One of the fundamental facets of any sport, whether it’s before, during or after a season is the constant drive to improve and innovate play to the next level. Whether that’s dominating your opponents, creating groundbreaking styles that revolutionize the activity, or redefining the presentation of the game, success only comes from a thorough desire to get better. The same can be said of sports games, where only those titles that consistently change the face of the game stand tall.
Take EA’s NCAA Football franchise. Long considered the “little brother” of Madden, it has become a powerhouse in its own right under EA Sports’ careful tutelage. In fact, it’s even managed to eliminate its competition this year, as it’s the only college football title being released this season. Grab your school colors and fight songs, because it’s time to enroll in NCAA Football 2005.
Aside from building upon the solid foundation of past years by including more than 144 Division 1-A and AA teams, NCAA 2005’s most dramatic improvement is the inclusion of Home Field Advantage, primarily because it affects just about every facet of this year’s game. As anyone who’s seen or attended a college football game knows, the rabid home team fans in the stands are often the twelfth man on the field, affecting the game from kickoff to final whistle. NCAA 2005 implements this in a visceral way: the noise from unfriendly crowds will not only cause the television screen to shake, but make a players controller vibrate wildly based on their level of fervor. Not only will this influence nervous players, but also it can complicate calling audibles or snap counts, leading to errant routes, possible fouls or even turnovers. For instance, running backs and wide receivers alike will throw up their hands in frustration if the crowd goes nuts in the stadium (more on this later). Gamers can boost this zealotry by smacking a button before a play is called, getting secondary defenders to wave their hands to juice up the crowd. Plays that fall apart under this pressure have a tendency to rattle offensive squads while at the same time raising the energy of the stadium even more. The only way to truly silence an opposing crowd is to successfully complete plays, drives and ultimately put points on the board.
Don’t expect that you’ll be able to suck the air out of every stadium, however. NCAA 2005 tracks the passion of each schools fans, even including a list of the top 25 toughest arenas to play in. Successfully completing two or three first downs might get under the skin of say, Ball State or Florida International, whereas you’ll need to blowout Oklahoma or Michigan to take the wind out of their fans’ sails. But gamers of “weaker” schools aren’t left out, because you can raise your program’s followers up to become a vocal powerhouse in the Dynasty mode with numerous winning seasons.
Securing loud stadiums for your teams is much more than an affect on game peripherals: As I said before, this can mess with the composure of players on the field, making it harder to score points or stop the opposing team’s drives. Every single player on a squad has their own level of preparedness: seniors are much more solid than freshman, and standout players or first-stringers are stronger than guys that constantly ride the pine. As a game progresses, this level will go up or down based on how the team is playing. For instance, the defensive secondary could be really depressed if they let an opponent (particularly a rival) complete a number of passes for huge yardage. They won’t hit as hard, and the chance of interceptions will decrease dramatically. Your team could be further depressed if their star running back becomes injured on the next offensive series. Wide receivers might start dropping easily caught balls or lose running power. However, if his replacement comes in and steps up his level of play, your team could rally around this guy.
Considering how the mood of the guys on the field can, and often does, change from play to play, having a way to gauge which players are feeling shaky and which ones are in the zone can give a coach a significant advantage to breaking a game open. Enter the Matchup Stick. As a quarterback approaches the line, gamers can check the composure of the offensive line versus the defensive line, secondary versus the backfield, and defensive backs versus wide receivers. This can aid players in figuring out which side to try a running play on, or backs to challenge on deep balls. This lends a greater level of strategy to a game. For example, if I know that the offensive line of Nebraska is feeling a bit weak to the left hand side, I’m going to run sweeps and power options that way until they forcibly stop me. On the other hand, if I sense a safety that’s feeling pumped up, I may concentrate on the flat or curl options to avoid getting picked off.
Off the field, coaches will notice that Dynasty mode has been augmented to include collegiate “indiscretions.” That’s right, you may notice that a linebacker gets into a fight at practice, or your quarterback blows off a mandatory workout session. This year, coaches will have to make a choice between ignoring the problem and disciplining the athlete via suspension or even ejection from the team. Suspend too many players early on with minor infractions and you could be crippled later on in the year when a major problem arises. Ignore the troublemakers, and you could find your team suspended by the NCAA. While you’re not going to find the more extreme situations like players busted for drugs or anything like that, it gives an additional level of realism (and worry) to any coach.
You can choose to combat disciplinary issues in the pre-season by allocating part of your budget to keeping your players in line. You can also choose to include money for pre-season training to boost the stats of your squad or increase your spending for recruiting incoming freshmen and transfers. There are two cool features about recruiting that’s been included for this year. The first is that you can scout any prospective players for your team, checking out their stats, composure ratings, disciplinary levels and the like before extending recruiting pitches to them, such as playing time or program prestige. The other facet is that NCAA 2005 now features “Athletes,” players whose diverse skills allow them to play virtually any position (although they’re often better skilled at certain slots than others).
The largest thing that fans of the series will definitely notice is the surprising lack of technical improvements to NCAA 2005, something that makes the game feel much more like a downloaded expansion pack than a new title in the series. Just about everything, from the stadiums to the player models, to the in-game actions seems to have been recycled from last year’s title, which is somewhat disappointing. Granted, there are a number of new animations; in particular, players can now choose between mild and extreme celebrations after plays for either players, fans or cheerleaders/mascots, but this doesn’t really feel like enough of an augmentation to make this year stand out from previous versions. This is too bad, considering that one of the graphical “tweaks” is the included “create a sign” feature that will show up if the camera focuses on the stands. In fact, this merely highlights the lack in detail between the 3D fans holding the signs and the tamer, 2D cutouts filling the rest of the seats. Strangely, Xbox owners will probably also notice a significant amount of slowdown that pops up during games, particularly in the red zone, which just doesn’t feel right considering the strength of the system. Aurally, the inclusion of the varying levels of crowd noise to indicate Home Field Advantage is good (not to mention necessary to have the feature fully work), but the commentary from the announcers is practically the same script as last year. Even the newer statements seem to repeat themselves much more frequently than older comments, indicating that there really wasn’t a lot of innovation with the dialogue for NCAA 2005.
There are a few other features that I didn’t mention earlier, such as the inclusion of a “hit button” to perform those incredibly fierce attacks that you usually see in continually replayed on the news. This, coupled with an extreme celebration, will often give you a shot of adrenaline (and probably an unsportsmanlike penalty if you’re not careful!). However, this is something that could’ve been included in a more fleshed out NCAA title. As it is, it comes off as a limited rendition of the upcoming Madden 2005 “Hit Stick,” especially since a lot of the other gameplay isn’t that much different than last years. Sensing a theme? You wouldn’t be the only one. I know that the designers wanted to establish a line between Madden and NCAA, but it might not be a bad idea to start looking at importing much more of the depth the NFL game hosts. What about training camps or exercises? Preparations during the week for opponents, especially tough ranked teams or rivals? Skill progression based upon more composed players? Stronger run and pass AI instead of the older tendencies for teams? Things like this would’ve taken this year’s features to the next level.
Finally, Xbox owners now can connect online with other gamers via Xbox Live, which has been way too long in coming for this franchise. PS2 owners have known the joys of challenging other gamers around the country, and now Xbox owners can play in tournaments and check stat boards, amongst other features. However, it wasn’t the smoothest implementation, and while the connectivity issues have now been fixed, the bumpy ride along the way didn’t particularly bode well for early adopters. The entry of EA into the online world on the Xbox now leaves the terminally online challenged Gamecube in the dust multiplayer wise.
The inclusion of Home Field Advantage is a great feature, and really strengthens the strategy of the game when coupled with the Match-Up Stick. Unfortunately, these two things aside, too much of the game plays, looks and sounds like NCAA Football 2004. This is unfortunate, considering that with a more substantial amount of features, EA could’ve finally put the nail in 989’s sputtering Gamebreaker series, especially since they didn’t release a title this year.