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NCAA 2001 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: July 25, 2000

Background Info

Screens #2 (20)

Screens #1 (20)

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The end of Summer is just around the corner, and we all know what that means. Months of bliss are approaching for the college football fan. The college game serves up the most exciting brand of football on the planet. EA captured that excitement and bottled it up in their NCAA Football series. And with the 2000 season fast approaching, EA delivers NCAA Football 2001.

This year expect more of the same - you will get all the Division 1 teams and stadiums. So if your alma mater is among the selections, coach the school to a national championship. Or simply build a strong program through the incredible recruiting system. This may be the last hurrah on the PlayStation before the series moves to the PS2. Is it the best?

Presentation/Graphics : 90
I have to put my PlayStation glasses on first. There we go. OK. The last console football game I played was NFL2K on the Dreamcast. In fact, I've been playing plenty of Dreamcast games lately, so it takes about an hour for my mind to get adjusted to the graphics of the PlayStation. Now that I'm adjusted, I can tell you that NCAA Football 2001 is standard NCAA fare.

Throughout the NCAA series, the emphasis has been on tuning rather than radical changes. Going from the '99 to '00 version, player models changed to reflect the relative sizes of the various positions. Furthermore, some additional animations were added to spice things up a little. For the 2001 version, the game is evolutionary and not revolutionary. Honestly, there is little new here to make you stand up and go "ooh" when playing.

If you have never played any of the NCAA titles, what you can expect are perfectly modeled stadiums. The Volunteers' stadium features its trademark orange and white checkerboard pattern in the end zone. Team logos, where appropriate, are displayed on the field. Whether it is an indoor or outdoor stadium, it is modeled with intricate detail from stadium risers to scoreboards. Even the crowds are modeled well. I played most of my games as the Rice Owls, and the crowd was sparse. This delivers that extra sense of realism (unfortunate for Rice). In contrast, head down to the Swamp or Michigan Stadium and you will find a packed house.

Animations are varied as tackles come in all types of flavors. Tackling ranges from the traditional drive-your-helmet-into-the-belly to shoulder tackles and flips. The only time animations break down is in the receiving game. Passes down the field are magically grabbed out of the air. It's only during the replays that you may actually view outstretched arms reaching for the ball.

Presentation/Audio : 99
No other game on the planet has ever captured the total essence of the moment like the NCAA Football series has. In this day and age of sports games having play-by-play and color commentary from a television style crew, NCAA Football offers a refreshing change. Even someone like the venerable Keith Jackson could not improve on the sound in the game.

This year the sound is again superb. The only voice commentary comes from the public address announcer. After each play you get just the facts, "Number 23 stopped for no gain." It is a case where less is more. When you watch a game in person and don't have a radio or TV with you, that is all you will hear. Well, you will hear more. And you do in NCAA Football 2001 as well. Crowds cheer with the action, and at times the silence is deafening. Marching bands play fight songs to perfection and even other tunes along the way. Now if they would just implement half-time shows.

I was blown away during one game when playing a game with Florida State and Virginia Tech on FSU's turf. After a great play by me, playing as FSU, the crowd burst into a loud cheer. Then under the din I could barely make out the beginning of the Seminole war chant. The crescendo was obvious as the chant grew to fill the entire stadium.

On-the-field plays have great sound as well. Quarterbacks bark out calls and audibles. Tackles sound painful when the helmet hits a player or the player hits the ground. Referee whistles are realistic. When a penalty is called, the referee turns his microphone on and you sense the sound of the stadium speakers. NCAA Football 2001 should be the standard used for all sports games.

Interface/Options : 90
NCAA Football 2001 has several game modes. Football is played as an exhibition game where you select the teams, or as seasons or dynasties where you select the team to field. The season mode is a single season, whereas the dynasty mode lets you play multiple seasons, complete with recruiting. Both of these modes have season ending bowl games, such as the Orange and Sugar. The game will also pass out awards for the best offensive and defensive players by position as well as the Heisman. For the impatient, the Tournament mode throws you right into the post season. Battle it out for the title with a single or double elimination tournament.

In addition, the game has a situation mode where you set the parameters of a game and play it out. When I first saw the term "situation mode" I was jazzed that a mode existed in the game that put me in historical situations. Wrong. This mode simply brings up a screen where you set the score, the time remaining, and any other necessary information and play the game to its end. It is your job to come up with the situation. There is no built-in library, such as Colorado's unbelievable Hail Mary against Michigan.

You can also take your team to the practice field to get the hang of the controls, which have not changed much since the inception of the series. In fact, the basic moves are all the same as past versions. The exception is the inclusion of the Advanced Player Control (APC). This feature adds a few extras to the game. With it, you control a player on offense from the snap to a dead ball. If you play with his feature, the game prompts you to select a player to control once the offense is at the line of scrimmage. If you select a lineman, you can power block with the L2 button or hold block with the L1 button. As a receiver you can call for the ball with the circle button. While an interesting concept, I found the feature useless. On running plays I found myself wanting to run the ball rather than attempting downfield blocks. As a receiver, I would constantly call for the ball to no avail. The QB would dump the ball off to another receiver more times than not. While it was fun running pass routes, the fun wore thin with no receptions.

Fortunately for me, the schools I attended (I am a former Wolverine and Owl) play big-time football (well, Rice tries at least). My schools are represented. But what is one to do if your favorite team or alma mater is not in the game? What if you are a Wichita State grad and are bummed the school cut the football program? Just put your university president hat on and utilize the create a school feature in NCAA Football 2001. You can set everything from school location, enrollment, and mascot to the fight song.

I have always had problems in the past with the statistical engines in games like NCAA and Madden from EA. It always seemed like the games would only keep track of one of my kick returners. So far I have not found a problem with the stats engine. Both my kick returners are well represented. To boot, playing as Rice I found a definite money play (more on that later) that left my starting halfback amongst the leaders in passing. If there is one complaint about the statistical package it is that at times it is unrealistic. I started my Rice dynasty over and simulated a couple of seasons. Bear in mind that Rice is a running team that relies on the wishbone offense. After the second season I was stunned to see that my sophomore QB took the Heisman home with over 3000 yards passing. Even more bewildering was the running back of year: a BYU back racked up over 1800 yards to garner that recognition.

Near the end of the season, rankings play an important in the game. Several polls are available in NCAA Football 2001. Whether you like it or not, the BCS is here in full force. In order to finish as the National Champion, you will have to finish the regular season in first or second in the BCS and take home the trophy in the final game of the year.

One of the coolest features of NCAA Football has been its recruiting features. This year's model is no different, as the game has a mind-blowing recruiting system. Players can be recruited out of high school or from the juco ranks. As in the previous editions, players are divvied up by talent classes (blue chip, solid, contributor, and the like). Players are also divided by state. The recruiting season pops up a map of the US and lets you travel to any state in the Union. Players are listed by position and each has his top three choices listed. States known for their high school players (Texas, California, and Florida) have the highest concentration of blue chippers, while some states (Montana, Wyoming, etc.) contribute very little. The recruiting process is time consuming as it involves multiple visits and requires attention to the areas you need filled. Even letting the game handle the recruiting had me waiting for what seemed like about five minutes.

During the game, a momentum meter indicates who has the upper hand. The manual states that as momentum builds for one team, it is harder for the other team to make big plays. To give you an example of how the meter works, the team I was controlling did not have the momentum. In fact, the opposing team had the momentum meter filled to about 75%. I then intercepted a pass in the end zone and ran it back the length of the field. The momentum did a 180 and my team went from 75% down to 90% up. However, it appears that the momentum changes drastically only on turnovers. I was up 35-7 in one game and my momentum was only at around 25%. I ended up winning the game by 12 but the opponent had 100% of the momentum. First downs and touchdowns contribute almost evenly. So a quick strike 80-yard TD ends up being a smaller momentum builder than a calculated trip down the field with multiple first downs. There were also times on the road where I would have an appreciable halftime lead only to have the momentum swing back to the home team on the ensuing second half kickoff.

Other tidbits about the game include long load times. It takes almost a minute to bring up some sections of the game. Also, the game will use every last block of your memory card. To save your dynasty, the game requires all 15 blocks of a standard memory card. User profiles, which require a block, will have to be stored on another card or page of memory. Finally, the manual is well written and covers just about everything you can think of in the game.

Gameplay : 80
Can you imagine if you grew up your entire life eating vanilla ice cream? You would come to think that in the absence of any other flavor that vanilla is the finest flavor around. Then comes French vanilla and you have a little variety. The NCAA Football series is kind of like French vanilla. Unfortunately, a new flavor came out last year that kind of changed things. While still vanilla based this game added some chocolate and perhaps some coconut and really opened my eyes to console football games. That new flavor just tasted a little better than the old French vanilla. The flavor I am thinking of is NFL2K on the Dreamcast. While graphically superior to NCAA, I could not stop thinking that the series I once considered the be all and end all to football games really is not that special when it comes to the play.

My first introduction to the NCAA series was the '99 version. I spent many a late night playing the game. I thought it was the best football game I had ever played. The variety of college offensive schemes was incredible. But with this version, I have a more critical view. To make sure the EA team didn't stumble along the way, I played the '99 version again to make sure my impressions were grounded in reality. For the most part, the series has changed little since that version in the gameplay area. But I forgot, or failed to realize, how much the game resembles a pinball machine. Player speed is unrealistically fast and players bounce around.

My first complaint is with the passing game. I have yet to find a football game (from Madden and NCAA to NFL2K) that has a balanced attack. Console football seems to abandon the running game too soon. In NCAA Football 2001, I had one game against Oklahoma where I took a "commanding" three point lead. OU's stats for the game were 1 rush for minus seven yards and 8 of 22 passing, with five interceptions. One rush! When passes were complete, they would often be to a receiver that had four guys hanging on him. I have even encountered a few times where seven of my defenders are surrounding an opponent and the receiver still makes the catch. It drove me absolutely nuts. In another game, Tulsa did not rush once in the second half and ended the game with 59 pass attempts. I have always been dominant against the run and my pass defense has suffered, but the reason I have always had a number one rush defense is because the CPU never makes an attempt at rushing the ball. Now NFL2K has problems with the running game and it also abandons the running game, but you never see passes completed to a receiver with seven guys on him. The reason is because the players in NCAA Football are unrealistically fast. They break to the ball at a moment's notice.

Next, there are definite money plays in the game. I started a dynasty with the Rice Owls, who are a running team. Passing with the Owls is left for panic situations. I started the season rushing and mixing in a couple of plays. Then, against Michigan, I was in the game to the end thanks to some well-timed pass plays. Getting some confidence with the passing game, I decided to open it up some. In my game against Tulsa, my halfback ended with numbers that would make Drew Brees jealous. He finished the game with 603 yards on 11 completions. The play used to chalk up those David Klingler-esque stats was the wishbone halfback option pass. More times than not I threw to the same wide open receiver. Against OU, I found another money play that worked the majority of the time. Setting up in the I-formation, I would call the play to the long side of the field and put the receiver on that side in motion. More times than not, the corner covering him (and sometimes two defenders) would follow him across the field. This left the wide side completely open. I call the halfback pitch and run to an open area for a first down.

Now these games were played on the default varsity level. Thinking it may have been a fluke of the difficulty level, I played an exhibition game against the Seminoles using my same old Owls. This time I boosted the difficulty up to Heisman, the maximum in the game. I used exactly four offensive plays for the entire game. I used one QB sneak at the goal for a TD. I also had one field goal for the game. I ran about a dozen sweeps from the I-formation as well, which gave me good yardage on average. But the biggest play for me that day in this David versus Goliath match was the wishbone HB option pass. My back was 13 of 28 for 492 yards and 3 interceptions. Final score: Rice (ranked somewhere around 70th) 52, Florida State (ranked 2nd) 34. I need to give coach Ken Hatfield a call and let him know how he can run the table this year.

To be fair, money plays are found in just about every football game. After my dominating performance in NCAA, I went back to NFL2K and marched up and down the field with a slant pass play. But those plays were for short gains. Usually I have to call an audible after looking at the coverage to complete a pass for good yardage. In NCAA, I almost guaranteed of getting a touchdown on every option pass with any defensive scheme the AI threw at me.

On defense, I originally mixed my defensive schemes up. Then I realized I could play one or two schemes the entire game with success. Using a 5-2 scheme where the two ends drop back (5-2, 4 deep) proved beneficial against both the run and pass. Other times I simply played a base 3-4 defense. About the only time I would get burned would be on a deep ball where a receiver outruns a defender on single coverage. But most of the offense's pass plays were in the middle of the field.

The offensive AI of the CPU opponent is a little odd. With 15 seconds to go and down by 7, the computer called a quarterback draw in a shotgun formation. Now this would be a great play with time left and you need a first down, but when stuck near the 40 yard line it is just plain boneheaded. On the other hand, the AI was smart enough to go for a two point conversion when down by five points or up by one point.

Tackling would also drive me nuts. Too often I was tackled by an opponent's toes. He would dive, miss, and be on the ground. I happen to step in the path of his feet and flop down. It's not like the tackler lifted his feet. I could try to jump over, but often it was too late. I think a player should be rewarded instead of penalized when the defense completely blows the tackle. The tables turned when I was on defense. I could tackle the opponent through his blocker. Imagine a back going down while the blocker, who is still standing, is still blocking my tackler. Other nitpicks include analog movements which are stuck in the digital domain. Despite analog control support, I felt I was restricted to 8-way running. Finally, there is a possible field goal bug. In one game, I had three extra points and one field goal attempt blocked. To date, I have had more extra points blocked than what is realistic. There is nothing you can do about it. I would barely fill the kick meter to get the ball off quick to no avail.

Despite all the complaints I have with the game, it can be fun. You just have to play it in a restricted mode. It is human nature to go for the jugular. If you can avoid the money plays and balance your offensive plays between the running and passing games, you will experience a decent brand of football. Of course, no amount of offensive work will turn your AI opponent away from its dependence on the passing attack.

Replay Value : 80
I often question yearly updates of sports titles. For most titles, minute changes in the play of the game are coupled with the latest players and schedules. For NCAA Football 2001, you get new schedules, but in reality it is the same old thing. You could slap an older version in your PlayStation and be completely satisfied. The playbooks were instantly recognizable as were the play mechanics. If you enjoyed the play of the previous versions in the series, then you should certainly enjoy this year's version.

To make the game more enjoyable, you have to lay off the money plays. With many dozens of offensive and defensive schemes available, the variety is there to avoid cheap wins. But the fact that some obvious money plays exist calls into question the defensive response to the remainder of the playbook.

Playing the game against a friend will extend the life of the game. As a single player game, the defensive AI just made me feel that the CPU was lying down on too many plays. I never sensed they learned from my moves. If nothing else, there is the challenge of taking the last ranked team up through the ranks. The spectacular recruiting is one of the key attractions to the game.

In the end, if you can look past some AI issues, you will be playing the game into the bowl season.

Overall : 86
Some definite AI issues plague this year's edition of the wonderful NCAA Football series. Money plays abound at all levels of difficulty. Beyond the AI issues, the game gives the gamer the most involved college football experience to be found outside a real game. The graphics perfectly model the stadiums, and the sound is nothing short of perfection.

By: James Smith 7/26/00

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