NCAA Football 2004 Review (Xbox)
Other football games look better and certainly other games offer a more technically sound AI, yet for the last few years NCAA has been mentioned more than any other as the favorite of sports gamers. For me it is the fun of taking my university and trying to turn it into a national powerhouse, which isn’t easy considering I went to Utah State. Others enjoy the tradition and as [censored you naughty boy] Enberg might say the “Pageantry” of the college game, EA delivers all this once again.
I could complain about little things that get on my nerves year after year with the NCAA series, but I will hold off about that for awhile and tell you about what makes this game good. First off, the control is very responsive and easy to get a handle on, even the most inexperienced football gamer can start out on the JV level and have a chance. If you are familiar with the series, the game will feel a lot like previous years with some noticeable exceptions, which probably have more to do with more detailed animations than any true Gameplay changes.
In the running game you will still occasionally get hung up on the line and get a bit frustrated with your inability to shake free of your own linemen, however the game shows a tremendous improvement from the “Mario Running” that plagued it in the past. I have found that using the speed burst only occasionally is the best way to get the kind of control out of the running backs that I want. However, it seems sometimes that you can kind of fool the AI into taking a bad angle on you, by the angle that you take while you run, almost as if the Defense is stuck on a grid. Once you hit the speed burst though, all bets are off and it seems to draw the defense to you more quickly. I only use the speed burst when it is obvious that I am going to get hit, then it will help you break tackles and get a few extra yards. One excellent addition this years game are animations that allow your running back to fight for a few extra yards and use the “forward lean” of a good RB, to get some extra yards. You will have a lot more natural looking and feeling 3- 5 yard runs than in previous years. The juke and spin moves can be a little too effective against AI opponents or against you for that matter, these moves do increase the likelihood of a fumble but can turn into some big gains.
One issue, I still have with the human running game is the difficulty in running toss plays or sweeps, I am not expecting big gainers from them all the time, but I shouldn’t be terrified of running them, I have seen too many 4 to 5 yards losses were I have no chance. Running the option is as fun as ever and probably more realistic than in years past. This year it is more likely that your QB will be challenged sooner and have to pitch or take a hit. Something still doesn’t seem quite right with the spacing between the QB and RB. Both the CPU and I, have had a few too many runs where the QB was 6 or 7 yards down field only to pitch to the RB who at first glance appears to have plenty of room, only to be shut down immediately by the defense, it seems the defenders are a little too quick to recover on the option.
Even on higher difficulty levels and with the CPU sliders difficulty increased it is still a little too easy for a good QB to connect with a good receiver, sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter about the coverage if you put it out there enough times to your best receivers you will be successful, of course if you play as Utah State this year you won’t have this problem. The difference in playing with a talented team and some of the lesser teams is quite large and in some cases it is almost like playing a different game, you owe it to yourself to play with a wide variety of teams to truly get the taste of NCAA Football.
A complaint I have had in the past still exists to a certain extent this year, receivers on the short side of the field don’t seem to adjust their routes to stay in bounds, too many times a seemingly wide open receiver will make little or no attempt to stay inbounds, this also happens from time to time in the endzone. Overall the passing game is solid you will learn which passes to zip and which too loft. Also be very careful throwing over the middle, the middle linebackers and safeties are much more aware and you will get picked off many times unless you learn to read the coverage they are in. Not sure if maybe my eyes are better this year or changes were made but I do feel like I am able to read the defenses better and read and react more effectively.
On the defensive side of the ball not much has changed. If you haven’t played this game in the past, what this means is that you will not always feel in control of the outcome of the play. Play calling is still key, although pass coverage has been improved and you have enough time to swat passes or even jump the passing lane to intercept, but a lot of times it is safer to let the CPU take over for you in these situations. This is not necessarily a bad thing but at times the sense that you are not really in control of your destiny can be frustrating.
Defending the run without slider adjustments is too easy, partly because of solid control for the user, you can switch players easily and you can use the speed burst effectively while still maintaining control over your defender. Be careful not to use the dive/tackle button too often, you will end up being burned more often than not, only use the tackle button when you truly have the guy lined up. Somewhere in the slider settings is the ideal combination of challenge and control, however it may take you awhile to find the proper settings for you.
The AI is generally solid, but there are a few areas that need work, which is the case in all games, it’s a little more frustrating with NCAA since some of the problems with the AI have existed for years and are discussed by gamers ad nauseam. One example of this is the CPU’s propensity to go for the first on 4th down and to use fake punts or field goals. The CPU will go for the first on many 4th and 1 –6 yard situations when inside the opponents 40 and even up to the 30. It seems the CPU will just not attempt a field goal of more than 45 yards, but instead of punting and playing a field position game they go for it, strange. This can be frustrating both when the CPU makes it and when they don’t you just don’t feel like the CPU is a worthy opponent.
The only other issue I have with the AI is they still seem to abandon the run, even with teams that are predominantly running teams and even when they are successful on the ground. In all other facets of the game the CPU is a worthy opponent, it will pick up on your tendencies, adjust to your audibles and generally manage the clock pretty well.
GRAPHICS AND ANIMATION
The most notable improvements to NCAA are the animations, especially tackles and running animations. Finally you don’t get the feeling that the players are just running into each other and falling down. Now you will see players wrap up on tackles that look real, receivers being de-cleated by head hunting defensive backs and running backs fighting for extra yards. I particularly like the RB animations where the runners can be knocked off balance and recover or where they lean for the extra yards. One glitch that has been ironed out from previous years is when you nearly sack the QB, now the ball will not miraculously sail 50 yards down field right into the hands of the receiver, more than likely you will see an incomplete pass that goes almost nowhere.
The graphical quality is good, but once you see Madden 2004 you realize that the graphics could be better. The uniforms are done extremely well and the stadiums are recreated quite well, but they look good for a game from 2-3 years ago, I was expecting a little more. I am not much of a graphics whore, but I can honestly say in this case I would like to see some more polygons and perhaps some smoother lines.
Menus are easy to navigate and what one would normally expect from an EA Sports title.
The bands and crowd chants are great, numerous schools songs have been added, but to be honest most of them sound the same to me, so EA could be lying about the number of school specific songs they offer. The announcing team is once again Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso, which for the most part is a good thing, however they didn’t add enough new comments and they didn’t really have all that many last year, so their comments get old pretty fast. Also there is a little too much dead air at times even during the most exciting games. Once again during your dynasty some of your games may not be televised so you end up with only the stadium announcer, sort of like watching a Braves broadcast.
For many gamers the Dynasty or Franchise mode is what makes the game and if you are that type of sports gamer, you are in luck because this is the strongest part of NCAA. As in the past when you go into the recruiting mode in the offseason based on your record and prestige you are awarded a certain amount of recruiting points for each week. You are then off to recruiting for the next 5 weeks, you are presented with lists of national prospects, interested prospects and prospects from your state, it costs less recruiting points to recruit state prospects and highly interested prospects. You can choose to have the head coach or assistant coach visit a prospect or you can spend less recruiting points and just place a phone call. Your best bet is to focused on state prospects and interested prospects, occasionally you can sway a prospect your way with intense interest and if hsis suitors sign other players.
The coolest addition to recruiting this year is ability to try and sell a recruit on some special aspect of your program. Your choices are location, prestige, playing time and coaching philosophy, each week you will be updated as to whether or not your sales pitch is working, so if it isn’t, you can change your philosophy. I really enjoyed trying to figure out what may draw a player to my 1 star school. Another good addition is the ability to try and persuade your players who are leaving early, into staying.
The downside to recruiting is it is awfully tough to persuade any player over 2 star rating to come to a smaller school. The flipside is that it is pretty easy to get 4 and 5 star blue chip type players to go to top schools. This kind of skews the level of competition a little bit, NCAA is no where near as challenging when you have players rated 90 plus at all the skill positions. It is fun to build a great team but the competitive balance suffers and then you are back to adjusting sliders to get the right level of competition.
Historical teams and all Division I and IAA schools is a good start. Throw in rivalry games where you can win things like the Old Oaken Bucket and then view your winnings in your trophy room and most sports gamers will be pretty happy. EA added college classics this year where you are thrown into a historical situation like Kordell Stewarts miracle pass against Michigan, the only thing I would like to see added here is a restart button, in this instance you throw one long pass and if you fail the game ends and you go all the way back out to the menus.
EA has also added the EA Sports Bio to all EA sports games, this will track your records, time played and various accomplishments through out all of the EA Sports family, playing one game will also unlock rewards in another game, it is pretty cool and just another way to encourage re-playability.
With the old school teams you will play in uniforms of the their era, which is just another thing to add to the college nostalgia atmosphere of this game.
Within a dynasty you have all the various awards and All-American teams, all the bowl games and a interesting new addition, Sports Illustrated covers each week that highlight the major events of the season. Full stat tracking for each team and players careers as well as leaders that are sortable by NCAA or conference. Pretty much everything you can think of is available in this game.
NCAA is an excellent game, the complaints I have with it are magnified only because they are the same complaints I have had for the last few years. NCAA does a great job of recreating the excitement of college football and the Dynasty mode is without equal. With the numerous features and unlock able teams NCAA can provide almost umlimited re-playability.