As a teenager, EA Sports' NCAA Football became a late-summer tradition. Before you were able to snag team rosters online, I took great pleasure in learning about that year's crop of college talent by manually changing all the players' names in the game -- even the guys from Buffalo and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Now I'm staring down the barrel of 30 and I have no shame in telling you that I'm just as excited now about video game college football as I was when I was 12. I'm continually impressed year after year with how far the franchise has come, and how incredibly realistic it is. I think to myself, I deserve this. I've put in my time. I've suffered through choppy gameplay, so-so graphics (in retrospect, of course) and some entirely lame playbooks. Today, the playbooks are almost identical to those the real college teams run.
Despite some of the criticism about the game's playbooks, formation subs and lack of a spring game in the dynasty mode (all things that should be addressed), I will always love this game. Sure, I have a wish-list just like anyone who plays NCAA Football with any regularity. But this year's game is a definite improvement on last year's. On offense, the pre-snap controls have never been so user friendly, and the dominant players stand out just enough. On defense, they've added the ability to gang tackle and the option to kick your secondary into aggressive mode to increase their chance of getting an interception at the risk of giving up a long play.
The NCAA Football 10 playbooks seem as though they've been tightened up, and many of the fringe formations that teams may have run a few seasons ago have been weeded out.
I decided to spend the bulk of my time with the game this past week on the "Road To Glory" (RTG) feature -- and no, not because Erin Andrews appears continually throughout to sing your praises (that is, your virtual self) every step of the way with non-specific highlights and recaps.
"Road To Glory" is set up to follow one player -- which you control -- through high school, through the recruiting process and throuhghout his college career.
Naturally, I created an exact replica of myself in high school -- a 6'3", 195-pound quarterback with blazing speed. My RTG version of Kevin Allen breezed through four games of the Illinois state playoffs with Aurora High School -- only because they didn't have Batavia available. (Really, EA Sports? No Batavia? It's the No. 56 place in the country to live!)
After my high school career I had plenty of scholarship offers. I could have served as third string in the swamp behind Tebow for No. 1 Florida. Of course, I chose the Harvard of the Midwest, the University of Missouri. They offered me a chance be Blaine Gabbert's backup for the unranked Tigers. (Really, EA Sports? Unranked Mizzou? I realize you've made the right choice here logistically, but my heart is telling me to feign righteous indignance.)
It took me only a matter of weeks for RTG Kevin Allen to usurp the No. 1 quarterback job by earning enough points in practice. Apparently, Gary Pinkel didn't like what he saw from Gabbert in the team's 35-7 loss, and opted for a quicker set of feet to run the spread.
After taking over following the Illinois debacle, the Allen-led Tigers went on to dominate the Big 12 North, and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl where we eeked past Utah.
For virtual Kevin Allen, it was your average 1,100-yards rushing and 3,700-yards passing season, which was good enough to propel him past faux Tebow to become the first freshman in NCAA football history to win th the Heisman.
But let me tell you, Allen's road to glory was paved in some epically poor play calling from the virtual coaching staff. If they had it their way, I would have run poor Allen up the gut at least once per every four downs. And there were more than a few third-and-longs where I had to audible out of a halfback counter or an ill-advised screen. I cannot stress enough how frustrating it is to not be able to call your own plays in the RTG mode. Plus, the ability to manually put receivers and backs in motion is disabled. So the lesson here is to make sure you've got your audibles in order because your coach is going to call some jacked up plays that will make you question whether man, the species that created a machine to beat Bobby Fischer in chess, will ever devise a machine that can out-coach a football connoisseur sitting comfortably on a couch.
With the Road To Glory mode, you're faced with a pair of daily tasks: First there's practice and your choice of evening events. Practice, which consists of running 10 randomly selected plays, is pointless after you've gained enough practice points to win the starting job. The evening options (which you never actually have to watch your RTG player doing) include going to to the library (you have to maintain a rigorous 2.0 GPA -- even if you've signed on at Northwestern!), go see the trainer, hit the gym or study your playbook. Each boosts your attributes in a different area. After a while, the novelty of this wore off and I just became more and more eager to rack up stats to impress the algorithm that determines which player wins the Heisman. So I've resorted to just simulating from one game to the next, pausing only briefly to admire my stats and find out which of Chase Daniel and Brad Smiths' records I can smash next.
When you play well in a game, Erin Andrews comes on in all thier BluRay clarity to praise you while Kirk Herbstreit offers his non-specific analysis of your performance on the field. Even when you play terrible, Erin and Kirk tend to praise you -- which is a bit infuriating after you've just tossed four picks against Texas because you were trying to play while you were talking on the phone to your mom and your cable company while trying to manipulate a piping-hot Toaster Strudel.
Road to Glory also lacks a very necessary "convince your coach to go for it on fourth down" option. I understand trying to keep the in-game strategy close to the real thing, but if it's fourth and three on the 45 yard line, you'd better belive I can hit a tight end on a crossing pattern over the middle. There were also a few times where I drove the ball down at the end of a half only to realize the faux coach wasn't going to call a timeout to kick the field goal, opting instead to allow me to look like a moron by letting the clock run down.
Despite these flaws, I have to say that the idea of creating a story line in the game is compelling and fun. You customize your player's appearance down to the wristbands, socks and brand of helmet. There are leaderboards to see how your player stacks up against others in the country.
But for the NCAA Football faithful, we don't keep buying the game year after year for the new bells and whistles. I would have been much more prone to get excited about the RTG feature 11 years ago when my friends and former teammates were actually going through the recruiting process. We keep buying the game every year because we want to know what it's like to run an offense like Florida's with a player like Tim Tebow at the helm.
And while playing a video game could never compare to actually playing or watching a college football game live, you tend to realize from time to time when you're playing this game exactly why it is we so adore Saturdays in fall.
Kyle and I have yet to throw down in our soon-to-become-annual Mizzou-Michigan State Sports Pros(e) NCAA Football braggin' rights showdown extravaganza, but when we do, rest assured that I'll spare no detail of my inevitable victory. For more on NCAA Football 10, we interviewed its designer, Ben Haumiller, a while back.