So the NBA Finals have been wrapped up, MLB Baseball coasts through its mid season festivities, and hockey players are spending their summers negotiating employment status. Where does this leave all the armchair quarterbacks around the country, with dust settling on their Lay-Z-Boys?
Signaling the annual return of America's real national pastime is the upcoming influx of sports games, with the collegiate ranks being at the forefront. In its last year of release before the next generation of consoles, NCAA Football 06 has at last stepped out from the shadow of EA's premier football franchise, Madden. Long considered to be inferior to Madden, this year's model has improved to such a degree that it could easily take the football crown away from the venerable NFL series. Vast improvements have been made to tighten up the gameplay in all the areas it needed most, and the results make this the most accessible and fun football game I've ever played; and I've played them all. The improvements are so drastic you may as well put NCAA 2005 under that short leg of your coffee table to even it out; there's absolutely no need to play it anymore.
From the moment you run your first play, the first glaring difference in 2006 is the speed of gameplay. Every play develops quicker and every player moves a few paces faster. The overall response of 2006's predecessors deprived the gameplay of showing college football's actual ferocity. With the 'pumping up the crowd' and 'composure match-up stick' still in place this year, the series retains its masterful depiction of a collegiate sports event. If you're a University of Florida devotee, and you're playing a late season game against Florida State in Ben Hill Griffin stadium, it feels like you're down in the heart of the swamp, calling the plays; not like its homecoming and Dartmouth comes to town for a rent-a-win. Each game's intensity becomes its own monster, and precisely mirrors the reality of college football's big game environment making the game play experience all the more exciting and authentic. EA got this right for the first time in 05, and has kept the pressure going strong in 2006.
This installment's selling point, and what you'll probably start off playing, is the new and original "Race for the Heisman" feature. When you first pop in the disk, you'll be at the outset of Race for the Heisman, where you get to create a thoroughbred high school football star and run some positional drills for the scouts. Now, while your performance will ultimately not determine your destination, since the user can choose to walk on to a school of their choosing, how you fared in the drill most certainly effects the stats of your player at the beginning of his career. The highest I ever managed to begin my career as a scrub freshman statistically, was around an 84 overall. But, be prepared for some frustration if you're determined to get those offers from your favorite schools. Some positions you choose, like wide receiver for example, place a great deal of responsibility on CPU drone teammates. For said WR drill, sometimes no matter how wide open you get, the QB may randomly decide to throw the ball to someone else, keeping you from racking up the points. But if it happens, screw it. The heisman drills are so much fun you could restart and run them over and over again and have a hell of a good time.
After the tryout session is completed you'll head into your dorm room, complete with some fan mail, campus newsletter, Heisman hype meter, and most importantly, a picture of a current lady friend which changes in relation to the success of your player. The dorm room also acts as the menu interface for the "Race" mode, and the features inside change weekly throughout the season, adding some entertainment in between games.
Unfortunately the conclusion of "Race for the Heisman" left me a little disappointed. If you expect an intense, tension building recreation of the actual award ceremony (assuming you play well enough to make it into the Downtown Athletic Club), you won't find it here. All I got was a short, 30 second cut scene of my player holding the trophy, and shaking someone's hand. A little anticlimactic, but I went right ahead and started my sophomore season, anyway. It should be mentioned that this mode doesn't allow for new in-season or postseason recruiting, forcing a simulation of all off the field coaching responsibilities like red shirting and cutting players, plus transfers and position changes. It's all about one man in Race mode, though it's still the most entertaining feature in the game.
An even sweeter addition than the Heisman Race is NCAA 06's impact player system, which allows the designated standout players from each program to become "in the zone" if they continually make big plays. Impact players are identified by a white circle underneath their feet, and when "in the zone", the circle begins to pulsate or flash, letting the user know when to feed them the ball. If you don't pick up on it by chance, the new polygonal Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso usually points it out from up in the booth. This adds that tasty ingredient to gameplay that can sway those tight scores one way or another if utilized correctly.
An impact player will usually break that last tackle to grab a first down and keep drives alive, or on the other side of the coin, score a big hit bringing one to a halt. In addition, a good player can become an impact player if they regularly make stellar plays around the field, whether playing the Heisman Race or Dynasty modes. AI will also adjust its schemes around an impact player, meaning you may start to see more frequent double coverage, QB spies, or defensive line shifts when in the zone. And finally, we get the hit stick, baby! It's all about the hit stick!
Online play has been revamped to provide for much smoother gameplay, negating the slowdown factor present with 2005's online matches. Whatever glitches were removed, now if you sign in, users are blessed with the same speed of play experienced offline, whether you're rockin' out on a PS2 or Xbox. Thankfully, optimatch settings have been updated to allow for users to agree on game length instead of only a five minute quarter setting for all online competitions. You have the option to run drills online as well, but not the Heisman Race drills, unfortunately. Michigan fans running the Oklahoma against a Buckeye faithful across the country would have been nice to see.
Recruiting has quickly become a game within itself. I've got some friends that play the NCAA series only for its recruiting options, and don't even bother with any actual games. It's easy to spend countless hours scouting blue chips and high school standouts across the country for potential future stars, and EA has included a nice little present with in season recruiting now available during Dynasty mode. More versatile methods allow users to target specific pipeline states for talent, as well as checking more available stats for every recruit across the country. This adds a great improvement to the fun and efficiency of recruiting, allowing you to target guys on their unique strengths, like awareness and max squat, all based on what users want out of every prospect, not just overall ratings or a deceptive five star rating system. Users can also invite selected recruits to attend a game, preferably a marquee conference match-up, to entice that coveted verbal commitment long before post season recruiting gets underway.
Graphical improvements received a significant upgrade, something that tended to go unaddressed in years past. The most notable being the tackle animations. Previous NCAA's had a very limited tackle animation supply, meaning if you played the hell out of the games, it'd become easy to predict what type of collisions you'd see around the field. NCAA 06 provides the most realistic tackle animations ever seen in the franchise, and possibly any of its pro-league counterparts. Whether it's a defensive back dragging the runner down by his jersey if he gets stiff-armed, or mid air collisions between free safeties and receivers, nearly every impact occurring on the field has a unique animation.
Player models have gotten an aesthetic overhaul as well. Now, you can see light reflecting off those bright gold LSU Tiger helmets, or placement specific grass stains on Vince Young or Adrian Peterson's jerseys after hitting the dirt. A personal highlight for me would be the detail of ass cheek animation present when a player shifts his weight while sprinting or juking across the field.
EA Has Mastered Animation
This spectacular addition aside, textures have also been refurbished, providing enunciated separation of nylon and spandex on jerseys. Finally we've been spared the all-in-one smooth-n-stretchy design of the player models from years past, where socks, pants, and cleats all looked like they were made from the same fabric. Player customization remains the same, still only allowing min or max slider control over the appearance of character details, but who needs a Tiger Woods Gameface feature if you're wearing a helmet the whole time anyway?
Another noteworthy detail is the apparent 'recycling' of the commentary from last year's game. We're still hearing some of the same sound bytes used to describe certain plays. How hard must it be to get Corso and co. in the ADR booth to record a more extensive library of commentary? If I had a dollar for every time my linebacker made "the hit of the year" I could buy him a damn H2 so he'd stay for his senior season. This will undoubtedly tire your ears after many hours of game time, but hell, if it's that bad, you can always just mute their voices so you don't get too frazzled.
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