Most sports fans know the continual debate of determining which is ultimately better: collegiate or professional sports. While many strongly argue that professional organizations host the best athletes of that sport, collegiate fans argue for deep seated rivalries and the heightened passion that accompanies every athlete during every play. Naturally this argument has crossed over to the gaming realm, where players argue about the NFL vs. the NCAA.
In previous years, most of this centered on EA’s popular Madden vs. NCAA football franchises, with the NCAA often cited as Madden’s little brother. Recent improvements in NCAA’s development have not only started to dispel this concept, but give its professional “sibling” a run for its money. The latest version, NCAA Football 06, proves that the school game has definitely grown up and is ready for the big time.
Desmond Howard’s now infamous pose of the Heisman Trophy on the outside cover is indicative of this year’s primary focus for NCAA 06. In fact, as soon as you start up the game for the first time, you’re placed into the simulated reality of creating a high school star eager to impress college scouts. Initially, you’ll pick a position for your “character” on either side of the ball, whether that’s a pocket or scrambling quarterback, lineman, running back, receiver or defensive back. Your choice decides which drill you’ll wind up performing for the scouts, ranging from options and pass skeletons to rushing drills and the Oklahoma, a.k.a. trench drills. How well you perform establishes your player’s initial stats as well as a list of schools interested in offering you a scholarship to play for them. If you’re not fielding offers from institutions you like, you can always choose to walk on to a team wherever you want.
Once you’ve made this choice, you’re introduced to your dorm room, the hub of the college experience for the next three or four virtual sports seasons. While you start out in relatively sparse housing as a freshman, your room will definitely improve over the course of time, reflecting your class status. Regardless of your living conditions, you’ll find the same features throughout: There will be a newspaper that gives you a quick snapshot idea of what the press thinks about your team or your player, whether positive or negative. You’ll also get a trophy case to store any accolades you receive over your career, one which hopefully will be stocked with a Heisman by the time your college days are over.
Apart from this, you’ll have fan mail that will comment on your play, a schedule of upcoming games, a meter that ranks how much hype you’ve generated for the Heisman, a closet that lists your player’s specific stats and info only, and even a picture of your campus sweetheart at the time. I say at the time because while you’ll start out with an average or even unattractive picture at first, it’s not uncommon for an exceptional player to trade out three or even four women on his wall during a season. Finally, there’s a computer that tracks league rankings, bowl projections and other league info, and a playbook where you can practice your skills and run additional drills before a game.
While the singular attention heaped on your created character throughout the Race for the Heisman mode is well done, there are some facets that make the mode less than believable in its execution. First of all, the athlete creation and the scouting performed by schools literally disregards the concept of local recruiting or even pipeline states for colleges and universities, a factor that the dynasty mode targets this year (and that I’ll mention later). In fact, this makes it particularly harder to believe that your created star will be able to simply walk on to any squad in the country and become an immediate starter over any of the pre-existing squad members, whether upperclassmen or red-shirted.
Barring this, you’ll find yourself constantly performing actions that aren’t necessarily practical in game situation to simply pad your stats and increase your chances of winning the Heisman, which isn’t an easy feat. This means that you might have a quarterback continually throwing the ball, even with a comfortable lead on your opponents, to give him more yards than a conference rival, or you’ll use more running plays that only feature your running back to give him more rushing yards, which is easily predictable for opponents and makes him much more susceptible to injury. However stilted the feature is, it’s still an engaging mode that shows off many of the tweaks to the gameplay formula.
One thing that previous owners of an NCAA game will notice is that this year’s game is much faster and more balanced than ever before. Last year’s title could feel a little bit methodical and slow in moments, with some players moving like tanks instead of active athletes. NCAA 06 actually feels as fast paced as the college game itself, with varying levels of speed that are apparent based on the position: receivers and defensive backs have a faster gear than linemen, etc. There’s also a much more balanced focus on passing. Quarterbacks can now throw the short, mid-range and long ball without worrying that a DB is going to automatically have the jump on their receiver, particularly since they can do some mild placement of their throw.
The right analog stick is also more prominent in this year’s game, and not solely to check up on positional matchups. On defense, your linemen use the analog stick to swim or spin through their coverage before closing in on their target in the backfield. Other defensive positions can use the analog stick like the Hit Stick from last year’s Madden, adding a significant pop to any tackle they make. Offense isn’t left in the lurch either; the analog stick has been configured to allow a stop and go hop, jukes to the left or right or covering the ball. The mapping of these key moves makes the game much easier to control, and can make certain plays more dramatic, particularly with the inclusion of the impact player feature.
The impact player focuses on certain players on each squad that consistently demonstrate talent in their position. These athletes are designated by a white circle under their feet that pulses now and then to indicate that they’re “in the zone.” Players in the zone perform more game changing moves, like forcing fumbles or interceptions, or breaking tackles or opening holes for larger plays. In fact, dramatic moments will sometimes cause Matrix-like camera sweeps of a broken tackle or a monster hit to play up the on-field action. It won’t happen every single time you avoid a tackle or take someone out of their shoes with a hit, but when it does it will impress you.
The one downside to this impact player feature is that you won’t fully understand why some players get in the zone and why others don’t. For instance, a running back might get into the zone after he’s broken a run for twenty yards, but also find your quarterback suddenly leap into the zone after a crushing sack for a significant loss of yards. It doesn’t make sense, and there are some moments that you’ll wish your team had that extra boost of adrenaline, just to find out that your opponent’s players are suddenly charged up. Also, while it isn’t entirely a downside to the impact player feature, it’s still possible to make near-impossible throws over the shoulder to receivers without your quarterback rationally knowing that they’re open. This is particularly true if your QB is in the zone and has made a string of completed passes. However, that will probably be fixed in next year’s game (like many of the tweaks that happen to the NCAA Franchise), with my guess being that NCAA 07 will include the upcoming Madden 06 vision cones to remove this problem.
Off the field, players can also engage in a slightly redesigned Dynasty mode, which now focuses on recruiting High School stars during your season instead of solely going after kids in the off season. You’ll be given a pool of recruiting points to allocate to any pre-season prospects however you’d like, so you can choose to heavily recruit for need or throw caution to the wind and try to pull in a large class of students. Based on the kinds of pitches you deliver to the kid and their personal decisions, you can make progress with drawing them to your school or lose them entirely. What’s more, the kind of performance your team delivers from week to week influences their decisions heavily, giving you more sway to invite them to campus or gain a commitment from the kids early. An additional coach’s notebook tracks each kid’s responses to your recruiting attempts, making it easier to tailor make your pitches for each athlete.
While it keeps you on your toes, there were also some hitches with this feature. First of all, while it makes sense that there are certain pre-season targets you’d want to keep your eyes on, once they opt for another program, you can’t go back and look for a replacement star or newly developing talent from a high school during the year; instead, you can only allocate the points from the lost target to the other kids on your list. This doesn’t seem realistic, as I’m sure schools don’t just give up their scouting if one of their prospects goes elsewhere. Also, there are a number of times that you’ll wonder just what these kids want from any school, particularly if they’re interested in how you play rivalry games or season critical matchups. I blew out one team in a game, just to hear from a prospect that he expected a much better game from us. Are you kidding?
Additionally, the pipeline concept (that of recruiting kids from that school’s state or nearby states for talent) doesn’t feel like it’s accurately handled. While it’s supposed to be easier to recruit kids from pipeline states, you’re not guaranteed any additional luck or a larger incoming class if you recruit from them at all. In fact, I ran three separate dynasties with different schools, all of whom heavily or solely recruited from their home and pipeline states, and didn’t find any significant benefit from them.
Graphically, NCAA 06 is sharper than previous versions of the game. Character models animate much better than last year’s game, with better juke, spin and tackle animations. In fact, it’s possible to get gang tackles, double teams and mid-air collisions over the goal line which looks phenomenal. You’ve also got much more attention being paid to the character models themselves, whether it’s the initial customization of your character’s visors, tape and other accessories or the manipulation of specific grass stains for heavily tackled players. It’s possible to tell just how active a player has been in a game by the amount of dirt now caking his jersey or pants. This being said, it’s somewhat of a disappointment that the animations of the commentators are relatively static, less well drawn and somewhat lackluster. This also carries over to their commentary, which really feels canned and barely unchanged from last year’s dialog. While there are some new comments, primarily when Lee Corso is making his team selections or indicating who’s in the zone, the announcers will often make the same statement game after game, and even quarter after quarter.
As far as major differences between consoles, there’s something to be said for both the PS2 and Xbox versions. While they’re functionally quite similar, run and gun or option heavy offenses run much better on the PS2’s control scheme, because you don’t have to essentially move your fingers far to pitch the ball or perform a fake on an end run. Unlike the Xbox, where these moves are dependent on the awkward placement of the black and white buttons on a controller, the PS2 allows you to use the shoulder mounted buttons which are much easier to reach. However, the significant trade off is an increase in load times for simulations, menu screens and load times, as well as a minor amount of slowdown. The Xbox version is noticeably faster and more consistent with its framerate, but apart from that, the game on both systems is functionally identical.
While the inclusion of the Race for the Heisman mode was an incredibly ambitious move, along with some of the other tweaks made to the game, NCAA Football 06 manages to carry them off rather well. This isn’t a rental or a possibly purchase for a football lover; College football fans will be ecstatic to play this faster paced title that has better controls and more innovative gameplay features. This game itself is a contender for a championship.