It seems awfully appropriate that this year's entry in the NCAA Football series feels more like a free-spirited college game than ever. The timing really couldn't be any better. Up in the pro ranks, the NFL is headed toward a potential work stoppage for the 2011 season, and unless every big college football school in the country discovers that its student athletes totally didn't read Sense and Sensibility before writing their book reports, the amateur game will continue as always. As a nice bit of contrast to all of that serious collective-bargaining business, this year's NCAA Football is all about visually capturing the energy and eccentric team fandom that is unique to the college game.
For the team at EA Tiburon, doing this involves some substantial changes to the game's presentation. As one example, you'll find new team introductions geared toward showcasing the mascots and pregame rituals that make each team special, whether it's Texas students walking a live longhorn out onto the field, Georgia's English Bulldog Uga sniffing the grass like he's looking for somewhere good to mark his territory, or the Oregon Duck riding onto the field on a motorcycle. (Hopefully they won't grow too repetitive when you're playing a full season with your team of choice.) Other additions to the festivities include conference-specific broadcast packages and fully 3D crowds designed to reduce the cardboard cutout audience look.
NCAA Football 12 will offer a number of other presentation changes, as well. There's an HDR lighting system that, if it works according to EA's promise, will do a better job of adjusting the exposure levels on the fly when the game camera sweeps from sunlight to shadows, or vice versa. And in taking a page from this year's Tiger Woods game, the grass is all rendered in 3D blades rather than a flat textured surface. You'll actually see those blades come flinging up from the ground when a player takes a hard hit to the floor, though there is a certain shag carpet effect at certain times in terms of just how long the grass looks.
Most of what EA showed us was focused on the visual upgrades, though we did get to see a little bit of what Tiburon has in store for gameplay tweaks. As crazy as it sounds, one of the introductions to this year's game is a tackle button. Think of it as an alternative to the dive button and the hit stick when playing on defense: a more conservative option when you don't necessarily want to go for the home run. It'll work in a revamped tackle animation system that Tiburon hopes will eliminate the artificial look of players floating into tackling position before making the big play. This seems like one of the more subtle changes that only diehard fans of the series will pick up because the animations themselves aren't drastically different from last year's.
Right now, we're intrigued by some of the ways that Tiburon is trying to capture the festivities of the college game. The new intro celebrations are slick, and the revamped lighting gives an otherwise familiar graphics engine the chance to pop a bit more than in previous games. Now, we're left wondering what's in store for the new game modes and changes to existing game modes. Last year's game took some criticism for not doing much with previous game modes, so it seems like now would be a great time for the developer to complement the revamped presentation. We'll see what's in the pipe as we get closer to NCAA Football's summer release.