Since first porting to the Playstation 2 in 2001, NCAA Football has moved out of the shadows of its more popular, NFL brother, Madden. In fact, many critics anointed NCAA Football 2003 and 2004 as their sports game of the year. The addictive recruiting, along with improvements in A.I., increases in game modes and the addition of online play, spearheaded the recent success. The NCAA series, EA Sports' college football game, dates back to the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis when it was called Bill Walsh's College Football. The NCAA name first appeared in the 1998 version when former Florida Gator and Heisman Trophy winner Danny Weurfel appeared on the cover. Since then fellow Heisman winners Charles Woodson (NCAA '99), Ricky Williams (2000), Chris Weinke (2002), and Carson Palmer (2004) have been featured.
When the final PSX version was released in 2001 (Alabama's Shaun Alexander was on the cover), the game had its problems. Many felt the game played like the previous year's Madden, meaning NCAA 2001 played like Madden 2000. And, for the most part, that statement was correct, as the most innovative of gameplay or featured additions were first released for Madden, then NCAA. Global playbooks, create-a-player and hot routes all come to mind as examples. Madden's graphics always seemed to look much better than NCAA's. For EA Sports, it made sense: Madden sells more copies and is the video game chain's cash cow, while NCAA is not.
But when NCAA jumped the PS2 the feeling of the inferiority began to chip away. The graphics and gameplay engines had more parity; NCAA's audio became markedly better than Madden's; and, the recruiting was simply far more entertaining than Madden's college draft. So now with the 2005 versions, NCAA and Madden can legitimately look each other in the eye. The little brother has grown, become more mature, developed into its own game with its own personality. This year, the hyped additions are a match-up stick, an interesting twist to home field advantage, and a deeper dynasty mode. But will those additions be enough to keep NCAA on par with Madden?
The game's look has changed little since NCAA 2003. The player models and stadiums appear exactly the same. The graphics are not bad and a good selection of alternative uniforms come unlocked, but NCAA lacks the visual oomph of other PS2 sports games - especially among its EA Sports brethren like MVP Baseball or NBA Live. True, the professional sports games have the luxury of image mapping player faces (NCAA games cannot license student-athletes because of amateur rules), but the player models look almost cartoon-like when matched up against Madden. The comparison is like looking at Ned Flander's Geo Metro, parked next to a Honda Civic from the movie, "The Fast and the Furious." They're both cars, or player models, but one looks far more sophisticated than the other. But it is worth noting among other college sports games, NCAA Football ranks near the top in graphics.
The animation set also did not receive much of a boost. Other sports games sometimes brag on the back of their game boxes that the developer added "250 New Animations!" I'm sure there's an exact number, but it seemed like NCAA added about five new tackling animations to accommodate their Big Hit button (it's L2, but don't confuse it with Madden's much cooler hit stick). That's it -- five. Is there a problem with the current animation set? No. They're not choppy, boggy or incomplete; but rather, the throwing, kicking and running animations in particular could use more diversity. In NCAA, all quarterbacks have a fluid throwing motion, the perfect 3/4 throw that Eli Manning and Carson Palmer have. But that's not reality. Phillip Rivers, with his sling delivery, comes to mind, but so, too, does former Heisman trophy winner Eric Crouch, who looked awkward throwing the football since he spent most of his time running the option at Nebraska. What results from this "everyone runs, throws and catches the same way" is a homogenous feeling. The only difference comes when quarterbacks or kickers are left-handed or left-footed. NCAA should take a page from baseball games that do not individualize every batting stance or throwing motion, but they at least provide a variety of them. Could you imagine recruiting a sidearm quarterback?
No other sports game better captures the emotions of its sport than NCAA Football. The college basketball games have started to catch up to speed, but they're still a ways off. Playing a game in Michigan's "The Big House" or Florida's "The Swamp" is a thrilling experience. Adding to the mystique of those famed stadiums are a tweaked home-field advantage system and a ranking of the 25 hardest stadiums. This year, the cheers of the home field team impact the game. You can pump up the crowd by pressing the R2 button, and if the crowd gets loud enough, the television screen shakes and the noise distracts the visiting team from calling audibles or hot routes. The three hardest stadiums to play in when you start are Florida, Tennessee and Ohio State. The rankings adjust year to year. In my dynasty with Oklahoma, I moved from No. 18 the first year to No. 13 after an undefeated, national championship season.
But while the feature has some initial coolness, the effect wares off after 10 or 15 games. What you realize is that the crowd cheers religiously - whether they're winning or losing. I understand the need for loyal fans, but to have a crowd roaring on 3rd and 27 in a game you're winning 70 to 3 is a little too much. If you don't audible or hot route often, the loud crowd noise will not have an impact. I think NCAA missed an opportunity here, however, as the noise could have triggered more false starts or affected the communication of play calling from the sidelines to the QB. At the very least, the game could have stuck some aesthetic animations in, like showing a quarterback tug on his face mask to denote a non-verbal signal for a hot route; or having the offensive lineman holding hands at the line of scrimmage (they do that so tackles don't jump offsides). EA did add a confused, hands in the air animation for receivers or backs, which is useful because it tells you that the audible or hot route did not get communicated.
I did not notice any new fan cheers or band songs, but the game probably has most of them included already. The audio department's largest disappointment, though, is the play-by-play from the usually strong trio of Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso. Their mediocrity knocks the audio score down a good chunk. Sports video game commentary is generally spotty, as it's difficult to program a spontaneous, unique comment for the million or so possible outcomes of any given play. But commentary should at least work in one of two ways: accuracy and speed or humor and chemistry. On the first level, NCAA fails because many times the commentary comes late and is inaccurate. Nessler often says a team's last drive "ended with an interception" when it did not. He also will say a crowd isn't as loud as it was earlier in the game when the crowd, in fact, is cheering (this is especially a problem with neutral field games when the home team is losing but the visiting team still cheers). And as for Herbstreit and Corso, their normally strong chemistry faded this year because of a lack of fresh stuff. While it was funny in NCAA 2003, Corso's comments like "I haven't seen moves like that since my senior prom" get old, especially after hearing them hundreds of time over the last three years. Also, NCAA does not have a pre-game or post-game show that the ESPN Videogames have. Maybe EA should consider bringing in Chris Fowler for those duties next year.
Interface/Options : 85
NCAA did not add any game modes this year, choosing to tinker with its Dynasty mode. Gamers will first notice the expansion of the roster to a full 75 players (it used to be 55). This helps especially with roster management because in previous versions you would sometimes have to cut talented freshmen. But with a larger roster also comes more responsibility. Players will now commit infractions that require discipline. The length of the suspension is up to you, but you only have a certain number of discipline points for the season. If you let too many infractions slide by, the NCAA can bring down sanctions. In addition, players will transfer if you do not play them enough, driving the need to play your second- and third-stringers. Other small additions make the dynasty experience better, like the ability to recruit athletes in addition to positional players (finally!), the ability to switch positions in the off-season (finally!!), and the postseason all-conference teams (finally!!!).
In addition to Dynasty, the game modes include exhibition, online, Pontiac College Classics, rivalry and mascot games, and practice. I have not had the opportunity to test the online waters, but my experiences last year resulted in honest games.
The interface follows the outline of the other EA Sports games. Music consisting of school fight songs plays, while images of college football players flash across the background. The Sports Illustrated feature, which includes Top 25 polls, BCS polls, Heisman watch and the other season-specific information, comes back. The covers again add much to the Dynasty experience, and its success prompted EA to use a similar week-by-week catalog in Madden (they use national newspaper USA Today and a slew of regional newspapers).
But not much has changed since last year. The Pontiac College Classics are the same as last year, and I don't think any new mascot teams were added. EA could be maxed out in the number of game modes it can stuff onto one CD because of the massive space the rosters of the more than 110 teams take up (the file size of NCAA is twice that of Madden's). The little touches on Dynasty mode were appreciated, but other sports games have either a flashier interface (Madden) or have a larger number of game modes (World Series Baseball, ESPN College Basketball).
Gameplay : 77
When compared to Madden, NCAA has the feel of the college game. The offenses and defenses are less complex. The gap between the great and the not-so-great teams is overwhelming. Fast players dominate. But NCAA needs to revamp its gameplay engine, not just because its unchallenging to veterans of the series, but also because I find it less and less capturing the essence of the college game.
Take for instance the passing attack. Even on the Heisman level, the computer picks up most of its yards on deep bombs. It's not unusual for a stat line like this: 10 for 25, 290 yards, 3 touchdowns. The college game relies on smaller or mid-range passing attacks. Large gains are picked up when talented receivers rack up the YAC (yards after catch). Think BYU a few years ago. Think NC State last year with Rivers. Think of the pass-happy teams like Hawaii or Florida. But all too often, the passing engine rewards human or CPU players to lob the ball deep, hoping to gain one large gain every three or four passes. The passing game is frustrating because throwing short, snappy passes, like screen passes or throws to your backs in the flats are nearly impossible. That forces your hand to throw deep go or post routes. Not every team has a vertical passing attack, especially since the West Coast offense became popular. This again forces most teams to a homogenous playing style.
Intermediate passing, while not impossible, is hampered by the inability to throw the ball to a designated area, otherwise known as route-based passing. This was a gameplay addition that Madden touted in the late 1990s that is now a part of the regular passing repertoire. Even with an accurate quarterback, like the Sooners' Jason White, passing usually consists of bullet throws or out routes. You see this the most when throwing the hook route, which is when the receiver runs about seven or eight yards down the field, stops and hooks back to the quarterback. Unless the receiver is turned around, you will throw the ball as if the receiver is running a fly or go route. But why does that matter? Especially on the Heisman level when pass protection becomes weak and the defense becomes faster, the ability to throw the ball with precision so that the ball arrives when the receiver breaks is a must.
The CPU running attack also is ineffective, even on Heisman. When the CPU picks up large running yards, it's only because the halfbacks have a higher break tackle rating and defenders bounce off them. That trend means the offensive line A.I. is not strong. There is also little notable difference between a power rushing attack, like Colorado or Air Force, and a finesse one, like the one used by teams using the one-back or shotgun sets. I want to see the option ran down my throat, or have a team trip me up with a draw.
The point I am trying to drive home is that NCAA is not as energetic, risk taking or varied as real-life college football. The great sports games will often provide a virtual moment that is so realistic that you will pause the game and think: "Wow! Did that just happen?" In soccer games, this might be a bicycle kick or a beautiful cross. In baseball games, this might be an infielder bouncing a throw off the Astroturf because it's faster that way. I'm looking for something that gives a glimmer of jaw dropping reality, even if it's just an animation. In NCAA, this could have been an effective trick play (they're too bogged down in the game) or a bubble screen or a blocked kick (more than 50 games and no blocked kicks or punts) - the things that make college football the most exciting sport to watch.
On a broader level, this could have been accomplished with less homogenous playing styles. As a result, the game feels too calculated, too mathematical. This is true with many sports games, especially with football, but Madden does not have this problem. I fear that NCAA is contently traveling down the same "we're the only legitimate gig in town" road that Madden did before Sega Sports erupted on the scene with its NFL 2k series. NCAA Gamebreaker took a year off, and Sega Sports (now ESPN Video Games) short-lived NCAA 2k series lasted two editions. NCAA Football is the only game on the market right now.
But there is much to cheer about with the game. Still, with little or minimal improvements, the game is very enjoyable and entertaining.
Special teams improved this year, as the blocking schemes are more effective, but the game is guilty of allowing some hellacious clips. Penalties, in general, on the default levels come too few. The match-up stick, like the home field advantage, seemed in the end more aesthetic than anything of substance. Players confidence can rattle and their abilities can decrease, but I did not notice it unless I had a starting freshman quarterback. Player ratings do increase or decreased during the game, based on their performance, and I really enjoyed that. Seniors retain a level head, while younger players can leap or spike in ratings. The triple option is also very responsive and realistic, and I think NCAA did a good job with the animations there. The fake pitch button (L2) results in some great "gotchya!" plays.
NCAA is a fun game, but it should also be a thinking man's game.
Replay Value : 92
Although the gameplay and game modes have changed little, the game still has immense replay value. The college game and all its rivalries, pageantry and emotion are a strong enough draw. And there's one other reason: the recruiting. I sometimes play seasons to get to the next recruiting season! I love playing the Florida versus Florida State game or the national championship. I could almost care less how good the game was. This explains why football board games were popular at one time, why that electronic magnet football game was popular, why fantasy football is popular. I am unsatisfied with the year-to-year tweaks of NCAA, but I'll play my usual 10 or 12 seasons throughout the rest of the summer, fall and winter.
Overall : 79
Last year, I awarded NCAA with a score of 96, based on its gameplay improvements. I can ignore a lack of game mode additions, but when the gameplay feels untouched, the overall appeal decreases. I can understand this argument: If the game was great last year and it's essentially the same game engine, shouldn't there be the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory? Wrong. Other sports games, especially ESPN Football and Madden, consistently push the boundaries of innovation. They tweak their gameplay engines, graphics and game modes. And, yes, NCAA was great last year, but other sports games have also drastically improved. Some of the aesthetic or interface additions are nice, but I can only hope that next year the gameplay will improve.