NCAA Football 2004 Review
NCAA College Football 2004 is the latest game in EA's tremendously popular college football series. While not as popular as Madden, it consistently sells over a million copies a year. Featuring all of the Division 1A teams, and quite a few 1-AA squads, NCAA 2004 gives you the chance to lead even the small school you attend to a national title. The game is incredibly deep and plays great, but in the end it's not too much different from Madden. That's not to say that it's not worth getting, but if you're looking for a drastic departure from this year's Madden, you won't find it here.
One thing that you'll never have to worry about with this game is running out of things to do. You can play a quick game, get online and take on hundreds of people, start a dynasty, or even play a classic game from the past. Most of your time will likely be spent leading your school to glory in dynasty mode, but you could spend days on the other stuff if you wanted to.
Dynasty mode involves you selecting a program, and leading it through multiple seasons. Based on your success or lack thereof, you can be fired, given an extension, or even offered a better job at a more prestigious university. In the offseason you can recruit players, which isn't that interesting - you just check a box marked "make a coach call" or "make a coach visit". Each effort to recruit a player takes a certain amount of recruiting points, and depending on the recruit's interest and your effort in recruiting them, you can sign them to a scholarship. Yes, you can preach playing time or coaching strategy to the kids, but that seems to make little difference, as it's not worth the time or effort to experiment around that much. If you're a good school, you can recruit all over the place, and if you're small, you stick to local players. It's not much more complex than that.
As you start your season, you can rearrange your schedule to make it tougher, or schedule yourself a few easy wins. Of course playing those 1-AA teams won't do much for your strength of schedule when the BCS rankings come out, nor will it do much for you in the coach's and media polls. While the ranking system is cool, it's pretty frustrating to lose the 9th game of the season and watch your title hopes go by the wayside. Yeah, that's how it is in real life, but it's disappointing to play that many games and then end up in the "Joe Bob's BBQ Bowl".
If you've played Madden, then you already have a pretty good idea of how NCAA 2004 plays. The controls are very similar, except that you have no playmaker control, you can't change a hot route to a slant (something they did two versions ago in Madden) and you now have the ability to run the option. Other than that, it's pretty darn similar.
The option is a huge part of college football, and of course, a huge part of NCAA 2004. Running the option is pretty simple - run with the QB and have the running back follow behind him. As soon as you know who the defense is gunning for, you either keep the ball and take off downfield, or you lateral the ball to the running back after the defender has committed to stopping the QB. This sounds easy enough, but it's easy to fumble the option and it's really easy to lose yards. It's definitely one of those high-risk, high-reward plays. For many schools, this is the way you're going to gain a majority of your yards, and it's not uncommon to have two players rush for 100 yards a piece. The good thing here is that EA has nailed the option play perfectly - you can even get rid of the ball as you're being hit, though you're more likely to fumble this way.
It's a good thing that the option works well, because it can be maddening trying to complete a pass. Part of the problem is that certain playbooks don't have much in them as far as passing formations go. In fact, for a team like Virginia Tech, the only four wide receiver set they have is three plays, all of which are Hail Mary plays. The rest of the formations had two tight ends and only two receivers. How are you supposed to stretch the field or make the defense respect the pass with such horrible pass plays? Yeah, you can go get another team's playbook, but a little more balance would have been nice.
Playing defense is just like any other EA football game, which means you'll do fine as long as you never, ever take control of a defensive back. The game's AI is very good, and even pulled a few surprising 4th and inches attempts on me that in most games you'd see a punt. It managed the clock well, and generally put up a good fight unless it was clearly overmatched. The "third down miracles" that are always so prevalent in football games are here too. Just because you've got a team 3rd down and 12 doesn't mean you're going to stop them. This is something that's been frustrating for years, but you've got to make the computer competitive somehow.
Playing online is simple, and perhaps most importantly, it's free. The games all run smoothly, and you can find some great competition online. Unfortunately, you can find some world-class cheaters online as well. Be forewarned that if you play anyone with an insanely long winning streak, they're going to use a glitch to disconnect and not get charged a loss. This really kills the amount of fun you can have with the game online, at least playing with strangers. What's the point in keeping records or sticking around in a game you're losing if half the people out there aren't being honest? Regardless of these issues, it's still fun to play online, and adds a ton of replay value to the game.
NCAA College Football 2004 isn't a phenomenal looking game, but it's hard to find any major flaws with the way it looks. Players are very detailed, and their accurately recreated uniforms will even get dirty as the game wears on. If you look closely, you can even see the stickers added to players' helmets as the season progresses.
It's hard to convey a real college atmosphere in a videogame, but EA has done an admirable job of doing so with a few things you won't find in Madden. Key amongst these are the cheerleaders and mascots, shown on the sideline in between plays. There are also team-specific celebrations, like Virginia Tech firing a cannon after a touchdown. The people lighting the cannon even turn away and plug their ears when it goes off - now that's some attention to detail. For the bigger schools, the stadiums are exact replicas of the real thing, but for smaller schools, EA just picked a generic stadium, but one that comes close to what the team actually plays in.
The game's visuals do fail in a few key areas, like a lack of animations when compared to Madden 2004. The framerate will stutter occasionally, especially when playing in widescreen mode. This is disappointing considering the game runs significantly slower than this year's Madden. The "not quite as good as Madden 2004" is a common theme in the game. It seems like since it's essentially the only college football game, EA doesn't bother to push the envelope, and has just ended up releasing a game that feels a little dated.
NCAA Football's audio presentation is superb. The announcers are great, the sounds on the field are good, and the fight songs and marching bands are amazing. The sheer number of fight songs they crammed into the game is extremely impressive, and really goes a long way towards creating the feeling of being at the game. It does get a little annoying hearing your team's song after a touchdown, and then again after an extra point, but that's what they do in real life, so you can't really fault Tiburon on that one. The crowds even get into the action at times, chanting "Over-Rated" over and over if you're at home getting ready to take down a team ranked higher than you. It's a great feeling to close out a big win with a crowd like that.
Brent Nessler, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit do a top-notch job of calling the action, telling interesting anecdotes, and making important observations about the play on the field. One cool thing they'll do is let you know when one of your players has broken or is coming close to breaking a school record. It provides a little extra incentive to stay focused during a blowout if you know you can set a new team record. From a negative standpoint, the announcers often give incorrect summaries of the team's previous possession, but it's not a huge deal. Overall, the game sounds fantastic, and it does a nice job of complementing the rest of the game's college feel.
Overall, NCAA College Football 2004 is a very good game, but one that's not for everyone. It's not different enough from Madden to warrant a purchase if you're just a casual college fan, and the fact that it seems to be a hybrid of Madden 2002 and 2003 makes it feel like a dated product. Where's the playmaker control? Where are the split screen replays that speed up gameplay? They'll probably be there next year, but they should have been there this year. It's worth a look if you love college football or you really, really hate John Madden's voice.
9/10/2003 Aaron Thomas