For the last three years, the hype surrounding NCAA Football has grown. With each year it seems the gap between EA Sports' college and NFL game, shall I say, is shortening. After two successful releases on the Playstation 2, the anticipation for NCAA Football 2004, the series' fifth installment (dating back to the PSOne), skyrocketed. My local Electronics Boutique said they received more pre-orders for NCAA 2004 than any other sports game. Ever.
This year online capability finally joins the mix of game modes, and a few other tweaks and additions round out the improvements. Last year, I gave NCAA a score of 89. Will this year be an improvement?
I'll be honest that the first thing said about the game, which I muttered under my breath, was, "This game looks exactly like NCAA 2003!" After a week's worth of gameplay, the game hasn't revealed anything that would suggest any leaps and bound improvement. Sure, the uniforms have Nike swooshes, players have more defined bodies and muscles and the stadiums look slightly better, but nothing jaw dropping.
A few amenities such as new tunnel animations, canons firing after touchdowns and more mascots were added. From what I can tell, the game is using NCAA 2003's engine, and bluntly, the graphics are good enough. I don't notice the graphics for good reasons or bad two weeks into gameplay.
The NCAA football series has long been the benchmark for simulating a sport's atmosphere through audible means, and 2004 sets the bar even higher. Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso again do the play-by-play and bring some new insightful lines. Nessler now has 10 or so mid-play comments that really make a long run or a deep pass even more scintillating. The trio makes reference to the actual game and its statistics more than other years. The same goes for school and NCAA records. I have found some inaccuracies with the commentary like Nessler saying the offense's last series resulted in a three and out when it actually threw an interception. Corso has some John Madden-esque lines like after a lineman jumps offsides, "XXX."
As good as the ESPN commentators are, the audio really rocks in the chants, band music and crowd interaction.
I had thought one of the weaknesses in last year's audio package was the lack of war chants, like Florida State's tomahawk chant, and this was corrected. The chants come loud and often.
The band music plays even more than last year. I don't think each school has their own school fight song, but the major ones like Florida and USC are in there. More than ever, the crowd works with the gameplay. When you break into the open field the roar of the crowd of 110,000+ at Michigan's Big House can literally give you goosebumps. From a video game! The navigation music is the fight songs and bands from all the major schools, which makes taking down stats or scouring over recruits a much easier time commitment.
Without question, the combination of all the elements equates into the best audio package the sports genre has ever seen.
Interface/Options : 95
This is the one area where NCAA improved the most because of a new interface laden with user-friendly stats and intricacies, and the addition of online play and College Classics.
For diehards of the series, the subtle improvements in the interface will be greatly appreciated. The additions are both practical and appreciated (it's not like if alternate uniforms were available for Mascot teams). Some worth noting are: game recaps are back in the schedule screen by pressing select on an individual game; in the load-up screen, key players with stats and team stat comparisons is shown; the new Sports Illustrated covers; and your team's logo and colors watermarked in the play selection screen.
The interface is very easy to navigate and it's actually faster than previous years in that when you are checking team stats, there's not the usual four or five second wait. The SI covers really put a face to a player's name - if that's possible in a video game. A generic headline goes with each cover, but it's nice to see what HB #40 from Oklahoma really looks like. Covers are made for the Heisman watch, Conference outlook, Top 25, and four or five other categories. In any given week, your team might have two, three, or maybe four separate covers.
The game options and modes are plenty. Aside from online mode, a College Classics game mode, similar to the Classic Games in the old NFL QB Challenge games, is also a new feature. The Classics games are a gamer's chance to replay the "Wide Right I" game or Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass. If you are able to pull off those upsets or meet a favorable result, a separate pennant and those classic teams are unlocked. Some are fairly easy like the Wide Right I, but others, like bringing BYU 84 back from 20 points down in a little more than three minutes against SMU is really difficult.
The AI sliders are back, but are the same as last year. Nothing was added or changed. There are four game modes and this year, All-America is giving me a respectable challenge. I haven't tried Heisman, but I'd assume it would be as difficult as year's previous.
Gameplay : 92
It may because of the more accurate pancake statistics (one of my Hawkeyes offensive linemen made first-team All-American) or the much, much improved defensive back AI, but the gameplay radiates an even more realistic feel this year.
The passing game, which last year was plagued by an abundance of dropped passes by receivers and defenders, improves ten fold in 2004. Last year I had too many games where my QB's stats would have a very low completion percentage yet maintaining a high level of yards. I think the highest percentage I ever threw in one season, on any level, was maybe 51 percent. The main reason for my passing woes wasn't my lack of skill, but rather how the passing game was set up. The route-based passing was non-existent and really forced the gamer to guess where the ball was going to be thrown. Route-based passing is the ability to throw to a certain receiver's route at a future spot, and not where he is currently on the field.
This helps in the interior passing game where quick in routes or slant throws can be thrown to a spot, rather a lengthy distance in front of the receiver. I found that aiming a pass with a soft or hard tap of the desired icon and with the left analog stick results in an even more pinpoint pass. The fact you have more control over your passing, and not just a series of hit-or-miss long bombs, adds a lot to the game because when you hit the open receivers it's a completion. You feel like you deserved it.
Screen passes and trick plays, two things that EA said were improved, were not any more effective than the year before. NCAA producer Jeff Luhr said if they were ran at the right time, they could be effective. The only time I have found a WR reserve effective is if somehow the defense blitzes from the left and the reverse goes to the right. Both the screens and trick plays still take way too long to develop.
The ground attack was the benefactor of a few more animations upon contact with a defender. Extra yards can be gained, which is evident by a running back who lunges for a few more yards as he spins to the ground. The I-formation HB counter play was an absolute money play last year for me, but its effectiveness has been cut down. It seems in general the outside running game is not as effective as last year forcing you to read holes in the offensive line and make quick spin moves or jukes past linebackers. A dominant offensive line powers even more than previous years; and the scat back seems to have given way to a more powerful one in terms of effectiveness. Initially, Greg Jones of Florida State and Maurice Clarrett of Ohio State are damn near impossible to stop for a less than three-yard gain.
On defense, one of the things I looked forward to most was the improved defensive back AI. Unlike last year, where the AI improvement was mainly the DBs reacting quicker, many of the swats and deflections were impractical. A ball thrown right at a safety would be swatted away like Ben Wallace in basketball when an interception would have been easy. This year, interceptions are up but its not by cheating. EA has programmed it to where defensive backs will not break on a ball until they turn their heads and see it. This makes the interceptions that do happen understandable making the game even more real.
But the best gameplay tweak is special teams where wedges and blocking now form. You don't need any gimmicks on punt returns anymore, which result in the third facet of the game finally being fulfilled.
Like I said above, I hadn't played on Heisman yet, but the All-America level appears to be more challenging than years previous. I went through an entire season with Iowa and although I went 12-1, I had numerous close games. My only loss came to Ohio State.
Recruiting has the same interface as last year, but you have the option of pitching one of four things: location; program prestige; playing time; and coaching style. Location and prestige are obvious, but I think playing time has to do with the number of players on your roster and coaching style is based on your team's stats (i.e., a five-star running back won't want to come to a school that throws it 90 percent of the time). You can throw recruiting points at players who leave early. They even have a gauge that indicates if they are leaning toward staying or leaving for the NFL. Imported classes are also back.
The recruiting points are on a tier system now. What I mean is if in the first week you have the ability to max out the points to 21 recruits that same ratio will be present in the final week. I had four scholarships left heading into the fifth and final week, but I couldn't max out recruits because the points system was gauged proportionate to how many scholarships I had left. I have only gone through recruiting twice, but it seems just as addicting as last year.
Replay Value : 95
I view 2004 as a significant leap over 2003, which I played well into the spring. With the addition of online play and College Classics, this score jumps. NCAA Football is traditionally the one game I manage to play more than a few weeks, and I don't expect on setting it down any time soon because of the off field options and the on-field fun.
Overall : 96
I mentioned above how my first impressions of the game were a little "blah" because of the lack of graphical improvement. Yet, I am the same person who rants and raves to friends, and on message boards, how graphics don't matter. I am the same guy who tears apart most other EA Sports games because they look great but don't play on the same level. That goes to show how easy one can be swayed by graphics, the subliminal determining factor of a game's quality.
In the end, I want substance over style, and NCAA Football 2004 is the poster child for that. In an era where great-looking games fly off the shelves, NCAA allocated its resources to improving gameplay and the interface. Gamers like me have complained for years how companies should make a game every two years and actually improve the gameplay. NCAA does that and more.
I hope other games, especially those from EA, take NCAA's lead and spend less time working on an already ample graphics engine and more on the nuts and bolts of the game. The list of games that have offered bland improvements (improved gameplay! 300 new animations!) is plentiful, but NCAA comes through. My favorite sports game of 2002 has gotten better. Maybe EA just didn't have the money to overhaul NCAA's look, but what resulted in was the most appealing game I have played this year.