The theme for NCAA Football 10 is simple: Play the game the way it's meant to be played. Whether it's an entirely new mode or a gameplay option that helps with defensive play, nearly every addition to EA's college football series feels like it's there to nudge you into becoming a better all-around player. For the most part, these new features work well--especially if you don't understand some of the intricacies of the sport--and they're executed in a way that preserves the depth that NCAA 10 offers the pros. But even for those people who already know where to move a linebacker in certain kinds of zone coverage or how to use setup plays, NCAA 10 offers some satisfying mechanics that enhance the already fundamentally sound gameplay.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of NCAA Football's drive to reward good play is the Season Showdown mode that functions as both a self-contained mode, as well as a feature you can turn on in other modes, such as Dynasty. This mode rewards you with points in various categories for accomplishing feats during the course of a game. For example, you can earn two skill points for executing a user tackle (which means the computer didn't provide any assistance) or several points for successfully running a specifically designated setup play where you run the same play a few times before faking out the defense with something different. To put it simply, picture running the ball up the middle several times before selecting a play-action pass play that fakes out the linebackers and defensive backs. Likewise, you can also earn points for good sportsmanship, such as punting on a fourth down--again, going back to the "play the game the way it's meant to be played" idea--but you can lose sportsmanship points for trying to run up the score on an opponent. While you can't actually participate in Season Showdown-specific competitions with other players until the start of the real college football season, there are leaderboards in place that serve as ample incentive to rack up those points as often as possible. And despite the fact that Season Showdown is a little too quick to rob you of sportsmanship points (is throwing a 10-yard pass on third down with more than three minutes left that bad?), it's a fun addition that almost serves as more of a true test of skill than the typical achievements or trophies that are easily earned in simulated games.
A mode that might seem familiar to those who played last year's game is Road to Glory. Essentially, this is the Campus Legend mode from the previous game but with a new coat of paint, otherwise known as ESPN's popular field reporter, Erin Andrews. As you progress from your senior year in high school to your college career, in which you play a single position, Erin occasionally pops in with ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit to deliver some news about your career and some highlights. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Road to Glory isn't that it's mostly just a retread of modes from years past, but rather, it's the fact that the new presentation elements just aren't that interesting--unless, of course, you have a shrine to Erin Andrews somewhere. On top of that, and much like last year, playing anything other than the QB position means you have to deal with some weird passing choices, not to mention terrible play calling that's out of your control. Still, working out in practice and earning points to climb the ranks into a starting position (provided you weren't already offered it) conveys a solid sense of progression. And, like Season Showdown, the leaderboards--along with the option to import your player into other modes--help give that extra little push when it feels like there's no real point to becoming a college football superstar on your own.
One other thing you might notice about the Road to Glory mode, especially if you've selected a position on defense or the receiver spot, is that the camera is locked behind the player instead of the default near-overhead perspective. While this was similarly featured in NCAA 09's Campus Legend mode, this lock-on feature is now available in every other mode in NCAA 10, but is completely optional (if you can navigate to that option before the ball snap). It's actually pretty useful for getting closer to the action, which, in turn, makes it a little easier to spot gaps and running lanes for one your backs. If you're on defense, it's easier to spot these same things as a linebacker. However, it takes some time to get used to this new feature. Because the camera usually tries to stay behind your player, you have to be aware of the direction you're pressing in relation to the camera; you might be running toward the right, but a quick camera rotation will make you briefly run upward. Given that, it's not worth risking a big play.
Some may overlook the Road to Glory mode and head right to the meat and potatoes of the NCAA Football 10 experience: the Dynasty mode. Much like last year, NCAA Football 10 offers offline and online dynasty options (with the ability to convert a dynasty from offline to online and vice versa) with the online option allowing for up to 12 players, as well as customizable teams that can be created through the wonderfully deep and easy-to-use, Web-based Teambuilder site. As the commissioner of an online dynasty, you can rework conferences and schedules, change general settings, and advance the week if you find that other players are lagging behind. The mode is streamlined and works well, and it's especially interesting to see how other players are progressing through their respective seasons. Unfortunately, manual player recruitment is still rather inelegant because it just drowns you with information--and it's almost not worth the effort of diving into it when it can be done automatically. Of course, if you're going up against other players who are active in the recruitment process, it's fun to compete for specific prospects, yet it still feels like there's no middle ground if you don't want to take the full plunge.
It's also worth mentioning that in the Dynasty mode, along with others, NCAA Football 10 does a lot of odd nickel-and-diming for features that essentially function as cheats. Want to boost your player attributes in the Road to Glory mode? Just go buy them on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Store. Think your school needs more prestige? Throw down some more cash. All of this stuff is completely optional, but it is still inherently annoying knowing that some players are going to bite on this stuff and cheat instead of working toward those same goals the old-fashioned way of playing the game, especially when the latter offers such a great football experience.
Indeed, on both sides of the football, NCAA 10 does a lot of things right. On the offensive side, the running game is finally close to where it needs to be and an absolute blast if your team has some decent backs. There's nothing more rewarding than chipping away at the defense with a few gains up the middle--thanks to some smart lead blocking on the offensive line--and then busting a 15-yard-or-so run on the outside. Sure, there are times when an offensive lineman inexplicably blocks the wrong defensive player, but any decent running back can compensate and still squeeze out a few yards. But be aware: The refs are a little quick to throw holding flags on the default settings. As for passing, the interception problems plaguing previous versions of NCAA Football don't seem as prevalent. Yes, there are some odd stretches here and there where you throw an interception, and then on the next play, the other team throws an interception. But more often than not, a bad pass is just a bad pass, and the defense is more likely to juggle the ball in its hands than bring down the interception; depending on which side you're on, this could be either good or bad.
On defense, NCAA 10 gives you a lot of tools to help play the game properly. One such tool is the defensive assist, which puts your defensive player back into proper positioning on the field and is especially useful when engaged in zone coverage. Normally, this kind of option might seem like a cheat, but it's more of a tool to help those players who aren't comfortable taking the reigns of a defensive back or linebacker and would otherwise avoid playing defense at all costs. This is similar to another defensive feature where you key in on a specific player on the offense that's giving you problems. Veterans will already know how to compensate for these kinds of things, so these features are mostly here as a means for getting everyone else up to speed and teaching them how to play defense correctly.
But even with these assists, defense still has one glaring issue with its AI. At certain points, defensive players seem to just stand around a bit too much and not pursue the quarterback when the situation obviously calls for it. For example, on a containment play, the defensive ends will dash out to the sides to prevent the running back or QB from sprinting out toward the sideline for an easy run. But why would they continue to sit in the containment position unblocked when the offense is obviously passing the ball and the QB has been standing in the pocket for almost 10 seconds? It doesn't make much sense, and when it happens during a close game, it's unequivocally annoying.
Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions share the same issues with gameplay, but interestingly, the PS3 version seems to handle some of the visuals a bit better. More specifically, the cutscenes (that show the cheerleaders bounding around after a touchdown) take a hit on the Xbox 360 version, while the PS3 version seems to maintain the same brisk frame rate throughout most of the game. Additionally, both versions have some visual problems with replays near halftime during a late afternoon game--the lighting tends to jump around a bit and give everything a choppy look. Otherwise, the player models look good, as do the stadiums, but it's not a massive leap from last year's game.
The audio falls into a similar category. The trio of Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, and Brad Nessler is joined by Erin Andrews on the sideline, who chimes in with injury updates but not much else. The core commentary seems to have trouble keeping up with the action at times, and you have to deal with hearing Lee Corso saying "sweetheart" in the most condescending way possible. Overall, the commentary still gives it that authentic broadcast feel, but it might as well just be background noise at this point.
Despite some of these presentational shortcomings and relatively minor issues here and there, NCAA Football 10 is a worthwhile update to last year's game. The new modes and gameplay tweaks really help make NCAA Football more accessible and more exciting to play because the gentle emphasis on playing the game properly. It really opens your eyes to a whole new level of strategy that was previously buried underneath a seemingly impenetrable wall of sports simulation. And best of all, it does all of this without sacrificing the core mechanics that have kept players coming back for years. If anything, the whole game is better for it.