The first and arguably most impressive achievement of NCAA Football 11 is its "TruSchool" system, which ensures that each of the 120 schools featured are all represented the way they should be: stadiums, play books and offensive/defensive styles all in tact. If you're wondering if a facet of your favorite school is included in the game, it probably is. That goes for even those smaller schools, who may have unorthodox playbooks or defensive sets.
This means that intimate knowledge of a school benefits the player, allowing you to expertly harness that institution's potential. NCAA Football 11's true worth is in offering college football fans the experience they don't get while watching from the couch every Saturday. They get to promote the players they like, shape the offense and defense in the way they see fit. In essence, it's a justification engine -- you get to see in real time how your opinions matter, be they wrong or some kind of Don Faurot-like stroke of genius. And isn't validation what every sports fan wants?
Nothing provides more validation than "Road to Glory," a mode where you create a high school student from scratch and follow his development into and through college, playing in big high school games, hopefully getting recruited, and even working out. It's not entirely new -- I've followed a created player's development before -- but it works here, despite the gripe that you're unable to call plays while in high school.
But all the bells and whistles are outshone by "Dynasty Anywhere," a neat little piece of game-to-web synergy. In Dynasty mode, you take over a particular school and handle every aspect of the game -- recruitment, depth charts and the like. That's been done before, but through Dynasty Anywhere, you can make changes to your Dynasty team through EA's website. There's actual functionality here, such as setting up your recruitment board, and even fun cosmetic stuff like composing blog entries with highlights uploaded directly from the games you played. For example, you can check out some screens from my first week upset over Notre Dame in an online Dynasty I've been playing with some other media outlets. Neat, right?
None of this would matter if the act of actually playing football didn't feel right, though. Thankfully, players handle just like I expected: pocket passers can't stray out of the safety net of the O-line; power running backs lack the elusiveness of their smaller peers; and good corner backs pick me every time I don't toss in a couple pump fakes. Through the addition of the "locomotion" system -- which eliminates the turbo button for a momentum-based running game, giving players more realistic physics and collisions -- I found nary a canned animation.
It's easy to point to a sports game and just say it's another yearly installment, that nothing of any consequence has changed, but it feels like EA invested considerable time and effort here. The gameplay is incredibly responsive -- the addition of locomotion really makes the game feel more authentic and less arcadey like it has in the past. For football fans of either the professional or collegiate level, it's going to be tough to find an overall package that offers this much depth both on the field and in the coach's office.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of NCAA Football 11 provided by EA.