Black College Football: The Xperience Review (Xbox 360)
It has been two full years since a non-EA football sim was released on a Xbox or Playstation console –- five if we disregard 2K Sports’ one-and-done All-Pro Football experiment. No doubt, then, that football fans have been waiting with open arms to embrace any sort of competitor to EA’s continued stranglehold on the genre.
But does Nerjyzed Entertainment, an upstart company with a single neglected PC game in its portfolio, have what it takes to tackle the EA football giant that, for 20 years, has dominated the industry with its massive advertising campaigns and multi-million dollar development budgets?
The answer, at least for this year, is no. While developer Nerjyzed nails the "Xperience" of spending a Saturday afternoon at a HBCU football game, it still has much work to do before it gets the "Football" part of its title up to par with the giants of the genre.
Popping in Black College Football: The Xperience (BCFX) and running through a basic "Play Now" game feels a lot like hopping into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and flashing back to the early era of football games -- a time before hot routes, hit sticks or formation-specific audibles, where acceleration and momentum were unheard of and "twitch skills" were more important than "stick skills."
BCFX players can forget about memorizing a multitude of button combinations on either side of the ball because, while the genre’s usual assortment of spins, stiff arms, trucks and jukes are present, none of the special moves really matter since it’s much easier to zig-zag past defenders with the analog stick -- much like with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl.
When combining the game’s instant acceleration with its unlimited turbo and turn-on-a-dime physics, users will quickly discover that, once they get the ball in their hands, they're able to jitter around the field at top speed for the duration of any play, leaving the computer players and their poor pursuit angles in a cloud of dust. Essentially, once users adjust to the game's old-school running style, they will routinely be sprinting around the entire CPU team for a score Tecmo Bo style, to the point that a good player should be able to put up 10 or more touchdowns against the CPU -- by the end of the first half.
In short, the field of play seems so wide open in BCFX that you can't help but feel like you've failed anytime a play does not go for a touchdown.
Poor defensive pursuit make long touchdown runs the norm, not the exception
Unfortunately, BCFX's AI is just as inept on the offensive side of the ball as it is when attempting to play defense. Unlike recent EA football games, CPU quarterbacks in BCFX have a lot of difficulty reading the blitz and getting the ball out while under pressure, allowing users to pile up the sack totals. If users are feeling extra greedy, they will quickly discover that it’s possible to take control of a talented nose tackle and sack the CPU quarterback on virtually every play by swimming past the center and crushing the QB before the AI even contemplates passing the ball.
The one counterbalance to the game’s ramped-up pass rush is that the line play is equally bad on both sides of the ball, meaning neither the CPU nor human players will have much time to sit back and pass. Basically, the interior linemen do a decent job picking up defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers, but the offensive tackles literally just stand and jog in place for the duration of most pass plays -- they seem to lack the programming necessary to drop back and form a pocket around the quarterback.
User catching, however, gives players yet another major advantage over the CPU. This is because the catch button in BCFX triggers a sort of "magnetic" effect that is powerful enough to alter the path of the ball mid-flight, to the point that a pass sailing 20 yards over a receiver’s head can drop like an anvil out of the sky as it gets caught inside a user-catch’s magnetic pull.
While CPU players do have a decent set of "magnet mitts" of their own, they are nowhere near as powerful as the Imperial Star Destroyer-type pull that users can force on the ball by simply pressing the catch button.
But as boring and lopsided as the CPU games can be, playing BCFX against human opponents tends to result in back and forth games with big plays and lots of high-scoring.
The constant threat of sacks, coupled with the battling magnetic forces as two players fight over thrown balls, makes the game's intense and unpredictable gameplay a positive. Usually the player who outjumps and outruns the other is crowned the victor with a basketball score of 56-63.
No pass is ever out of reach thanks to receivers' physics-defying "magnet mitts"
For as wild as the head-to-head experiences can become, it’s a shame that BCFX includes zero online options. While the game does offer solo players a bare-boned season mode with minimal stat tracking and depth charts that don’t even include special teams, it’s hard to believe that gamers would want to clash helmets with the boneheaded CPU for a single game, much less an entire season.
While the actual football in BCFX still needs a summer or two in the weight room before it’s ready to compete with powerhouse franchises like Madden and NCAA Football, Nerjyzed's rookie effort does an excellent job capturing the history and traditions that make HBCU football a unique experience –- better, even, than EA does with its own roster of colleges and universities.
To that point, the effort put into BCFX's halftime shows really outshines the rest of the product. Whether users decide to tear up their carpet floor as an unofficial member of the dance team or plug in a Rock Band or Guitar Hero drum set to fill a spot in the band’s drum corps, it's hard not be entertained by some aspect of BCFX's lively halftime shows.
As the average HBCU marching band is worlds away from the kind of music featured in games like Guitar Hero, drummers are in for a completely fresh experience if they choose to pick up the sticks in BCFX, which features songs that range from funky R&B beats to traditional military tempos.
BCFX's bands aren’t just there for the halftime festivities, either. While the game disappoints in its exclusion of many of the HBCU’s heralded "fifth quarter" band battles, BCFX at least keeps the brass sections blaring all throughout regulation, which helps maintain the game's party atmosphere from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
BCFX's marching bands bring excitement to what's otherwise an average football game
Off the field, BCFX scores another victory with its excellent Museum mode, which offers images and videos from over a 100 years of HBCU football, including detailed histories for each of the game’s 36 schools. Biographies for a number of HBCU legends, like Jackson State’s Walter Payton, Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice and cover athlete Doug Williams of Grambling State University, further solidifies the Museum as a fine display of HBCU pride and pageantry.
But for all the positives that occur while the football’s not in play, BCFX's on-field presentation simply contains too many faults to call the game a well-rounded football experience.
The grass, fans and stadiums, for instance, all look sharp, but the detail put into them seems to be a major reason why slowdown and frame-rate drops plague key moments of the game.
While not yet up to the quality of Madden or NCAA Football, BCFX's player models look respectable, despite being disproportionately large from the waist up.
And while there is tons of clipping going on during pad-to-pad contact, the player animations are very solid, with some nasty looking hits and a nice variety to the linemen scrums.
Even the play-by-play from ex-WWE announcer Jonathan Coachman feels natural, aside from the few times where Doug Williams decides to chime in with one of his "Maddenisms" and ends up talking over Coachman's commentary track.
The bottom line is that if the developers could just solve the clipping issues and figure out how to maintain a steady frame rate, BCFX could definitely look and sound like a true contender in the future.
Being Nerjyzed's first try at football on the Xbox 360 (and only the studio's second videogame overall), Black College Football: The Xperience, in spite of its problems, has to be considered a success.
While the game has a number of flaws, Nerjyzed now has a foundation in place that -- assuming it can be built upon next year -- could have the franchise ready to compete with Madden and NCAA Football next season.
With improvements to the AI, some attention to a few graphical issues and the addition of key modes like online play and multi-season dynasties, BCFX could easily become a yearly franchise that captures the attention of HBCU alums and football fanatics alike.
Old-school gameplay mechanics like the straight-line, "blocking wall" need to be brought up to date if BCFX is going to compete with the big boys in 2010
But for now, Nerjyzed's console debut is limited to being a niche title that's best-enjoyed in the company of friends, especially those who have a tolerance for imperfect games.
On the Field: BCFX mixes the X's and O's of 21st-century football games (think NFL 2K1 to NFL 2K3) with an arcade flavor that feels like it's straight out of the 1990s (Tecmo Super Bowl, Genesis-version Madden).
Graphics: Everything looks fine until the ball is snapped -- then comes the clipping, the slowdown and the over-the-top catching animations.
Presentation: The bands sound just as good as they look, with a great library of marching tunes brought to life by intricate halftime choreography. The excellent HBCU Museum helps put the game’s "Xperience" into the proper perspective.
Entertainment Value: Solo gamers need not apply, but those with regular access to human opponents -- either in-house or via speed dial -- should find a fun alternative to EA's football juggernaut.
Learning Curve: BCFX copies Madden's control scheme button-for-button (minus the hit stick and hot routes), so football fans should be able to pick up the game right away. That said, the game engine in BCFX is so simplified that you really only need to know how to run, jump and tackle.
Score: 5.5 (Slightly Above Average)