubbish.
Where’s The Party?: I noticed EA Sports opted to ditch many of the mini-games and party modes which have become increasingly prevalent on their Wii releases. (Remember Ronald-Mii-nho from FIFA?) While I admit I was never huge on these perceived tack-on features, those expecting a healthy-sized batch of new football-related party games will come away disappointed.
Too Casual: More serious gamers might be turned off by the game’s irreverent presentation. Borrowing from the casual stylings of games like NFL Street, many of the menus and on-screen displays feature faux hand-written text and randomly placed smiley faces. Stuff like this is littered throughout NCAA Football 09. I actually think it works within the tone of the game but I can’t deny it’s a little distracting during the first couple of runs through.
BACK TO SCHOOL: Nothing says college football season is around the corner like the arrival of EA Sports' annual juggernaut of a title, NCAA Football. The action is more wide open than ever this time around though the degree of difficulty is a bit higher as well. You'll have to know what you're doing to succeed this time around, but that just makes the big plays that much more satisfying.
RESPECT FOR TEBOW: Florida's No. 15, Tim Tebow, the only sophomore to win a Heisman, is rated a 99 across the board and is a hoss to bring down from the dreaded "Gator Heavy" formation. NCAA 09 does noble work in bringing the Urban Meyer "Spread" offense to life with Tebow at the helm. Though the learning curve is steep, once you figure out how to get the ball to your insanely fast receivers in space there's no stopping you.
INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN: Florida's No. 1 receiver, Percy Harvin, is a god in this game. During a Dynasty season, he averaged 50.1 yards per punt return. But it's not just Harvin. Virtually any return man with some speed can get into the clear and return a kick or punt to the house. This adds a tasty extra dimension to the game and helps compensate for how tough it can be to score on the higher difficulty settings.
BMOC: The Campus Legend mode isn't perfect but it will maintain your interest long enough to rack up some easy achievement points on the 360. Create yourself at any position and dress up in your old high school colors to play in a state tournament. Once you win that, you pick from among dozens of scholarship offers to either start or back up as a freshman. In college, you can decide to spend time working out, doing homework or studying your playbook, and your decisions affect your attributes. The games themselves are fun too because you can fast forward to when you have the ball. The only complaint I have is that the play-calling can be too predictable (student body left, student body right, etc) and if you picked any position other than quarterback you can't call an audible.
WHAT GAME ARE YOU WATCHING? That's what your wife/roommate/girlfriend will say when they see this game on a high definition TV. The graphics are that good, bordering on photo realistic. Bravo job by EA on this front.
MASCOTS GALORE: Upon reaching the end zone, you get an extra few seconds of time to run around and find your school mascot. Go up to him and a sweet animation will kick in. With Albert the Alligator for instance, you put the ball in his mouth, he does a dance and then spits out the ball and does the cabbage patch.
THIS IS SPORTSCENTER: You can create and save up to five video highlights at a time from any game in any camera angle you want and then upload them for online viewing. It takes bragging to your friends to a whole new level, though on the downside I have to say that the upload for videos took several minutes. Another highlight for Live users is the online Dynasty mode, so you can have the best of both worlds -- playing online against your friends while building your program.
Check out NCAA Football 09 in action:
Things We'd Change
TOO MANY PICKS: Throw into double coverage and it's an automatic interception. Float a ball over the middle for a post pattern and it's an interception. In fact, do anything other than hit a wide open man on the sideline or the flat and you're probably going to be throwing a pick. There are just too many turnovers in general, and my suspicion is that EA did it on purpose to compensate for how ridiculously hard it is to play defense straight up, which leads me to ...
OK COMPUTER: The CPU is just annoying to play against. Human opponents take chances and often hurt themselves with aggressive play-calling. But good ol' CPU couldn't be any more conservative. Game after game of watching the CPU throw unstoppable 5-yard square-ins and slants and matriculating the ball down the field will make you want to pull your hair out if you are playing on anything above Varsity difficulty level. I couldn't even stop Vanderbilt on 3rd-and-12 because the CPU consistently completed passes right at the first-down marker. I finally figured out a way to force an occasional punt: Go to dime and nickel defenses on first and second downs, then do "Super Sim" for the third-and-long.
SACK DANCE? Rushing the passer is just way too hard. The "finesse" and "power" moves don't do anything to evade the burly offensive linemen. The only way to get a sack is to do the Lawrence Taylor move around the tackle and hope the quarterback scrambles into you.
NOWHERE TO RUN: Too often my running back is tackled as soon as he gets the ball. What am I supposed to do here? You're better off passing and running the option the majority of the time and sneaking in a conventional run now and then.
RECRUITING: The recruiting mode is a little overdone if you ask me. Actually having to call every single recruit and having a clock tick on how long you talk to them is too much. There is a low-maintenance level that makes for a fun recruiting experience, and EA has achieved that in the past with this title, but this time around it's better to automate your recruiting season after you set your targets in the preseason.
SUPERMAN? I ran a play in which Tebow failed to gain any yardage at all running up the middle, which is preposterous. Not only that, but he was slow getting up, almost as if he were injured, which is impossible. And Tebow being intercepted is just not acceptable. Nothing can stop Tebow from dominating. EA Sports should know that.
Though a bit frustrating at times, this is once again a must-own game for any college football fan. The graphics alone make it a nice eye candy game, with the dozens of stadiums rendered to near-perfection. The animations of the individual players are extremely varied and more for a more realistic experience than ever. You'll feel like the season is already here once you start playing.