Preview: EA Sports' NCAA Football '12

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EA's back with another iteration of their wildly popular NCAA FOOTBALL franchise, but the same question remains: is it worth shelling out $60 to buy the new version?  Is it really that "new" or "improved"?  Ultimately that's still TBD, but there are very intriguing changes being implemented to the game that make it seem like it will be a solid purchase this year. 

There are the usual slew of presentation enhancements that EA crows about every year and no one notices after they've played a half-dozen games: "revamped" graphics, better tackling animations, increased ESPN integration, even more detailed "traditions" (like the Oregon mascot riding a motorcyle as it leads the team onto the field).  Changes like that are well and good, but they're not the sort of thing that anyone notices for very long.  

However, there are some announced changes that have the potential to alter gameplay pretty significantly -- and in very exciting ways.  The first is the addition of customized playbooks; that's actually something that EA had incorporated into prior versions of the game for the previous-gen systems, but this is its first inclusion in current-gen systems.  Given the incredible depth and variety of the playbooks in recent years, having fully customizable playbooks should enable players to create extremely creative and diverse playbooks, which should reduce any boredom that could result from playing with your favorite team's same old playbook year in and year out. 

The second exciting change is the inclusion of fully customizable conferences.  Spurred on by the conference carousel that resulted last summer when the Big Ten and Pac 10 went into expansion mode and other conferences scrambled to survive, EA's new feature enables players to create conferences that reflect their every whim.  Want to kick Vanderbilt out of the SEC and replace them with Troy?  Done.  Want to relegate Iowa State to the WAC and send Central Michigan to the Big Ten?  Done.  Want to create a blue-blood super-conference with Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Nebraska, USC, Ohio State, and Michigan?  Done.  You can mix-and-match the conference alignments to your heart's desire, which could be a lot of fun. 

Finally, the third intriguing change is the option of starting Dynasty mode as an assistant coach, working your way up the coaching ladder, rather than immediately starting at whatever coaching job you most desire.  Other sports games have implemented this concept in the past, but this is the first time it's appeared in the NCAA FOOTBALL series and it could be a godsend for the gamer who doesn't just want to take over his favorite team and guide them to five consecutive national championships, but who would instead prefer to take a longer, more scenic road to the top.  Choosing to start as an assistant coach even alters the way you play games, since you're only able to control the side of the ball that you you coach (choose offensive coordinator, run the offense; choose defensive coordinator, direct the defense).  It's just adding an interesting new way to play Dynasty mode, which is well-appreciated.