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NCAA Gamebreaker 99 (PSX) Review

Publisher: 989 Sports
Release Date: Summer 1998

Background Info

This year has been a banner one for Playstation football enthusiasts, with a wide array of pigskin games released for the 1998 season. Whether you prefer the arcade madness of Midway's NFL Blitz, or the simulation qualities of Madden 99, chances are you found something to your liking. Among these titles was EA Sports' NCAA Football 99, a spectacular sim of the college football world. Sony's 989 Studios enters the fray again (after the earlier release of NFL GameDay 99) with their own take on college football, NCAA GameBreaker 99 (GB99). Past versions of GameBreaker have been generally well-received and Sony hopes to continue that trend with GB99. Do they succeed? And more importantly, can this game stack up to the excellent NCAA Football 99? Let's take a closer look and find out.

Graphics : 80
If you have seen NFL GameDay 99 in action, then you have seen GameBreaker 99. They use the same graphical engine and apart from the uniforms and stadiums, they are virtually identical. The players have impressive details, including some wonderful shading effects. There are noticeable differences in the size of players too, for example among lineman and receivers. The uniforms are for the most part pretty accurate, though once again, as in GameBreaker 99, the logos on the helmets are a bit too small. But nit-picks aside, the players look wonderful on the whole. The problems begin to arise when you see the animations given to these players. As with GameDay 99, there simply is not enough variety in the animations. Tackles almost always end up looking the same, with the ball carrier being knocked flat on his back. The occasional wrap-tackles also show little variation. As in all the past Sony football games, stiff-arming your opponent will not simply fight him off, but leave him laid out flat on his back in the most unrealistic of manners. Other animations have been added between actual plays, such as player taunting (a no-no in the NCAA) and walking to the sideline during a timeout. These are nice and add a bit to the immersion effect of the game.

The stadiums are nothing spectacular, certainly not on the level of the masterworks included in NCAA Football 99. The crowds are flat, seemingly just drawn on top of the stadium graphics. And, much to my dismay, the 50 yard line stripe is drawn OVER the midfield logo. Ugh.

While certain people may prefer the detailed players over those in NCAA Football 99, the shortcomings in the animations tip the scale towards the EA game, in my opinion. Couple that with the lackluster stadiums (sterile is the word that comes to mind), and GameBreaker 99 is a bit disappointing in the graphics department.

Audio : 80
Sony scored a major coup in signing Keith Jackson to do GB99's play-by-play. Jackson's is THE voice most associate with college football, and his love for the game shines through in each game he broadcasts weekly to a national television audience. In some regards, Sony's signing of Jackson is as impressive as EA Sports' landing John Madden for their NFL football series. So how does Jackson come off in GB99? Unfortunately not so well. For one thing, his speech is often halting, sometimes ending abruptly in mid-sentence or seeming to skip a word or two of text. In nearly every game he will refer to a team that is not even playing in the game (usually Air Force is the culprit). In fact, if you have played GameDay 99 and heard Phil Simms do the color in that game, you have a very good idea of how Jackson sounds. Even his unbridled enthusiasm is reined in here; he often sounds downright subdued. Now don't get me wrong, I still love having him in the game, and anything sounds better than the sleep-inducing tandem of Pat Summerall and John Madden in Madden 99. It's just that he should be a much bigger positive factor than he is in GB99.

Sounds on the field are pretty well done, including the vicious sounding hits and grunts one associates with football. But will someone please tell Sony to come up with a new sound effect for crowds? They have been using the same one since the original GameDay, a horrid sounding, incredibly short loop that just grates on the nerves after a few games. I can't believe they have not upgraded this effect through four releases of GameDay and three versions of GameBreaker.

Fight songs are not, as far as I can tell, played during the game. Instead they are limited to being played while you peruse a certain team's stats page. And to top that off, they are pretty horrid, being obviously synthesized rather than being actual renditions played by a band. With all that fight songs add to the atmosphere of college football, this is yet another glaring omission in GB99. The only music played during a game is a generic bit of forgettable percussion.

Interface/Options : 80
With a quick, effective interface, GameBreaker 99 continues the trend that Sony established with GameDay 99. These are nothing flashy or spectacular like EA Sports often incorporates into their games, but the quicker load time between screens more than makes up for any lack of panache. With the simple push of a button, you will almost instantly be taken to the next screen. There is something to be said for simplicity and efficiency, and Sony comes up aces here.

There are other improvements as well, including weekly updates on player awards (such as All-America, All-Conference and All-Freshman teams) and nifty little "homepage" for your team. This shows you an update on how your team is performing and if any of your players are in contention for any of the individual honors. Also included in the game are the Heisman Trophy and other (generic) awards, such as Quarterback Of The Year. A Top 25 poll is naturally included, though the way the teams flip-flop in the ratings will often leave you scratching your head.

Statistics are once again a problem for Sony. A quick glance is all you need to know that individual stats for each player are not tracked. Rather, you can look at the top 100 performers in each category. This is quite a glaring omission given the incredible statistical depth EA always crams into its sports titles. The entire stat screen is a bit cumbersome, given the fact that you can only see two stats as a time. In other words, when viewing rushing stats, you may see yards gained and TD's, but not yards per carry. A push of the button reveals 2 more stats. Even then, some important stats are missing: want to know how many receiving yards a receiver has for the season? Too bad, it's not there.

Other problems crop up as well. Any substitutions you make during a game will not be saved; be prepared to do them each and every game. Given the incredible roster management in EA's football games, this is a glaring omission. Unfortunately that is not the only area where Sony dropped the ball as far as saving your settings is concerned: audibles are also not saved and must be entered each and every game. Again, given the competition, this is simply unacceptable.

There are the usual different modes of play, including scrimmage, season with Bowl games and season with a tournament. Also included is a "fantasy mode" which is interesting if nothing else. Here you are awarded points for statistical accomplishments, defined to your liking.

Along with the usual adjustable difficulty settings, GB99 also allows you set the effectiveness of the CPU's running and passing, both on offense and defense, as well as its overall IQ. This is a neat feature that I wish other football games would incorporate. Game speed is also adjustable, something that will please many of the picky football gamers out there.

The usual Create Player feature is included. In addition, Sony thankfully has included a schedule editor, allowing you to not only play a different schedule each and every season, but to schedule the opponents of your liking. This is a very welcome addition to the GameBreaker franchise.

In an effort to compete with the Dynasty Mode included in EA Sports' NCAA Football 99, Sony has come up with what they call Blue Chip Recruiting. How does it measure up? Quite simply, it does not. While it allows you to recruit freshmen or junior college transfers for your team before the season, the seasons do not continue. After that season, you just start a new, different season. You never get to see your new players develop and become seasoned upper classmen like in NCAA Football 99. Without this, the Blue Chip Recruiting mode seems like a cheap, last minute add-on to compete with NCAA 99's Dynasty Mode. Overall the interface of GB99 is a decidedly mixed bag. While certain aspects are wonderful (the speed between menus and the adjustability of the CPU's game), others are woefully lacking, such as statistical depth and savable settings.

Gameplay : 75
The best thing one can say about GB99's game play is that once again the Total Control system has been incorporated into the game. For those unfamiliar with Total Control, it is basically a way to give you extra moves while running with the football or extra touch while passing. It also gives you some more options on defense. By holding in the L2 button, you can make the ball carrier do some amazing things, such as high stepping and diving over the pile. You can also make your QB deliberately overthrow or underthrow the ball. And on defense you can try to force fumbles and go for one-handed interceptions. This level of control on both sides of the ball simply lets you do things you can't in other video football games.

As with GameDay 99, the actual game play has more than its share of problems. For example, once again the punt returner will field any punt, anywhere, even when common knowledge dictates you don't field a punt inside your own 10-yard line. This has been the case in every version of GameDay and GameBreaker and it is high time Sony does something about it.

The Artificial Intelligence has tons of problems on both sides of the ball. On offense, dubious clock management tendencies occasionally pop up, along with some downright peculiar play calling. Defensively there are far too many gaps in realism. Passes can easily be completed into tight coverage, mostly due to loose zone coverage by the defensive backs or linebackers.

The game plays identically to GameDay 99. Passing is by far the easiest way to move the ball on offense. Running is possible, but difficult to really establish. Breaking off runs longer than 20 yards is very rare. The problem with the running game is the complete ineptitude of your offensive line to block defenders. Almost immediately upon receiving the handoff or pitch, your runner will have someone right on top of him. Holes close very quickly, causing anything other than sweeps or pitches to be a bit of a gamble. Passing is much more effective, due in part to loose coverage. Total Control passing can really help you exploit defensive backs or linebackers that are giving your receiver too much of a cushion. Additionally, the relative ease in which you can catch passes in a crowd makes passing the ball a much more viable option.

On defense, rushing the QB is usually ineffective. Your best bet is to select a middle linebacker and just play the middle of the field for either the run or pass. Tackling is far too easy, often letting you make a play even as you are being held by an offensive blocker.

Like GameDay 99, the game play in GameBreaker 99 is far more arcade-like than its competition from EA Sports. If you are looking for a sim, you will probably be disappointed with the game play here. If you are looking for fast, furious action, GB99 may be right up your alley.

Difficulty : 70
As with GameDay 99, Sony has once again confused cheating with difficulty. Changing to higher levels of difficulty will simply make the CPU better than you. Its players will be faster and harder to bring down than yours. The result is that while yes, the game is more challenging, it is even more infuriating. You will be tempted to do some very bad things to your TV screen as you watch CPU runners pinball of off your would-be tackles, CPU receivers haul down passes in traffic that make New York City look sparse, and CPU defenders track down your ball carriers as if they were standing still.

The problem is that the easier difficulty settings give you a more fair game of football, but that AI is so full of holes that you will usually romp your way to an easy win. And increasing the difficulty will not improve the AI, but will tilt the playing field unfairly against you. Those same receivers that were so open on the easier setting are still there, but the defensive backs will close far more quickly and the receivers will often have the ball jarred loose or just flat out drop it. Your already ineffective offensive line will become even more inept, allowing defenders to pounce on your ball carrier the second he touches the ball. Your defenders will be tossed aside like rag dolls as they try to make a tackle. And so on. In my mind this is a cheap substitute for real AI and increasing levels of difficulty. Yes, you will always be able to get a challenging game, but at the expense of any semblance of realism.

Overall : 77
With GameBreaker 99, Sony's 989 Studios has created a decent football game that may have been much more palatable a year or two ago, before the bar was raised by this year's EA Sports titles. But with Madden 99 and NCAA Football 99 readily available, the sins of GameBreaker 99 are far less forgivable. With serious AI problems, difficulty issues and many options that are either missing or poorly implemented, I can't recommend GameBreaker 99 to anyone looking for a serious football game. Fans of arcade football may want to give NCAA GameBreaker 99 a look, but others should be wary.

By: Jim S. 11/16/98

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