Ahh, Fall. While I prefer the heat and the glare of the summer sun, the one thing that I love about fall is the beginning of football season. The fevered anticipation that grips the country as every Saturday and Sunday, families and friends gather around TVs cheering on their favorite team to victory. Personally, I happen to have a special place in my heart for college ball. Collegiate ball seems to have some praiseworthy features inherent in the game that adds deeper complexity and texture to their matches, as opposed to their professional counterparts. For example, along with the pageantry and hype for a game, there is a sense of honor and tradition placed at stake when school rivals play each other. Plus, every game seems to be fought as if it is the last, because making your way into a bowl game is much harder than divisional or overall standings appear to be. 989 Sports attempts to capture the competitive spirit of the college game with NCAA GameBreaker 2003.
All the customary options you’ve come to expect within a football game can be found in GameBreaker. For people that want a quick down and dirty matchup, Scrimmage mode provides you with two teams eager to battle for yardage. For those players who want a little more time with a chosen squad, you can choose Bowl Season mode and charge through the ranks of your conference into a bowl game. If the BCS ranking system confuses you, you may want to check out the two Tournament modes. Tournament Season allows you to play a full season before leaping into elimination round play-offs for the National Championship, while Tournament Mode immediately thrusts you into this post-season frenzy.
By far, the most interesting facet of Gamebreaker this year is the Coaching Career mode. Instead of automatically assuming the position at any school, you have to scout around the country for available jobs as an offensive, defensive or special teams coordinator. Don’t expect to necessarily land a job at a Top Ten school or even your alma mater right away. You’ll have to work hard and prove that you’re worth the promotion to give you the ability to pick and choose the job you want. Often, this requires fulfilling specific requirements in a season, like 300 total offensive yards per game during a season, or a limited number of yards per game on defense.
While you’ll have total control over your team during game time, you’ll notice that your area of expertise will have some effect upon your team’s abilities, primarily during off season, where you’ll wind up evaluating players, recruiting freshman and transfers from around the country. For example, if you choose to be an offensive coordinator, you’ll wind up scouting wide receivers, running backs and other offensive threats. This involves choosing sections of the country to make “visits” to, placing phone calls to prospects, and then waiting to see which players decide to join your program. This feature provides gamers a new perspective on the coaching position, and if you or someone you know has ever undergone school recruitment, you’ll understand how accurate it is.
With almost 120 Division I schools ranging across the country, these blue chips should have no problem fitting into any team’s offense or defense. Power I Formations, Max Protect schemes, or Run ‘n’ Gun assaults can punch wide holes in enemy territory, while adjusted Dime stunts, Nickle zones and Man to Man coverage can seal receivers and backs in the backfield. Additionally, if the modern players don’t measure up to your standards, you can unleash any one of the 66 historical college teams Gamebreaker comes with.
While the series is continually compared to its rival, EA’s NCAA Football, Gamebreaker manages to establish some nice graphical touches in its own right. The animation within the game is truly top-notch, and some tackles are done so well, you’ll flinch because of the impact. Over 1,000 animations were used to revamp the previous engine, and the amount of time invested definitely pays off. Chop blocks, one handed catches and jersey pulls are just a few of the gems that you’ll see, and it isn’t surprising to find yourself mentally cataloguing your own highlight films. Additionally, each stadium has been faithfully reproduced, from Notre Dame Stadium to The Swamp. Plus, little touches, like light reflection off helmets, fully compliments the defined character models.
However, while the stadiums look great, the background textures detract from the full experience. Blurry and with a low polygon count, the contrast of out of focus trees and in focus bleachers can be jarring. Similarly, crowd animations in the stands are the same chunky movements you’ve probably seen in titles from five years ago or so, dulling the luster of this game. Finally, the facial animations of the players and the coaches can appear rather static, giving the impression of a lifeless stare. Most prevalent during cutscenes, especially those between coach and quarterback, it’s an odd quirk of the engine.
Acquiring “The Voice of College Football,” Keith Jackson, was a large coup. A legend that’s synonymous with NCAA Football, Jackson’s expertly delivered play-by-play establishes the perfect timbre for playing the game. Tim Brant joins Keith Jackson in the booth for color commentary, and the two manage to provide dialogue that seems as accurate as any Saturday morning broadcast. You’ll detect them actually filling in with observations and comments even after the play on the field has stopped. This is a great touch, and one that really brings you in. The only thing that would improve this aspect would be even more lines of dialogue, as there is a tendency to hear the same statement a few times in a game. However, it isn’t too repetitive, and depending upon the play, makes perfect sense in concert with the onscreen action. The section that does fall tragically short is the music. In contrast to the number of teams found in the title, there are a limited number of musical pieces and fight songs, which means that you won’t necessarily find your favorite fight song included. Plus, the songs do seem to be a tad bit muted tonally.
If you’ve ever played one of 989’s football titles, (or even more tenuously, any other football game) you’ll be able to pick up and play Gamebreaker without hesitation. The control scheme is very intuitive on both offense and defense, and even the slowest player will be able to discern what each button does. Scratching the surface a little bit, you’ll discover even more features to commanding your team. However, while intuitive, there are moments when certain functions can appear sluggish, such as changing players or performing an immediate reaction to the opposing team’s play. This sometimes forces you to anticipate movements of the other team as though you were actually on the field. For skilled football vets, this will present a definite challenge, but for beginners, it may be a little tough.
What might also be difficult is a perceptible bias towards offense. Gamebreaker features three distinct playbooks, each with their own style, plays and strategies. It’s a known fact that some teams prefer the run while others like taking the ball to the air, and some are a balance between the two. However, making strikes within defensive territory can sometimes be a little too easy on any difficulty level. It’s easy to break a run for a first down, and at times even easier to throw a long bomb. For example, I’ve been on 3rd down and 25, gone into the shotgun, and easily thrown a 45-yard pass for a completion and, often times, a touchdown. This means that you’ll find yourself working harder on the defensive side of the ball to contain and deny open passing and running lanes. While this can be done, sometimes shutting down a running back or a wide receiver with hot hands just isn’t possible.
NCAA Gamebreaker 2003 won’t settle the rivalry between it and EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2003, but it does provide a good playing experience for football fans. With multiple season awards (including the all-important Heisman), tons of teams and stadiums, and creative gameplay modes, Gamebreaker gives you a new slant on the college ball experience. Some graphical flaws, musical issues, and lightly overbalanced play cast a shadow on the game. However, if you can overlook these issues, you’ll find a good title to sustain you throughout this season.