NCAA Football 11: 120 Ways To Win

EA is putting the focus on the field for its next college football game and we've got an in-depth look.

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If you ask the developers of NCAA Football 11--the latest in the long-running college football series from EA Sports--they'll tell you that there's 120 ways to win in the game. Of course, they aren't referring to some strange set of rules changes that will somehow change the sport of college football; instead, they're talking about the different play styles that define the real-life sport and will look to have a major impact on this year's game as well. At this week's NFL draft festivities in New York City, we got our first look at NCAA 11.

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College football playbooks and the differing styles that teams use even when using similar formations are one of the best-loved aspects of the game. Some teams run the option while others run the increasingly popular spread. Some teams think about ball control and killing the clock, while others look to catch the other team off guard by running a no-huddle offense. How players react to these different styles of play looks to be a big part of the gameplay in NCAA 11, as all the teams in the game will run authentic playbooks and play styles.

A crucial aspect of NCAA 11's play styles is the fact that you can expect the CPU to play the style of the team it's controlling. After all, when playing a human opponent online, you need to be prepared for anything; in NCAA 11, you'll need to have your head on a swivel for a smarter CPU opponent that will play the style of the team it controls. If the CPU is controlling a no-huddle team like Missouri, for example, you can expect to see the CPU running a no-huddle offense trying to wear down your team or find favorable matchups on the field if you aren't able to change your on-field personnel. Team play styles will be front and center in the game's menu. So even if you decide to play as a team that you're not familiar with, you'll have a quick snapshot of their playbook and style of play to refer to (which also serves as a handy guide for scouting a team you haven't faced before).

A new play-calling screen gives you more in-depth access to your playbook and lets you quickly cycle between different formations by pressing up or down on the D pad, which is handy when you're running the no-huddle offense yourself. There are also button shortcuts for quick access to special teams or goal line plays that we found to be very handy. As in previous years, you can still organize your plays by formation, coach's suggestion, or by play type, but the ability to choose plays by individual player has been removed. The game-planning system that was a big addition last year is still in NCAA 11, with a few new added categories on offense and defense (such as deciding how to play against mobile quarterbacks on defense or how aggressively you play no huddle when on offense). In addition, you'll still be able to set plays up as you did in NCAA 10.

On the field, perhaps the most obvious change in NCAA 11 is the lighting--for lack of a better term, the players, the stadiums, and especially the replays have a more cinematic feel to them. Small details like self-shadowing on players helps here, and we found ourselves pausing to watch replays, which is something we'd button through like mad in previous years. New skin textures bring a more realistic look to the players, and there are a lot of depth-of-field camera tricks that bring the action on the field to life.

There are also new transition shots in between plays--such as new crowd and sideline animations, as well as on-field interactions between players (sometimes on opposite ends of the football). The authentic ESPN College GameDay television style presentation is also a big boost to the look of the game, though, as SEC fans, we couldn't help but wonder how much better things would look if the game also included "The SEC on CBS" television presentation (Full Disclosure: CBS owns CBS Interactive, of which GameSpot is a part). Considering CBS' presentation was part of last year's NCAA Basketball 11, it's no small stretch to imagine that it might be part of next year's NCAA Football 12.

Graphics aside, however, there are other gameplay changes in store. The locomotion system, which has been discussed at great length as an addition to Madden NFL 11, will also find its way into NCAA 11. We felt its effects on gameplay practically from the beginning of our time with the game. Players made frequent stutter steps, and they leaned into tackles to try to break them. Spins (controlled with a Fight Night-style twist of the right stick) also felt more responsive and accurate than ever before. The enhanced right-stick controls, also a new aspect in Madden 11, tie into the improved locomotion of player movement to create more responsive players all over the field. There's still the situation where you feel you've been sucked into a protracted animation--such as during blitz plays when your quarterback gets eaten up and you can't even get rid of the ball--but they're fewer and further in between than in the past.

Depth of field tricks bring life to the gridiron action.
Depth of field tricks bring life to the gridiron action.

Locomotion changes have also resulted in a different way of looking at players in the game, especially with regard to three important attributes: agility, acceleration, and speed. Players with high speed--traditionally the most sought after attribute--won't necessarily be the best player for a particular position. That's because attributes like acceleration (how quickly a player can get up to speed from a full stop) and agility (how quickly a player can change directions) have been changed to be far more important and effective than before.

This can make for some significant changes depending on the position. For instance, a defensive lineman with a high top speed rating isn't nearly as valuable as a lineman with high acceleration, considering the distance he has to travel. Conversely, a wide receiver with good acceleration and only decent speed might be ideal for middle-distance routes (when he can get some early separation from his defender) but terrible at long routes (when his defender has time to catch up to him). Developers said that the increased importance of acceleration and agility should make dynasty recruiting a more in-depth experience because you'll need to look for players whose attributes fit their roles on the field.

When asked which of NCAA 11's features he'd most like people to know about, EA Sports' Ben Haumiller pointed to the new option blocking, which, according to Haumiller, has improved the option playbooks a great deal. He uses the triple option as an example: In addition to blocking assignments being clearly spelled out in the playbook, after the snap, the quarterback will stick the ball in the halfbacks gut and run along with him, giving you the time to keep your eye on the defensive end who might or might not be coming down to try to interrupt the play. If the end bites and crashes down, you can keep the ball and run with it; if he stays in position, you can hand the ball off and let the back do his thing.­

During our time with NCAA 11, we managed to play a full game between our Auburn Tigers and the Michigan Wolverines. It was a matchup that featured two teams that play very similar styles of football--both run the spread and both use no huddle liberally. We were pleasantly surprised, however, to find out that the CPU Wolverines weren't running no huddle the entire game; instead, they chose the precisely correct moments to keep the momentum moving, such as after a big gain when the defensive players were tired. Having to deal not just with the problems of matchups but also the deteriorating stamina of players who have been on the field for a while lends new depth to the gameplay.

As much as we liked last year's NCAA Football 10, some of its features didn't always make a whole of sense (*cough* Season Showdown *cough*). While we've yet to see the full feature list for NCAA 11, we can say that the early focus on things like locomotion improvements, right-stick controls, and even the long-awaited formation subs means that the team at EA Tiburon is listening to the fans what matters most: gameplay. We'll have much more on NCAA Football 11 in the coming months.

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