Review: NCAA Football 2004 (XB)

Okay, time for a little bit of Cory history.

My alma mater is Wichita State University. Now, Wichita State never had a nationally dominant football program, but they had spots of greatness. The first night football game west of the Mississippi river was played at WSU in 1905 (lit by strings upon strings of Coleman lanterns. No joke). There is also considerable evidence that the first forward pass in collegiate football occurred in a 1906 game between WSU and Washburn University.

Sadly, the most memorable thing about Wichita State football is the airplane crash that took the lives of 31 players, coaches, and fans on October 2, 1970. Eventually, a lack of support and money issues led WSU to cancel its football program in 1986. Despite repeated efforts to reinstate the football program, Cessna Stadium is still empty.

So I was absolutely elated when EA included a Create-A-School feature in last year’s NCAA Football game. I played it, and liked it, even though the choices for school customization were a little too vanilla/chocolate for me. Also, playing WSU in season mode was a bit strange, since after beating three ranked schools in a row I was nowhere to be found in the national polls, and I know how fickle sports writers are.

So when I saw NF2004 at Hollywood Video last Friday, I jumped on the chance to see how far they’d advanced the CAS feature, and maybe finally review a sequel who’s predecessors I had actually PLAYED. That, and I really wanted to beat Panky to the punch.

Game: NCAA Football 2004
Platform: Xbox
Developer: EA Sports
Player Rating of “Cory Laflin”, Quarterback for the Wichita State University Shockers: 99 (For the sake of honesty, I kept my height and weight correct.)

GAMEPLAY

Okay, first off nothing has changed in basic player controls on the offensive side of the ball. You can still sprint, dive, hurdle, toggle passing on and off, lateral, throw the ball away, stiff arm, juke, pump fake, call audibles, set up hot routes, and use a fake snap count. There has been one change, and that is changing from the highstep celebration when you’re about to score a touchdown to a more complex system where you hold down L or R and push X,A, or B to get one of six different celebrations. This works well, as I found the Heisman pose my first shot. The book says it is possible to draw a celebration penalty by using the touchdown celebrations. Like that’s going to stop anyone from rubbing it in to their opponent.

No real changes on the defensive side of the ball either, except for some clarification in the documentation about when to use some of the special moves available to your player (as in whether they are engaged with an opposing player or not at the time). This tidbit of information improved my confidence on the pass rush immensely. Also, I don’t know if this is a long-standing Xbox feature or if it’s new, but there is now a “strip ball” button on defense. As a fan of defensive football, this pleases me to no end.

Game modes, of course, haven’t changed much either. Exhibition, Dynasty, Practice. They put in a more basic kind of practice mode called NCAA 101, which is supposed to teach you the basics of game control, whereas the Practice mode is for practicing specific plays (working out pass timing and all that). I thought this was a nice touch, especially for those fans that HAVEN’T played EA football games for the last decade. Really, we’re starting to get into regular players who weren’t even BORN when the first Madden came out.

So what *has* changed? Little things. Last year they introduced rivalry games, which I really liked because anyone who follows collegiate sports knows that there are certain games each year, no matter what the sport, where you should just throw the stats out the window and hold onto your seats. This year they introduced historical games, close games from history that could have gone either way but for circumstance. It’s a neat idea, but there weren’t enough games to choose from for me. I wanted the 1998 Big 12 Championship game, K-State 33, Texas A&M 36. If K-State had won that game, they would have played for the national championship. Instead they ended up dropping all the way to the Alamo Bowl, where they got summarily spanked by a Purdue team with Drew Brees at the helm. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

The Dynasty mode is a bit more fleshed out. It runs a lot like Sega’s College Basketball 2K3 Career mode, and that’s a GOOD thing. Seriously, I wanted to run through a season before I turned this review in (ergo why this review is so late) and I ended up playing 3 seasons before I realized it was 1:30 in the morning and I had to work the next day.

Another thing I just have to mention: When you’re recruiting high school players, they all have hometowns, right? Well, as I was going through one of my scouting rounds last night, I noticed that OU had signed a blue-chip cornerback prospect from Clay Center, Kansas. Yes, Clay Center, population 5,000-ish, has made it into an EA sports title. My first thought after, “Wow,” was, “I wonder if they paid to move his family out of Clay Center or if they wanted to fake their own deaths anyway?” Having your kid play for OU is not the way to make friends and influence people in Clay Center (distance to Manhattan, KS: 38 miles).

Another nice little thing is that the awards section of Dynasty mode had gotten a tie-in with Sports Illustrated. For each week of the season, a new cover is generated, and the covers actually look like SI covers. The improved graphics of the player models are really noticed here. The Heisman race and various other player awards have their own SI pages, too.

Game flow was about the same as usual. Computer-controlled defenders seem more competent, and that even includes the ones on your team! The AI has gotten a little better. It used to be, you could build a good lead in the first quarter, then sit back in a Cover 3 for the rest of the game and be okay because the computer would stop rushing. Now, the AI seems a lot more likely to try and take advantage of loose coverage on 2nd down, and they start going for it on 4th down earlier, instead of when the winner is a foregone conclusion. The chance of picks and fumbles seem a bit higher now. In fact, I lost a game because I fumbled a kickoff with 30 seconds left and allowed the other team to kick a field goal to go ahead. It felt like the chance of screwing up big was more at high pressure moments of the game. Reflecting on that, I have no problem with it; it probably mimics the college game even more that way. I just don’t want it to turn into a GLS-type situation.

Of course, if you’re having a bad day and just want to spank everybody, the ability to jack up rosters is still there, and not just with created players. Before starting a Dynasty, you can go into the main game rosters and jack up EVERYBODY’S stats, giving you a nice starting place for your career. You can even top off the stats that the create-a-player mode won’t let you top off. Amen.

GRAPHICS

Every generation the detail of the graphics get better, although the increments in which they get better seem to be getting smaller. The player movements are as fluid and realistic as any game out right now. The faces actually look human, which is a vast improvement over previous years. The animation is good, and collision detection is as good as I’ve ever seen it. No more sacking the quarterback through his own linemen. True story, I tossed a Hail Mary, it bounced off the hands of two defenders and into the hands of my receiver five yards downfield. My own little Immaculate Reception. The replay told the whole sordid tale. I was impressed.

Still, there are some really noticeable clipping problems during the replays. There was the sack where the nose tackle’s shoulder pad was obviously removing the QB’s lung. There was the celebration after a sack when the opposing halfback run completely THROUGH the lineman. Obviously the collision detection takes a nap when the whistle blows.

The SI covers in Dynasty mode really do look like SI covers, text fonts and everything. It was a trip to see WSU football players on the cover of SI. As the wrestling fan in me would say: it’s a cheap pop, but a pop nonetheless.

SOUND

Here’s an example of how wishy-washy ESPN is in its supposed allegiance with Sega Sports. EA’s NCAA Football 2004 is a direct competitor, and is openly shilling for Sports Illustrated now, and yet the voice-over commentators are what? That’s right, ESPN GUYS!!

Yes, Brad, Kirk, and Friend-of-Kansas-State Lee Corso are back for another year; and yes, most of the voiceovers are the exact same files from the last two versions of NCAA Football. They did add a few new lines, including some memory-type comments. “The last time they had the ball they went three and out,” for example. It a nice improvement, but I would’ve liked to have had all new dialogue. Still, if you’ve never played NCAA Football, the game commentary is as organic as it gets, and I’ve never found it the least bit annoying. Truth be told, I really dig it, even as much as I find myself saying, “Shut up, Herbstreit.” I say that when WATCHING college football on TV, so that’s not a cut on the game. (I don’t hate Kirk. As the young guy, he’s just a great target when we feel a little surly. Nothing personal.)

A have to mention this, though. Both last year and this year, when I created the Wichita State Shockers, when I’d get to the games, Nessler would CALL them the Shockers! For some bizarre reason, when they had Nessler record all the NCAA team names, they threw in Wichita State’s team name. Somebody at EA is obviously looking out for the ol’ alma mater. Too bad they couldn’t get WSU put into any of the March Madness titles. (After they win the Mo Valley this year, they’ll see the light.)

They added some more music, which I realized right away when I started with the favorite team: Kansas State motif and got an earful of “Wabash Cannonball.”

Otherwise, it’s football. Like racing games, there’s not a whole lot you can do with the basic game noises. However, I did notice one little thing that I thought was super-cool. I was playing WSU against Ohio State (go big, or go . . . wait . . . I already AM at home) and I stuffed them for a loss on 3rd down. We were playing at home, and started hearing the crowd chant, “O-ver-RATE-ed. (clap, clap, clapclapclap) O-ver-RATE-ed (clap, clap, clapclapclap). . . ) Call me easily amused, but I found that not only an accurate representation of college crowds, but pretty damn funny. I’ve also heard “Block that kick” chants, as well as the obligatory “De-fense.”

FUN FACTOR

The last EA game I reviewed I was a bit harsh on because of my perception of an inability for an “average” gamer to come in and be successful. Now, I’ve already admitted to being a sports game fan, so the challenge is to evaluate this fairly. Am I giving this preferential treatment because of my likes?

I have to admit, playing a stock team on the intermediate setting, I had problems generating offense. The defensive AI has improved considerably, and while that helps you out on defense, it hinders you a bit on offense. I could have stood to go into the Practice mode and run some plays before I started a Dynasty.

“A-ha!” You might say! So this has the same problems as your other game! It’s hard for beginners to come in and be successful! Well, no. You see, this game has the ability not only to change game difficulty, but to edit the ability ratings of the players, to give you as big an advantage as you need. Therefore, this game HAS a mechanism in place to ease newbies into the game and is thus a better game. So there. *sticks tongue out*

This is the best version of NCAA College Football yet, for reasons from graphics to extras to gameplay to AI. The Dynasty mode is fun even if you can’t complete a single bloody pass. I killed three hours just simulating games and recruiting players. Those familiar with the EA football line will enjoy the little tweaks; especially the end-zone celebrations.

If you already own NCAA 2002 or 2003, I don’t know if I’d spend the money just for the celebrations and the SI covers.

Ratings
Gameplay: 8.0
Graphics: 7.0
Sound: 7.5
Fun Factor 8.0