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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NCAA Football 12 Dynasty Mode and Road to Glory Impressions

Day One: Gameplay and Presentation Impressions
One aspect of NCAA Football 11 that had the community in an uproar during the weeks following the game's release was the progression issue that found its way into Dynasty mode pre-patch. For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, after multiple years the dynasty recruits, specifically kickers, would enter the game with extremely low ratings. The result was a sharp decay of a team's overall ratings as the years progressed, as well as CPU kickers that struggled to hit extra points and short field goals. Many rejoiced when the eventual patch was released in August to fix this issue while also adding season player progression. However, others were left disappointed after the patch, claiming recruits still never seemed to blossom to their full potential, and lower-tiered teams would fade into obscurity because they could not recruit top talent.

I spent the better part of two days dissecting Dynasty mode progression this year, not stopping until the simulations reached the year 2025. Well, what a difference a year makes. But before I dive into everything related to NCAA 12's "career" modes, I first want to briefly touch on the game's incredibly deep custom playbook feature. EA has given would-be coaches the ability to create up to 30 playbooks that can be packed with up to 377 total plays. This customization is incredibly deep, especially considering these playbooks can be used in Dynasty mode and online, allowing you to carve out an offensive or defensive identity. This is especially important considering this year's game contains the long-anticipated Coaching Carousel.
Dynasty Mode

Coaching Carousel

The Coaching Carousel takes Dynasty mode in NCAA 12 to another level. Asked for by the community for years, this addition to NCAA's most-played game mode is enough to justify a purchase for hardcore college football fans. As many of you already know, when you first begin your dynasty, you will either create a coach (via some extremely limited creation tools), or assume the role of an existing coach in the game. You are then given the choice to take the reigns as an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or become the head coach of a specific program. You are then able to import a custom playbook, which is a great touch when creating a coach from scratch.

The final step in shaping your destiny is deciding what coaching prestige you would like to start at, anywhere between one and five stars. The prestige level you choose will determine the initial teams lining up to offer you a job, so don't expect to step into the head coaching role at Alabama if you decide to create a one-star coach. While many will disagree, I do like the freedom of choosing your own destiny by setting your starting prestige level. This system allows those who want the challenge of taking over a three-star school like Central Michigan to experience the rigors and challenges of advancing up the coaching ranks without being stuck rebuilding a one-star school like Eastern Michigan. In essence, the ability to choose remedies one of my biggest complaints with coaching carousels in other collegiate games. It is an awful feeling when you get stuck with a garbage team you have no interest in, grinding out games until you get the opportunity to leave.

The coaching position you decide to accept will determine how much of the actual on-field gameplay you will be charged with running. Offensive coordinators will only play offensive downs, defensive coordinators deal with defensive downs, and head coaches handle both sides of the ball. If you are not controlling offense or defense, you can either Super Sim or watch from the game's press box view.

Your coach will then be evaluated after each game, and each season, based on a list of goals set by your school's athletic director. These goals range from beating rivals to throwing or rushing for a certain number of touchdowns in a season, all weighted differently should you succeed or fail these goals. The more prestigious jobs come with higher expectations, and a job security meter has been implemented into a separate menu screen in Dynasty mode. From this hub, you can constantly check in to see how your coach is doing, and you can also spy on other coaches throughout the NCAA that may be on the hot seat. This is a great tool should you be hoping a certain job becomes available at year’s end, but make sure you are meeting your goals and keeping your AD happy, or you will find yourself unemployed -- a truth I found out the hard way after becoming the head coach of Wyoming and losing every game to my rivals and top-25 teams by 20-plus points.

At the end of each year, you will be taken to the Coaching Carousel screen, implemented as the last item of business to attend to before beginning a new season. From this screen, you will see every coaching vacancy in college football, whether it is a coach’s contract expiring, a coach outright being fired, or a job opening becoming available because another coach left for a better position. To be perfectly honest, when the Carousel was first announced, I was worried about the hiring/firing logic, specifically that too many coaches would be fired on a yearly basis regardless of their overall coaching rating. I'm very relieved to say that the Coaching Carousel logic is top notch, and you can tell that EA developers did their due diligence to polish this feature.

For starters, you will see firings that make sense: 6-6 is not going to cut it at Florida State two years in a row, time to bring in Connecticut's offensive coordinator who led the Huskies to a 10-2 record and an Orange Bowl victory. CPU teams tend to consider candidates that run similar styles of offense and defense, but don't be surprised to see teams completely change things up. In my simulation, Wake Forest went to a full-on Georgia Tech option attack by year five after hiring an offensive coordinator from Navy. The best part of the Carousel is that after a certain number of years you start recognizing the coach names, so you either get to watch the mighty fall or witness young obscure upstarts rise to the upper echelon of the coaching ranks.

Jobs offered to user coaches make just as much sense as those offered to the computer, and there is a certain sense of addiction to the mode that I have not felt in years because there is always the thought of where you might get an offer from next year. After starting as a one-star, spread-happy offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan, I was offered the offensive-coordinator position at Hawaii after two years with the Eagles. While at Eastern, our team struggled to win four games each year, but my offense was dynamic enough that the Warriors took a chance on me once their OC left for a head-coaching job at Bowling Green. After my offensive schemes at Hawaii led the squad to a 10-2 season, I decided to leave the Warriors to become the head coach at Wyoming. And, as I mentioned, the wheels fell off after year one, and I was fired, eventually winding up as an OC at Indiana, which led to my current head-coaching job at Pittsburgh.

What I really enjoy about the Carousel is that my coaching rating is tied directly into reaching my goals, with winning counted as a bonus -- no ridiculous hoops to jump through or head scratching advancement logic seems to destroy the mode. Win, achieve your goals and I guarantee you will be getting offers in the offseason and become an A-plus rated coach/coordinator in a five-year span. Make sure you hold out for the job you want as well because sometimes an offer may come across the table with a personnel set at a certain school that does not match your scheme, or worse yet, an AD with some unrealistic goals and a one-year contract (like winning eight games with a C-minus rated Wyoming team, what was I thinking signing that?). How you shape your future is completely up to you, and as I said before, this is the most addictive career coaching mode I have played in a sports video game.

I do have a couple very minor gripes about the revamped Dynasty mode. The biggest is that while having the option to become an OC or DC is a blast, you are given far too much control over your team. Coordinators still are able to recruit, and you are even able to dictate the team's coaching strategies, complete with offensive and defensive schemes and aggressiveness. Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure real coordinators do not have this type of control over their team. It would have been nice to see EA lock out these abilities until you are a hired as a head coach -- you can ignore certain coaching elements if you want to "fake" things to keep things realistic. I found myself setting recruiting to CPU assist during my days as an OC, maybe making a pitch or two to an offensive player I wanted to join the squad, and then just sitting back and worrying about my offense.

My other issue with the mode deals with a design decision made by the NCAA team. As a coordinator, the game does not track your wins, losses, bowl games, national titles or any other stats (these stats are tracked only when you are a head coach). The only categories you will receive credit for are winning seasons and if any of your players win an award or are selected to the All-American team. I know coordinators typically do not have their wins/losses tracked, it just would have been nice to have some sort of documentation of your coordinator's successes/failures at a certain school, or perhaps even a total yards for/allowed type of statistic that could be included in a coaching yearbook.


I have very good news on this front for hardcore dynasty fans, also known as those OS posters with a billion posts. During all the years I simulated in Dynasty, the only issue I witnessed was some small-scale recruit hording at bigger-named schools. The best example of this was that at one point LSU had three 90-plus rated quarterbacks on the active roster: a senior, junior and redshirted junior. This really did not create an issue with the integrity of the dynasty like in the past because there seems to be a much larger recruiting pool this year. Even with LSU's QB trifecta, I was hard pressed to find any big-name program or mid-tiered school in a power conference with a QB rating lower than 80. There truly is an even distribution of talent in this year’s game, and I expect to see some parody from year to year in the rankings. Connecticut developed into a powerhouse, winning a national title, and teams like Michigan State (YES!), Alabama, Oregon and TCU were all hovering around the top five on a yearly basis.

Scouring through depth charts, I was also very pleased to see that every school had the required number of players as the years progressed, and that these players had realistic ratings, even kickers. EA must have taken the criticism of kickers to heart last year because kickers this year are routinely some of the highest-rated players on a team, and the highest-rated overall recruits each year -- no more botched 15-yard CPU field goals or extra points.

Incoming position recruits typically max out right around an 80-82 overall if they are five-star prospects. Before you start complaining that this is too low, realize that in-season progression coupled with a well designed off-season progression system will have stud recruits pinging the mid-90s by their junior year. If you really think about this, it is incredibly realistic. Most freshmen in college football can come in and make a solid impact on a team, but few would be considered 99-rated overall game breakers until they are in school for a year or two. Several of the top players that came in as five-star recruits walked away with the Heisman, and these same players were consistently some of the best players statistically each year. Even two- and three-star recruits that eventually maxed out in the mid-80s could be found regularly in the top five of each statistical category, leading me to believe there will be quite a few diamonds in the rough come signing day.

Simulated Stats

Realistic simulated stats is an area where EA has really found its mark this year. I was blown away when reviewing the statistical leaders each year of my dynasty because they were eerily similar to how the numbers looked when compared to real stats. One stat that especially caught my eye was QB completion percentages, which max out in the 65-70 percent range (last year’s leader, Dan Persa, checked in at 73.5 percent). Because of the robo-QB issue, past years of NCAA led to multiple CPU quarterbacks routinely falling into the 75 percent and above range versus the 66 percent range real quarterbacks typically fall into. Even more impressive than the QB completion stats are the simulated QB rushing statistics. It is now commonplace to see a spread or mobile QB rack up 1,000-plus yards over the course of a season, which is a breath of fresh air after last year’s lack of rushing CPU quarterbacks.

In short, the statistics in NCAA 12's Dynasty mode are consistently solid. Outside of one year where four quarterbacks rated in the high 90s threw anywhere between 47-51 TD passes, and only five players returned punts for touchdowns, I did not notice any anomalies that immediately stood out. Simulation statistics are always the truest testament to how a game's CPU AI plays, and NCAA 12 is on the right track.

Complete Conference Customization

One of the hidden gems when it comes to NCAA 12's Dynasty mode is the ability to completely customize conferences at the start of every season. You will be able to create super conferences of up to 12 teams, edit bowl tie-ins, protected rivals, determine if teams play on weekdays and even determine the names of each division within a conference. The entire experience is a dream come true for would-be college football czars, and you can literally spend hours crafting the NCAA that you determine. My personal favorite setup? Creating the old Southwest Conference and then dumping Notre Dame into the Big Ten to bother my wife, the Notre Dame elitist that she is. The combinations are endless, and there is tons of fun to be had in both online and offline dynasty.
The Road to Glory

If any game mode received love from the team at Tiburon in NCAA 12, it would be Road to Glory. Taking a role-playing game approach to the player's career mode has added some much needed depth to a mode that has been mostly forgettable in the past. You now must earn the trust of your coach in order to audible, hot route and eventually call plays, and you can upgrade your character's attributes and move sets once he reaches college by spending XP points earned during practice and games.

I would not be doing my job if I did not mention my favorite addition to the on-field portion of RtG: being able to play iron man football. Now you are able to choose an alternate position on the other side of the ball, and you will be independently recruited at each position. CPU play calling has also been revamped so you will not see as many boneheaded calls from your coach -- finally making positions like wide receiver worth playing.

For as many meaningful additions present in this year's RtG, by far the most significant is the ability to import Teambuilder squads into the mode. What EA has essentially created within NCAA 12 is a completely separate high school football simulator. With the ability to play a full 7-12 game season, importing your area's high school teams means you can re-create your entire senior year to rewrite history. You can even change the difficulty of each imported team on your schedule to better represent your respective high school career.

It's difficult to describe the amount of joy I felt as my virtual player suited up in my high school Birmingham Seaholm Maples football jersey circa the year 2000 to take on the rest of the MHSAA OAA Division 2 and other area teams. Thanks to the efforts of Kotaku's Owen Good, and a dedicated Teambuilder user base around the country, you will likely have no issue finding your high school already created on the service. Unfortunately, I did not get the same rush of excitement once my created player had made it to college. While the mode is still fun, and it's great to see your player advance, nothing can compare to the high school experience in my eyes.

On the field, this year’s RtG mode feels like it has for the past couple of years, gameplay enhancements aside. Even so, what the NCAA 12 team has done with RtG this year is a perfect example of how upgraded immersion and player customization can trump actual on-field gameplay in a career mode. Even if you have never been a fan of this mode in past games, you owe it to yourself to spend at the very least a full high school season playing. I've enjoyed this game mode so far, and I can see myself going back and playing multiple positions before I buckle down and stick with Dynasty mode.

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