NCAA 2003 (PS2) Review

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The NCAA Football series has really taken off since its Bill Walsh College Football days. The series stepped out of Madden's shadow a bit last year, its PS2 debut, but the NFL game still stood out as EA Sports' finest game. This year NCAA 2003 hopes to step up to the forefront and claim its title as EA's top dog.

Presentation/Graphics: 80
The first thing that I noticed when I played 2003 was the slimmer player model. I think the change was for the better as it gives the skilled players more of an "athletic" look. I think the players look so differently from last year's game that it gives the game an entirely different feel.

There are a number of new animations that make the game generally smoother to play. The tackling animations were given the biggest enhancement, as there are now waist tackles, power tackles, and shoestring tackles.

The uniforms are very nicely done. For most of the top teams, you have the option to use alternate uniforms. The level of detail on the uniforms has improved over last year's game and this is the one area where NCAA holds its own when compared to Madden.

The stadiums, which weren't entirely unique from each other last year, are this year. I still don't think that the stadiums aren't as jaw dropping as some of those seen in the PS2 baseball games, but for football games NCAA looks pretty good.

I did experience some slowdowns in-between plays when all the players were on the screen, but I didn't have any freeze-ups. I guess one out of every four discs was a bad one, but my copy is working just fine.

EA didn't add any new camera angles, but they did add a Defense Coach Camera. They had one in last year's game for offense where you could see blocking assignments, wide receiver routes. At first I didn't think much of the defense camera, but now I am completely dependent on it because the camera shows man assignments.

Where NCAA fails is that its graphics engine is only but a glorified version of last year's Madden game. There were some rumors before the game's release that Madden and NCAA would have their own unique engine, but from what I see that is not the case. NCAA looks almost exactly like Madden 2002. In conclusion, when compared to the other PS2 games on the market, NCAA is above average, but not stunning enough to warrant a top-notch graphics score.

Presentation/Audio: 85
Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, and Brad Nessler return from last year's game and they again do an incredible job. There are more situational game comments than last year, but I was disappointed that the trio only uses generic mentions of in-game statistics. They will mention when a player hits milestone numbers such as 100 rushing yards of 300 passing yards, but I wish that they would say, "X team is really stopping the run today as Y team only has 45 yards rushing." The trio has a great chemistry, as almost everything they say is accurate and logical.

The biggest difference I noticed was the frequency and loudness of the crowds and bands. Throughout the game you will hear a number of fight songs and it really provides that college atmosphere. Not only do home team bands play, so too do the away bands. Last year the bands were too quiet and I was glad to see a marked change.

However, there aren't enough chants. I didn't really notice this deficiency until I started watching some of the real-life games. The chanting and crowd cheers are as abundant as the student bands. NCAA 2003 has virtually none of that and I feel a little cheated.

Interface/Options : 95
NCAA has brought a number of new options to the game. For the first time on the PS2 you can create your own team. This was a much used and appreciated feature on the PSOne games and I was happy to see it brought back. You can customize almost everything about your team, whether it is stadium size or the logo on your helmets.

Another feature from the PSOne versions that makes its debut this year is the customizable schedule. In the PSX versions you could change all the games on your schedule, even being able to take away conference games and not have any "bye" weeks. For NCAA 2003, you can customize your schedule, but you can't reschedule rivalry games (if you are Florida State you can't take Miami or Florida off your schedule) and you can only schedule 12 games.

The interface has been improved as you can now have your favorite team's colors and fight song in the background. Recruiting is easier as you can sort players easier and faster. It costs more recruiting points to recruit players farther away from your state. This puts more of an emphasis on getting players from your state and immediate area and I loved this change.

I do wish, that in the process of sorting team and player stats, that it would be easier to do so. I would like the ability to jump to from one team or player to another without having to hit L1 or R1 an infinite amount of times.

There is a new trophy room that shows off all your awards and trophies. It's nice to have a visual tracking of your accomplishments.

Gameplay : 82
The game plays more fluidly when compared to last year's version and as a result the game play is more real-life. The passing game feels completely different from NCAA '02. The effectiveness of the "out" route that us NCAA gamers beat to a pulp last year is now as effective (or ineffective) as all the other routes. I have played the game for a couple of weeks now and I am now getting to the point where I can complete half of my passes. I think the whole timing of passing is different as receiver cuts and quarterback throws just seem quicker than last year.

Another reason for my immediate passing woes is probably due to improved defensive back AI. This was a game play feature that EA highly touted and although the game portrays evidence of it happening in the beginning, I was able to find some loopholes. The post route and corner routes are still unstoppable to defend, even on Heisman. More or less, any route that you can throw over the defense is highly successful. If you try to throw in-between the defense, the DB's and LB's break on the ball so much faster than last year.

I'm afraid to admit that I have found some money plays and I can pass for 300 yards on a consistent basis on the Heisman difficulty level.

Running the ball is also improved upon. The main reason why is the improved collision detection. In the '02 version I would call the collision detection borderline shady, as you would get tackled far too many times by defensive lineman on the ground or being blocked. This is improved greatly in the game. You can actually break tackles and this alone improves the game 100%. If you have a bruising halfback with a high break tackle rating you can pretty much run over the majority of outside linebackers and defensive backs. In last year's game, unless you had a guy with a 90+ break tackle rating you probably wouldn't be too successful.

This year I am happy to state that the speedy halfbacks are correctly proportioned (in last year's game, recruited speed HB's usually weighted 235 pounds and above) and are effective. You can actually execute stiff arms, spin moves, and juke moves. I recruited a speed HB with 4.21 speed in my second year with FSU and he tore it up his freshman year. He won the freshman with 1700 yards and 15 touchdowns without having many yards after contact.

Pancake blocks still need to be addressed. My best offensive lineman my first year, Bret Williams, had only 12 pancake blocks all season long. I played the majority of my games with eight minute quarters, so it's not like I wasn't playing enough. I found that the game just doesn't track the stat correctly. Plays where my offensive lineman clearly pancaked the opponent were often times not even tracked. I think that needs to be improved upon for next year.

Defensively I was happy to see that interceptions actually occur at a higher rate than last year. You also force a higher number of fumbles, but the ability to sack the quarterback has severely decreased. I have played two years of a dynasty with two teams at the same time and both years linebackers led my team in the sacks category. You can apply much pressure on the quarterback, but sacking one is extremely difficult. I think the offensive lineman still have the death grip on defensive lineman, but the quarterbacks have this uncanny ability to wing the ball with the effort one would use to flick a fly off their food and complete 25-yard passes. You can hit the quarterback, but he'll still get off this flick of a pass.

The CPU quarterbacks also have deadly accuracy on third and fourth downs. I know that teams increase the focus and intensity on those critical downs, but I can't tell you how many times I was beat for the 19-yard pass play on third and 18 with three guys draped all over the wide receiver. I don't mind getting beat on pass plays, but I would like a fairer AI.

There is a swat button, which is L1 I believe, but it's not very practical. Unless you are controlling the defensive back from the beginning of the play (which makes no sense because you can't see them on the two most convenient camera angles to start the play), you would have to press X to control the player nearest the ball, then the D-pad to position yourself, and then L1. Most passes are to Point A to Point B in just a second or two and doing all that usually ends up with your cornerback standing a good distance away from the receiver swatting at nothing but air.

I also had a few major gripes about some AI issues. First off, the punt blocking AI is so stupid that it makes me want to puke. I don't know if the speed or effectiveness of the punt defense needs to improved, but I guess for the game not to have a human player return a punt for a touchdown every time it needs to make the punt return blockers so dumb that they would make Jose Lima look like a genius. This was a problem last year, but I normally wouldn't gripe about this if it weren't for the fact that on Junior Varsity, the game's easiest difficult level, the punt block returns unit was awesome. I selected the Punt Return middle play and I got my little wedge and they successfully picked up the incoming defenders. But when I bumped up to the subsequent difficulty levels the blockers stopped blocking.

A possible theory might be that the defenders are faster, but I don't buy that because my blockers were still in position, they just decided not to block anyone. This can only be one thing...AI cheating.

There is other evidence of this. On Heisman, you can be beating a team by three touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, but all of a sudden your powerhouse team will turn into Bowling Green. Not only will your running backs fumble every time they touch the ball, your quarterback will get a severe case of "Jake Plummer-ism". This is only frustrating because I need the Heisman difficulty for a challenge and it feels like since the CPU AI isn't smart or good enough to compete on its own, it needs to cheat. This has been a problem ever since I started playing NCAA in its '99 version on the PC. I have always been under the assumption that the All-American difficulty level (the third hardest out of four levels) gives you the fairest game. For next year I would either like a tweaked Heisman level or one between AA and Heisman to give us a fairer shake at a challenge.

Replay Value : 95
There will probably be some Madden fans out there that will since NCAA doesn't have online capability that it shouldn't have a high replay value. All I can tell them is this; I have owned NCAA '03 for a few weeks now and I have played it every day. All of my friends in my dorm play NCAA (we have an eight-person dynasty going) and we are all hooked.

Recruiting is the single best sports game feature out there and there is no doubt that this game will have a prominent spot in my PS2 for the many months to come. The game play, the game modes, and the entertainment of multi-player gives NCAA a perfect replay score.

Overall : 90
Purchase from Amazon!
Let me put it this way. If you are a college football fan and you own a PS2, buying this game is a no-brainer, even if you own last year's version. For what it's worth, NCAA Football is one of the greatest football games ever created. I think this year NCAA should be considered in the same breath as Madden and NFL 2k series-it's that good. The combination of solid game play, entertaining commentary, and unparalleled replay value make NCAA 2003 one of the best sports games ever.

By: Tim Martin 9/13/02