The previous version of 989 Sports' college football game looked ugly, like Mimi from "The Drew Carey show" ugly. In addition, previous versions of NCAA Gamebreaker lacked a solid gameplay engine and inventoried a shabby number of game modes. Yet, this is a new year for Gamebreaker, now in its eighth version, to tap into EA's NCAA Football sales and fan base domination of the college football genre.
After Sega Sports dropped its college football title this year, Gamebreaker remains as the only other virtual college football option available for all three consoles. As popular as college football is, it's hard to believe more attention isn't paid to this genre, especially since the college market is so strong. Although a majority of my friends at Eastern Illinois University play Madden over NCAA, my friends at perennial Top 25 universities tell me college football dominates. And usually that college football game is EA's NCAA.
Can Gamebreaker be the virtual version of Northern Illinois and be "Mr. Upset special" or will it be known as the equivalent of Duke football, who only recently toppled its multiple-year losing streak.
Not only do most of the player models lack detail - the uniforms that usually drape over the pants to some extent, ended so abruptly everyone looks like Steve Urkel - and basic, the graphics are Ben Stein-flavorful. I don't think graphics need to be jaw dropping to make even an average game, but if I'm going to fork over $30 or $40 for a game, it better have a good-looking presentation. The same rationale would apply if I were to buy a new car. I don't want to buy the mustard yellow and pink polka dot Dodge Viper. Give me royal blue and white stripes! Now, would the horrendous graphics, or colors, detract from generally kicking ass? Nope, but it sure would be nice.
On a humorous note, the quarterbacks have a white patch plastered onto their groin area, supposedly signifying a towel for them to wipe their hands on. However, the white blob doesn't wave nor does it really have any textural difference from the pants, so it appears like the quarterback is wearing his Fruit of the Loom "white-y tighties" outside of his pants.
On a plus side, the basics of the stadium and player design are there. In various stadiums, the MegaTron screens tower over the crowd; players and coaches stand out of bounds nestling the sidelines; and some team's mascots cheer and jeer next to the 2-D pre-rendered cameramen. I have only attended a few college football games live, and one of them was at Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois. From my recollections, the stadium looks fairly accurate with the player entrances burrowed under one section and a brick building in the opposite corner. It appears 989 Sports made the attempt to personalize some stadiums instead of creating all of them off a template, like NCAA Football 2002.
I wasn't impressed by the overall graphics package. For the in-game presentation, I appreciated career statistics and some in-game stuff, but aside from a few generic pop-ups there was little that impressed me. The one shining crown was the camera angles for the kicking game of all things. Before any kickoff, the camera pans behind the kicker, almost as if the camera were pointed up at field level. The view provides a panoramic view of the stadium and beyond. Overall, Gamebreaker feels and looks antiquated. There's no attempt to be catchy or innovative, which is an attribute I can at least concede to 989 Sports' other titles (especially GameDay). 989 Sports has nothing to lose, so I wouldn't have minded a more aggressive graphics package, maybe by spicing up the in-game presentation or making more behavioral animations before and after plays.
The crowd, which doesn't roar midplay like in NCAA, is generally lifeless, even in the most enthralling situations. The play-by-play commentary is comparable to a children's toy. Seriously, it reminds me of the plastic concoction with the lever in the upper right that you would pull down and then a little wheel would spin around, eventually resulting in a five-second diatribe like "Oscar the Grouch lives in a garbage can." What I mean is the commentary is most times delayed, and boring. And yet, I still find the audio package permissible because Keith Jackson, the great college football announcer and formerly ABC's top play-by-play guy, still busts out a "Whoa Nellie!" every once in a while. The band songs and chants are present, but not at the quality (some of the songs sound like they're being taped in an alley or in an aluminum shed) or number NCAA Football offers. The college atmosphere is created - I didn't confuse it for GameDay with college uniforms - and some pageantry lingers, but it's only a waterboy when compared to blue chip prospect, NCAA Football.
Interface/Options : 70
I definitely like how Gamebreaker allows you to use the headset, a la Navy Seals: SOCOM, but I don't have one. I think it's a great idea, though. The game's interface is clean, but the load times are long, usually in the 75- to 90-second range. Also, the interface forces too many clicks of R1 and L1 and the direction buttons to get to some information.
Scrimmage, Bowl Season, Tournament Series, Online, and Career Mode, which include a tournament mode and practice mode, are all available. I'll give mad props to 989 for implementing a multiple-season mode with a playoff because NCAA Football has neglected that feature since coming to the PS2 for the 2002 virtual season (2001 in real life). I would have liked for Gamebreaker to have either a skills training mode, like the Training Camp mode in Madden or the Great Games feature in NCAA, especially since the game has a learning curve.
Gameplay : 70
Most of the problems plaguing the quality of game last year are back this year: cloggy player animation; stop-and-go pace to games; and the looseness of the entire engine.
I simply can't stand jerkiness in my video games, especially when even most of my Super Nintendo sports games (yah Super Tennis!) did not have these same problems. What the choppy gameplay and framerates tell me is that Gamebreaker is trying to do too much with a shoddy game engine. I do respect Gamebreaker takes some chances with its many customizable game options, such as a one-button option for maximum blocking and the option to attack three different distances for the receiver to try to catch the ball when its in flight, but I think 989 Sports should go basic and master the fundamentals. Don't get me wrong, the cool add-ons, like a stutter step and shoulder charge are really sweet looking, but once those animations end the runner ends up looking like they're constantly limping, Willis Reed-style.
The game literally slows down, almost Matrix-style, mid play usually when an important action occurs, like the quarterback handing the ball to a running back or during the throwing motion. This makes it difficult to develop any flow while playing, which is critical in a video game. I want rhythm when I'm marching down the field. Also, the collision detection is a bit off, either that, or my linebackers secretly are Casper the Ghost. I remember complaining that in NCAA and Madden the defensive backs would pull a Ralph Wiggum, or without flinching let an object, in this case a football approach them and bounce off their shoulder pad or helmet unknowingly. Passes flutter in the air, never with any zip or velocity, and the ball usually is tipped. When four or five people run into the ball like it's soccer and they can't use their hands to catch it, that gets a little obnoxious.
Also, in the running game, I just don't feel comfortable or in control. One of my buddies commented the players on my television screen looked like the old electronic football game seen in some ESPN commercials two or three years ago. The players run on the field, but you get a sort of feeling like you're ice skating.
So, what's good? As I mentioned above, you can tweak a great number of things. I have always applauded 989 Sports for their neat-o kicking system, where you directed a crosshair on a graphic of a photo to gauge where exactly your kicker will make contact with the ball. The tackling animations, on par with GameDay, are the best in the football genre for the second straight year. The best.
Replay Value: 35
I have serious problems with the playability of the game, and the Career Mode. Not only do freshman come in with insanely high ratings, landing top recruits is obnoxiously easy with a semi-successful team. But, the groundwork is definitely there. If NCAA were to implement the in-depthness of Gamebreaker's online mode (e-mail, roster updates) the combination would be dynamite. And, if you throw the headset thingy into the mix, the package gets even better. Unfortunately, Gamebreaker isn't nearly good enough to warrant even a weekend rental. The game is simply frustrating play compared to its peers.
Overall : 50
This game isn't awful, but it's neither average nor mediocre. 989 Sports has enough polish and savvy to put out a presentable game, but the polish and sophistication to anything but some of the gameplay variables, online and headset modes, are way behind the curve. Buy NCAA Football 2004. I don't think the game got any better, either visually or gaming, aside from the inclusion of online play. This game disappointed me, despite its previous track record, because GameDay, MLB and Final Four showed serious strides and potential.