Given the relationship between college football and the pro leagues, it’s somehow fitting that the NCAA Football series has always been overshadowed by its big brother Madden NFL. Of course, as fans of college ball know, dismissing the NCAA leagues would be a huge mistake, whether in a game or out of it. College football has a pomp and pageantry all of its own, far from the multi-million-dollar paychecks and sponsorship deals of the NFL. Fortunately, NCAA Football 11 captures the college football tradition and spirit as well as the series ever has.

There’s no real point in going deeply into the mechanics for NCAA Football 11, because if you’re even remotely familiar with the series or its NFL counterpart, you know what to expect: You play armchair quarterback-slash-coach, calling plays, making passes, and kicking field goals.

None of that has changed, though fans of the series who come back year after year will probably find that the core gameplay is more refined than it’s ever been. The new collision engine renders hits and tackles in great fidelity, the running and passing mechanics feel solid, and the ability to adapt plays on the fly by changing the length and course of run patterns is a welcomed one.

While the dizzying amount of potential plays to call and the wash of colorful symbols popping up on the screen during a pass play, it’s easy to imagine that newcomers to the NCAA Football series will find themselves overwhelmed. Thankfully, the latest iteration makes it fairly easy for newbies to still have fun with the 1-Button Mode gametype … which is exactly what it sounds like. One button hikes the ball, one button passes it to a computer-chosen receiver, one button jukes and dodges from defenders – you get the drill. The game also helpfully suggests a selection of possible plays to run in any given situation, meaning that you’ll really never be overwhelmed by having the entire variety of a playbook at your fingertips.

But you know what? Some people like complexity, and NCAA Football 11 offers that in droves with its Dynasty mode. In Dynasty, as with past career modes in the franchise, you become the coach of your college team of choice and try to lead them to glory. There is some serious detail here for the number-crunching gamer, and you’re able to set starters and other-string players, manage injury charts and who’s sitting on the bench, and even tailor your coaching style and playbook precisely how you want it. Hell, you can even create your team online without ever powering up your console.

The recruitment section of the Dynasty mode has been given a significant overhaul, and lining up the hottest high school talent requires more of an investment this time around. You’re given the option to call up prospects, make them promises and answer their questions regarding the school and its athletic program (how much play time they’ll get, TV exposure, how much support their students give the program, etc.) in order to sway their opinion.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean much, and you’ll start to see repetition in things if you tackle your recruitment obsessively, but it’s a surprisingly engaging addition that makes high school talent searches more “game-like” and less like pushing a button to recruit a randomly generated name.

While the Road to Glory mode isn’t new to NCAA Football 11, its return is welcome for those of you who couldn’t care less about number-managing. It’s the exact opposite of the Dynasty mode, in which you create a single high-school player and track his progress all through his four years of college complete with ESPN commentary.

It’s very liberating, in a way, to play a receiver or running back and not have to worry about calling plays or reading the field on a pass play – all you do is run your route and make your blocks (and tear down the field if you get a break). Constant loading times make the “management” part of this mode a bit of a pain, and it would be nice to set an entire week’s regimen at once rather than waiting every day, but it’s a fun diversion to soak up your time with the game.

It goes without saying that the presentation is stellar. The graphics look great, and every single one of the teams is rendered in loving detail – the Duke stadium beneath a cloudless August sunset looks just how it would if I drove down the road right now. The playbooks are faithful to how the teams actually play in real life, and twenty or so of the teams (out of a roster of more than a hundred) have be their own custom pre-game animations. Notre Dame slaps their “Play like a champion” today, Texas runs out behind its captain holding an American flag, and so on – they seem small, and perhaps in the long run they are, but it’s the little touches that go a long way toward giving NCAA Football 11 a solid sense of verisimilitude. You aren’t actually playing for LSU, but the game tries its best to make you feel like you are.

NCAA Football 11 doesn’t revolutionize anything. It’s tremendously solid, and a refinement and evolution of the series’ mechanics, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table – not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Let’s be honest, here: You already know if NCAA Football 11 is up your alley or not, because it’s exactly what you expect. It’s good if you like that sort of thing, and if you like the sport of football but not football games it might just win you over, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.

But you know what? Sometimes that’s just fine by me.

Bottom Line: Frequent out-of-game loading times and occasionally (but not often) repeated announcer commentary are the drawbacks, but everything else is as solid and refined as you expect from a major EA Sports title. Your favorite college teams are represented in extremely faithful detail, the Dynasty mode has enough depth to satisfy all of you number-crunchers, and 1-Button play makes it easy for newbies to pick up the basics of play before getting overwhelmed by the depth.

Recommendation: If you’re a NCAA Football or Madden NFL fan, you won’t go wrong with this. If you like football in general, it’s not a bad idea. Otherwise, rent it – you might have more fun with it than you think, but it probably won’t deliver any major surprises.

[rating=4]

Game: NCAA Football 11
Genre: Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: July 13, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PS2
Available from: Amazon

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

John Funk wants to actually start following a football team one of these days.

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