NCAA Football 2005 Review
College football fans dream of July almost as much as they do the first week of foot ball in September because that's when EA's beloved NCAA series is released to ease those summertime blues. With no competition anymore, it has been up the guys at EA Tiburon to come up with ways to keep the series fresh, instead of resting on their laurels. This year there are some nice additions to the game, namely the "Home Field Advantage" but the rest of the game suffers from a "been there, done that" problem, since not much else has changed from last year.
There are a variety of play modes in NCAA 2005, including recreating great classic games, playing teams that consist of mascots, online, and of course a practice mode, but true college fans will head straight for the game's dynasty mode. When you enter dynasty mode, you are asked to select a school, or you can create a college, which is nice if you go to a small school that doesn't have a football team. You can then rename your coach, redshirt players and tweak your schedule before the season begins. You can't change all of your games, since most other teams have their schedules set, but it's cool to be able to schedule a patsy to pad your stats or schedule a tough game to hopefully raise your ranking. As your season concludes, you'll be invited to a bowl game, provided you're bowl eligible, the Heisman trophy will be awarded, and then after the season you have to start recruiting.
Not much has changed with recruiting from last year - you still spend points recruiting players, and it's more expensive to recruit out of state. This year you can change your budget around and allot more money to recruiting, though other parts of your program will suffer from a lack of funding. The whole process tends to be rather tedious and uneventful, and the computer is very slow at simulating other teams' actions. You'll get the best players if you recruit yourself, but after a season of doing it on your own, you might just want to let the computer take the reigns in future years. One of the new things you can do in recruiting is recruit athletes - people with tremendous athletic ability, but no real position. You can then train them in the off season and place them at the position they are best at.
Once you get to the actual gameplay, the first thing you'll notice is the game's new "Home Field Advantage" (HFA). Since HFA is a huge part of college football, Tiburon has tried to replicate that feel in this year's game, and for the most part, they did a really nice job. If you're a visiting team playing in a hostile stadium, your screen will shake, your controller will vibrate, and you'll have difficulty calling audibles. As the drive progresses and you get worse, the crowd yells more and the effects become more pronounced. In addition to making the game more difficult by altering the visuals, the HFA also changes player ratings, based on each person's composure ratings. Veteran players won't get rattled as much, but younger players will drop the football, miss blocking assignments, and perform poorly overall. It's a really cool addition, and it will be neat to see how they are able to fine tune it over the next couple years. Right now, it's not perfect, but it's got tons of potential.
One of the problems that many people have had with NCAA, is that it seems to always be lagging a little bit behind Madden. For example, last year Madden added slants to the hot routs, and now this year, NCAA has done the same. If you haven't played the latest version of Madden, or ESPN NFL 2K5, you might not miss some of the newer features, but it's a little difficult to go backwards with key features. Running the ball is a little bit easier this year, though there are still plenty of times where your O-line will get blocked backwards into your path, giving you no chance to even fight back to the line of scrimmage. Passing is extremely difficult this time around, with an excessive amount of dropped balls from receivers, and amazingly gifted leapers at cornerback the two biggest culprits. Sure, dropped balls are part of the game, but when players routinely drop the softest of passes when they're wide open, it can be more than a little exasperating.
NCAA boasts a full-featured online mode that's a blast to play. You can chat with friends, instant message, join tournaments, and best of all, there's an "even team" mode. Using even teams means that everyone can play their favorite school and you don't have to play USC 48 times in a row. EA's sports ticker, which was stolen directly from 989, updates you on all the "real life" games in progress, so you don't miss out on any of the big games. Some people have reported difficulty playing online when they already have NCAA 2005 data on their memory card, but I didn't have this problem. Just be aware that it could be an issue, and having an extra memory card handy might not hurt.
NCAA 2005's weakest area is its graphics. It's not an ugly game on the same level as 989's football titles, but again, when compared to Madden or ESPN, it's an ugly duckling. Though Tiburon added new tackling animations, there are still many times where players just run into each other and nothing happens, or blockers will block just by running into another player, not pushing them with their hands or lowering their shoulders. There's also quite a bit of clipping, and a lot of it is quite bad, especially during replays and celebrations. The stadiums are also beginning to look dated, and the crowds, save for the people that they zoom in one after big plays, are all flat, 2D pixilated blobs. In an ode to first generation PS2 games, aliasing is a problem, and there's often slowdown, especially if you play in the widescreen mode.
Of course the game's strongest visuals are still the cheerleaders, the mascots and the celebrations, and there have been a few more things added this year to spice things up. You can now create signs for the fans to hold, and trust me, it never gets old making signs that describe how your opponent sucks. Since emotion is such a large part of the game, there have been new celebrations added - not only for touchdowns, but after big plays as well. Just be careful not to go too over-the-top as the referee won't have any qualms about calling a fifteen yard excessive celebration penalty.
Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso are back to provide commentary, provided the game you are playing is on television. If it's not, you'll get a generic PA announcer calling out the downs, which is a nice way of creating a difference between small-time and big-time games. Unfortunately, the commentary feels exactly the same as it did last year, with no noticeable tweaks or new sayings being added to the game. The fight songs are great, but it's time to add some other marching band tunes to the mix. Overall, there's nothing really wrong with the game's audio, it's just that they've done nothing to improve it.
As usual, NCAA 2005 is the best college football game on the market - of course there's nobody else competing, but it's a very good game regardless. Unfortunately, the lack of any direct competition seems to be taking its toll on the series as each year it feels like it's slipping ever so slightly in quality. The visuals are due for a major upgrade, and the audio has similar needs. Don't let these gripes keep you from buying the game if you're interested - it's a ton of fun to play, and there's lots of great games to be played online.
9/8/2004 Aaron Thomas