NCAA Football 06 REVIEW

NCAA Football 06 Review (Xbox)

For EA Sports, the release of NCAA 2006 ushers in a whole new era in sports games. After a winter (and spring) of discontent on message boards everywhere, EA now has the chance to prove that buying the exclusive rights to both the NFL and NCAA Football won't cause a problem for sports gamers.

There's a lot of anticipation here, as this is the only NCAA football game we'll be seeing for quite some time. The fact that last year’s edition was a disappointment for many gamers only increases that. After putting the bullseye on their football products, can EA Sports deliver the goods?

This year’s big gameplay addition is the “Impact Player” feature. Under a few select players (only three per team), you’ll see a white "spotight" – this points out the special players that can make the most impact; the ones that can turn a game on a single play. Players like USC’s Reggie Bush, Texas’ Vince Young and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson are all examples of "Impact Players", and they’ll get a slight ratings boost on important plays, or when they’re “in the zone” (shown by a quickly pulsing icon). Though at first it seems like a recipe for abuse, the feature’s implemented well. They’re really the same players you’d have gone to without the icon, but this way you can play a game with a random team and quickly get a sense of who the stars are on the North Texas “Mean Green”. The only annoying feature is a "Matrix"-style “Bullet Time” effect when your “Impact Player” pulls off a spectacular move. It can throw off your timing as the game shifts into and out of these moments, and have disastrous effects. Fortunately, this camera effect can be turned off in the game's "Settings menu.

The ground game is much the same as we’ve seen in years past, with “Mario Running” still in full effect. Backs will bump into their linemen, then simply run in place. Until this gets fixed, the inside running game will never be a highlight of the engine, but this year does show an improvement between the tackles. Your special moves work a bit better in traffic, and tackles no longer come from simply brushing against a defensive lineman. With patience and skill, you can make a living with an interior run game, but it’s still not nearly as effective as outside runs with a speedy back.

Passing has gotten an overhaul this year, with touch and timing playing a bigger role than ever. The analog controls respond nicely and will let you throw anything from lobs to bullets as needed. The other big change in the passing game is the real possibility of yards after the catch. Momentum has been toned down enough that you're able to make effective moves after the catch. Though you can't turn on a dime, you can more quickly gain control and change direction. That opens up sections of the playbook that had previously been useless, such as screens and hitch routes. The other factor on those plays is the much-improved downfield blocking. If you have the patience to let blocks set up, you'll be rewarded by intelligent and timely blocking that can spring you for the big play. Long bombs, especially against man coverage, get completed a bit too much for my liking, but it’s not out of control, especially on the higher difficulty settings.

These changes in momentum and blocking contribute to one of the flaws in NCAA 2006: the return game. Once the returner finds a seam, he’ll often gain huge yards with no pursuit able to close effectively. Big returns come along too frequently, and it's not uncommon to see multiple kicks returned for touchdowns in a single game. It's a problem that seems to be lessened on the “Heisman” difficulty level, but it may cause some gamers playing on the lower levels to tear their hair out on occasion, or to find other options (like sky punts) to shut down returners.

Players that like to find one or two "money plays" and run them time after time will find themselves in trouble, as the AI quickly adapts to playcalling tendencies. The AI also excels at mimicking the style of real-life teams. Unlike past years, you won’t find yourself facing an air attack from every team on the schedule. Teams famous for their run attacks like Rice and Air Force will stay committed to their ground games, even when losing.

The control scheme has been tweaked subtly, and it's now the first time that the NCAA series has felt at home on the Xbox controller. The "A" button is now the “sprint” button across all phases of the game, including passing; where it allows easy scrambling by the QB without removing the ability to pass. A variety of special moves are now mapped to the right thumbstick, which is an excellent idea. Not so excellent is the idea to use a click of that same right thumbstick to mute the headset when online. It’s far too easy to try a simple juke move, and accidentally mute your opponent as well.

One area of the game that still needs a substantial upgrade is the playbooks. They remain much the same as seen in previous versions, and are not tailored to match the team's real life playbooks. Though USC does use an “I Form” set, that shouldn't mean their playbook contains a sizable chunk of option plays. It's jarring, and it's limiting when many plays in your playbook would never be run in an actual game.

The most enjoyable aspect of this year’s gameplay is it’s intense variability. Due in large part to player confidence and ratings fluctuations, each game has ebb and flow, and feel different from the last. Especially online, I assume boards will become filled with cries of gameplay issues based off of one or two games’ experience. Some games will see the long bomb be dominant, others will see a player like Texas’ Vince Young become unstoppable on the option, while others will see dialed-in defenses where every completed pass is a small victory. NCAA 2006 is all these and more, presenting the whole scope of college football.

This year's new attraction is the "Race For The Heisman". In this mode, you create a high school player, and then lead him through his college career. In fact, you're thrown into this mode immediately as the game first loads: you'll receive a pep talk from your high school coach, select your position, then participate in drills that will determine your player's skill level, and the schools that will offer scholarships. A stellar performance will net you offers from powerhouses like USC or Miami, while sloppy drills will see Army and Idaho beating a path to your door. Though your drills determine your scholarships, you can choose to walk on anywhere, and are guaranteed a starting position all four years. Even if you blow your drills and create the lowest rated halfback possible, you can head to Okalahoma and start over Adrian Peterson immediately. From that point on, it's essentially “Dynasty for Dummies”. You'll play games normally with full coaching responsibilities, and control of all the players. The difference comes between games, where you’ll chill in a virtual dorm room, look at pictures of your girlfriend, and avoid dealing with off-the-field management tasks. At the end of your college career you can either declare for the draft (and be exported to a draft class file for use in Madden 2006), or you can go into coaching, where as a new graduate, you’ll be able to take over any program in the country. This mode will really be a hit among the less hardcore in NCAA's audience. For years, people have created themselves, put that created player on their favorite team, and tried to win as many awards as possible. This new mode simply makes it official. However, if you’re looking for an accurate replication of an athlete’s career, this isn’t it. It's not a sim: it's wish fulfillment.

“Dynasty Mode” has always been the rock-solid foundation of the NCAA franchise, and the part of the game that keeps die-hards playing until next year’s release. This year’s no exception, and the addition of year-round recruiting will only increase the immersion. You’ll be able to target players throughout the year, and even invite them to big games. With luck, you’ll get a couple to commit early, and have some of your offseason job done before it begins. For many players, recruiting is the real heart of the game, and this integrates recruiting into the season, and gives added incentive to win big games if you have a recruit attending. Other than that addition, it’s all very similar to previous versions of the game, but this may be a perfect case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I’m actually glad to see these incremental upgrades in “Dynasty Mode”, as EA Sports builds on a solid base without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel.

One very small yet effective tweak comes in the sliders section. In a nod to the popularity of designing and exchanging slider settings on message boards, slider settings now produce a simple code that can be exchanged, instead of a long list of adjustments. Also, as a slider is highlighted, a short description of what it affects scrolls across the bottom of the screen. It's a perfect example of thoughtful development that doesn't consume huge resources, but acknowledges the fanbase that's turned this franchise from a simple videogame to a near-obsession for many gamers.

The graphics are crisp, with vibrant colors instead of the somewhat washed-out palette common in past EA Sports games. The textures show a marked upgrade from last year, with the turf, stadiums, and sky all looking much richer and more realistic. There's no pop-in, and the entire thing rolls along smoothly. The animations are equally improved, with some brilliant new tackle animations. There's occasional slowdown in cutscenes, or when setting up near the end zone, but there's nothing that affects the gameplay itself.

Though NCAA has boasted some great voice talent over the years with the team of Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso, the in-game presentation has been lackluster, lacking the polish and character of a true network broadcast. NCAA 2006 sees a big improvement here, with a pregame show including Corso donning the headgear of his pick for the game. You'll also see well-designed and informative stat overlays, and generally a more professional feel. The commentary will be very familiar to series regulars, as there's little new in that department.

After some growing pains with last year's debut on Xbox Live, NCAA 2006 nails it's online performance this season. While the online features aren't among the most robust or innovative in sports gaming, there are lobbies, quick matches, and tournaments. As with last year, you can have end-of-game reports emailed to yourself, but (as with last year) the stats presented are sparse, and are only team-based. You can't see any stats for a specific player, or any real sense of what happened in the game. I'd love to see more detailed reporting offered, and it would really benefit those people who are running online leagues through sites like LeagueDaddy. The real shine in online mode comes on the field, though. It's incredibly smooth, and I've seen very few hiccups or lag. It plays as quickly as it does offline, and it remains rock-solid without anything to interrupt your timing. While the default online difficulty setting of "All-American" can too often lend itself to lots of deep balls, high scores, and big plays, a simple change to "Heisman" level gets you a solid game that requires lots of sim play.

This is a solid game, and the best the franchise has seen. The gameplay has gotten a facelift, “Dynasty” remains as solid as ever, and the “Race For The Heisman” will provide hours of play for many gamers that would otherwise be put off by the complexity of “Dynasty”. If you’ve enjoyed the franchise in past years, there’s no doubt you’ll enjoy this edition as well. There’s nothing revolutionary here, and nothing that advances the genre, but this is the best NCAA yet. With the PS3 and Xbox 360 looming on the horizon, this is a fitting farewell to the current generation of NCAA Football.


NCAA Football 06 Score
out of 10