First impressions: NCAA Football 10 (360)

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I had a lot of Erin Andrews in my life over the weekend. Not because I wanted to simply ogle the ESPN sports reporter some have dubbed the “Sideline Princess,” but because she’s a central part of one of the game’s more intriguing features — the Road to Glory. It’s a takeoff of last year’s Road to the Heisman and the college football franchise’s long-standing equivalent to Madden’s career / superstar mode.

The premise is that EA (the woman, not the company) has picked you to be part of her special series, which aims to follow the path of a student-athlete and his accomplishments from his last days of high school to the time he leaves college. It has a kind of Hoop Dreams sentiment to it, but with more flashing lights and graphics. You obviously have to suspend reality a bit here, since we’re talking about four to five years of work, and this is the kind of stuff that usually shows up in dramatic documentary form after the fact. Also, a lot can happen in that time: What if you stink up the joint and never start a game in your life? Hell, what happens if you’re completely average? In the real world, you probably wouldn’t be worth a story.

At some point, I want to see how Road to Glory handles a clearly unglorious prospect. Perhaps one day we’ll see a concept of building a player in college who is “followed” by Andrews or any other sports reporters from the first time he steps on the field (NCAA Football) to the day he retires from the NFL (Madden), culminating in some sort of retrospective report. It adds a bit of role-playing, something I think can be undervalued in the world of sports games. Imagine having your path from college walk-on to NFL superstar chronicled in a larger scale sports fantasy series. Just a thought.

Anyway, the following are some random musings from a weekend with EA:

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- Play-wise, I don’t see a huge change from last year in terms of progression. You create a player, then you start during the high school playoffs. The better you play, the higher-rated you become as a prospect for colleges. Five-star prospects get all the big schools like Florida, USC or OSU checking them out (depending on where you’re from, OSU could mean a variety of schools. Sort it out among yourselves, but all of them came to see my prospect. I’m an Northeast Ohio transplant, so I mean the Buckeyes.) Through the matter of sheer game-playing experience under my belt, I managed to turn myself into a top prospect and get wooed by the big schools. Some schools would offer you a chance to walk-on, but I haven’t seen how that process works.

- I find it harder to land a starting spot as a true freshman as a running back rather than a quarterback. I wonder if this is a result of the perception is that you can always find someone to run the ball, no matter how good they appear to be in high school. More and more colleges are running the spread offense now, so perhaps they are even more likely to jump on someone who can throw than someone who can line up in the I. I’m probably thinking too much about this.

- I like how Oklahoma, Georgia and USC are willing to start me from Day 1 at tailback, but Nebraska, Boise State and Miami (Ohio) need me to earn my lumps with the third team. That was funny.

- It might be because I haven’t played EA football in a while, but running the ball seems to be a bit cleaner than in years past. I’m a big proponent of the sound execution of the running game in a football title — to me, it’s the meat of the experience and carries the opportunity for the most moving parts on a screen. If that’s not right, then you’re taking the enjoyment out a large part of the game.

- I’m enjoying the pre-game planning, where you can instruct facets of your offense and defense to be aggressive and nasty or be more conservative. I’m having a lot more fun on the defensive side of the ball, where you can envelop a swarming front seven in the bubble of soft zone coverage from the defensive backfield. Or you can just go old-school smashmouth and tell your guys to destroy anyone who has the ball … at the risk of big plays, of course.

- On that note, the “setup” concept of the playbook is nice wrinkle. Some of the plays in the playbook have little chain links connecting them, which means one can set up the other. The more you use one play, the more you set up the other. Once a play is 100 percent setup, it means there’s a good chance the D won’t see it coming. I was able to setup a huge playaction pass, but wasn’t quite able to score out of it because of a bad open-field cut on my part. This concept does, however, open up an avenue of playcalling where you can have a smattering of plays being set up all over the book … it’s something to keep in mind for the more organized football fans among us. I hope this ends up in Madden.

- Wow. The ball moves way too fast when you’re throwing from the QB perspective. It’s almost arcadey.

I’m going to start keying in on how adaptive the AI really is, as well as use more of the instinctual defensive tools pertaining to defending the run or shutting down particular guys on offense. Space limitations in the paper prevent me from squeezing all this stuff in to the actual print review, so hopefully I’ll be able to jot down more stuff as I move through the game.