NCAA GameBreaker 2004 Review
With SEGA not bringing out a college football game this year, there's not much for college pigskin fans to pick from. It's either EA, with the strong NCAA Football 2004, or 989 with the much-maligned Gamebreaker series. The good news is that NCAA Gamebreaker 2004, while far from perfect, is superior to last year's lackluster effort. Like the Dave Matthew's Band song "I Did It" says, "You've got a long way to go, but you've gotta start somewhere." Let's take a look at the finished product.
Gamebreaker offers up a wide variety of play modes, including a tournament mode, which opponents of the BCS will be happy to see. Fans of bowl games need not worry as there are 27 bowl games for you to (hopefully) get invited to. You can also play coaching career mode, where you are able to start at a small school, recruit new students, and if successful, you will receive promotions and new job offers.
989 really went all out when it comes to Gamebreaker's online mode. This is the one area where the game blows away its EA counterpart. The online interface is well organized, it supports online chat, you can email other players, and you can even interact with people that have another 989 game in their PS2 other than Gamebreaker. A really cool touch is the ticker that goes across the bottom of the screen that includes scores from real games, provided there are any occurring at the time. Why nobody has done that before, I don't know. The gameplay online is pretty smooth, and it even supports dial-up connections, for those of you not fortunate enough to have broadband. There are also roster updates to keep your teams up to date. Unless you're a Notre Dame fan, in which case you don't want their updated statistics, you'll be better off having them overrated as usual.
The actual gameplay is far better than it was last year, but it's still a far cry from making anyone at Electronic Arts sweat. The menus are easy to navigate, there are tons of options to choose from, and you can even select arcade or simulation style gameplay based on your preferences. To be honest though, I didn't feel there wasn't a huge difference between the two.
The controls are easy to learn, and for the most part are responsive. However, this is not the case if you are trying to quickly transition from one animation to the other. The game is pretty stubborn about letting you interrupt moves, and this cause for some very odd looking plays. Any time a defensive back maneuvers to knock a pass down is a great example of this - it just looks sluggish, and the animations jump from one to the other. There are numerous other scenarios in which things like this occur, unfortunately.
While the AI is certainly better than it was last year, it's still not quite where it needs to be. It's quite easy to just pass the ball every play, because someone is bound to be wide open. Once in a while, your quarterback will be off horribly on a throw, and this seems to be the game's method of counteracting its own inability to defend against the pass. While it's a piece of cake to pass, running the ball is a bit more difficult. Holes don't stay open very long, and you're really going to have to stay committed to the run to be successful. Of course, you could just pass all day and not have to worry about running.
Gamebreaker's most outstanding visual element is its player models. Each one looks quite good, and they've really got the body types looking like they should. There aren't any freakish, Hulk-like players here, they just look real. Unfortunately, they don't look quite as good in motion, as there are a number of minor animation issues that keep reminding you that you're playing a series that's working its way back to the top.
The stadiums are dull and lifeless, with crowds that might as well not have even been put in. There are cheerleaders and mascots on the sidelines, but the graphics just don't do enough to create a college atmosphere.
The game does support 16x9 mode as well as progressive scan, but switching to 16x9 seemed to make the framerate even more erratic than it normally was. This was a big problem any time the camera had to move. When you snap the ball, the camera is much too close, even on widescreen display, so as soon as you hike the ball, it has to quickly pan out. As it does this, the game is virtually unplayable, as the framerate plummets. It quickly balances back out, but as soon as you scramble to the left or right, it starts to get choppy again. Eventually you expect this, and you even get used to it, but it's jarring to go from a game as smooth as NCAA 2004 to something like this.
The game's audio is good, but feels slightly uninspired, this is due to the lethargic commentary of Keith Jackson, an excellent broadcaster, but one who was supposed to retire years ago. That's not just my opinion by the way, he actually had his farewell game years ago, but he's still hanging around. He's just not very enthusiastic, and seems to have little to no chemistry with his broadcast partner. There are plenty of fight songs in the game, and they all sound fine. Really there's just nothing interesting going on here.
Oh yeah, you can call plays with the headset, which sounds a lot cooler than it is. It's a great idea in theory, but it just doesn't add much to the game.
It seems like 989 focused on piling on more options and gimmicks this year, and still didn't get the core of the game down pat. If they think they have a solid foundation of a game, they are sorely mistaken. Yes, the options are fantastic, and the online mode is a model of how games should be organized, but at its heart, this is a football game, and the football's not that good. What good is a shiny car with all the options, when it has no engine?
9/29/2003 Aaron Thomas