NCAA Football 2005
is a bit of a conundrum. The series has always been great -- in fact, it's been my favorite football game the past three years -- but it's never managed to be superior in graphics., sound, or gameplay compared to Sega's 2K
series or EA's own Madden
. It's never better on technical merits, but always seems more fun. That tradition looks to continue this year as NCAA Football 2005
, despite some nice feature additions, remains Madden's
little brother. Though it will provide endless hours of fun, the series is beginning to show its age.
No college game is worth a lick if it doesn't create the proper collegiate atmosphere and this year NCAA Football 2005 does that better than any college game to date. Thanks to multi-tiered sounds, every stadium properly quiets and erupts depending on the situation. And there's a big difference between playing at Tennessee and UAB. No longer will you suffer through generic crowd volumes that seem to follow every team no matter where they play. That's because EA has made a novel innovation with Home Field Advantage.
The Home Field Advantage system ranks the toughest places to play in college football and adjusts the sound accordingly. That doesn't mean that TCU can't take the punch out of the UCLA faithful with a few halted drives and a touchdown here and there, but it's not going to be easy. And should UCLA get a TD or have any sort of momentum swing? The stadium will erupt and in fact shake. That's right, your controller will vibrate and the screen will actually shake with the power of the crowd.
This has major gameplay implications. If the crowd is chanting, the stadium rocking, calling audibles will be very tough, especially near the end zones. Your receivers may toss up their hands in frustration and if you don't notice and run the audible anyway, they may run the wrong route, resulting in an incompletion or interception. This gives a whopping advantage to home teams, especially in big stadiums.
For Dynasty Mode, Home Field Advantage is dynamic, meaning that through the course of your dynasty -- across the limitless years you coach -- the success and failure of teams will alter the power behind a stadium. Granted, it will take a long decline in team play to really take the punch out of a place (please stop looking in the direction of Penn State) and I've yet to see a place like Florida State loose its oomf just because of one or two downed seasons, but there is some position shifting, which is noted in a 25 Toughest Places to Play listing in Dynasty Mode.
I just love Home Field Advantage. Just plain love the idea and the implementation. When you're the home team, before every snap on defense you can tap the Crowd Pump button to incite the crowd to get louder. This isn't so easy, simply because you may want to audible and shift the line at the same time, so you'll have to sacrifice some defensive adjustments in order to pump the crowd.
All of this shaking and whooping it up does serve an ultimate purpose. That's because the other great addition this year is the idea of player composure, which ties in with Home Field Advantage. Confident players tend to play better. Why do you think Neon Deon was always smiling? For NCAA 2005, players can be composed, neutral, or shaken. This affects their overall ratings and fluctuates throughout the game. Throw a few incomplete passes in a row and top that off with an interception and your QB may begin to doubt himself. The crowd then begins to go nuts, rattling the young QB. Now he's got an even tougher time reading the defense and hitting his spots. The same goes for every player on the field, on offense or defense. Even the O-Line has composure, so that a freshman tackle can get beaten twice in a row for sacks and suddenly he's got no nerve.
You can see all of this unfold by using the Matchup Stick to see the matchups between receivers and DBs, linebackers and running backs, and D-Line and O-Line. The matchup shows the composure and overall rating for each player allowing you to spot the weak holes in a defense and attempt to exploit them. Of course, your opponent can see the same thing and use defensive audibles to adjust mismatches. It's a bit of a chess game and it works very well. I hit the Matchup Stick just about every time I step to the line. What's more, composure is dynamic throughout a season, so that players who start to slump will have a tough time getting out of their funk. And it often seems these players are more apt to violate NCAA regulations. Yeah, you read that right, this year you will need to discipline players throughout a season or risk gaining the attention of the NCAA. This really doesn't work as well as it could, though. You have a certain amount of discipline points for the year -- with discipline always being a matter of benching a player. Your school has an overall discipline rating which does have a small affect on school and coach prestige, but I've yet to need to use all my discipline points in a season and you can often let a player slide a few times without any trouble.
Perhaps the discipline idea was meant to appease the NCAA and make them cool with the use of player celebrations throughout a game this year and not just on touchdowns. After any big play on offense or defense, the camera will linger a few seconds on a player and you can choose to go for a minor or extreme celebration from the player, fan, or crowd. Extreme celebrations are much cooler, but often result in penalties. Though it's cool to see the crowd reaction (it's just a few upfront yokels that get the attention), the mascot reactions are pretty weak overall. The extreme player celebrations are quite good and I gotta say, I love being able to have my linebacker taunt players after stuffing a play.
Rounding out the on-field improvements, EA added a hit button this year. Not to be confused with the much better Hit Stick in Madden, the hit button is an uber, all-out tackle that can cause more fumbles and put a serious boom-shaka-laka on a player. This is a hit or miss attempt, but the resulting animations are the best in the game, so it's worth the risk for the visual reward alone.
While all of this may seem like significant improvements when you read it typed out across two pages, in practice it doesn't have nearly as much impact on the game as you might hope. Yes, Home Field Advantage is great, the big hits are cool, and the celebrations a nice touch, but the more I play NCAA, the more it seems like the same game I've been playing the past three years. The AI was improved last year, but hasn't really seen any big improvements this time out. You can still shut down the run with ease (in fact, it's tough not to be in the top 10 in run defense, even if you don't try) and if you have a QB with even a 70 speed rating, you can run the option to great effect. It's not that EA must reinvent the wheel, but it certainly feels like NCAA Football 2005 hasn't made any truly significant steps towards improving the overall control on defense or making the running game more dynamic (look at what ESPN 2K5 has managed with the Right Thumbstick).
Sights and Sounds
Nowhere is this lack of improvement more obvious than in the visuals, which don't seem to have changed one bit from last year. As with last year's version on Cube, this year offers the soft-focus backgrounds with lower-res textures. The good news is, the Cube is the only version without slowdown problems. I actually like some of the soft-focus moments. On cut-scenes, the game looks really good, but it's just not quite as sharp as Xbox in motion. The faces of the players and a large majority of the cut-scenes are taken straight from the previous two years. Though some very nice lighting has been added, with a beautiful blood-red sky for late afternoon games and some dramatic lens flare, NCAA 2005 just hasn't improved at all visually from last year. Would I accept that from Sega's game or Madden? No. In fact, would EA want to put out Madden without working on improving the graphics? Definitely not. So why is it okay to peddle out NCAA 2005 without trying to keep pace with the other football games out there?
Along with the redundant graphics, the commentary has a lot of recycled phrases. Yes, Lee Corso is great, but he's been using the same lines for the past three years. There is new commentary mixed in, but far too many familiar phrases that haven't even been re-recorded. But, fortunately, the crowd noise is fantastic, as I mentioned earlier. I just wish the play-by-play and color commentary was fresher. There is more analysis however in the pre and post games, which is always welcome.
And Another Thing...
There are some other minor things to note about the latest NCAA Football. A few nagging things remain from previous iterations. For one, you still cannot ask Lee Corso for advice when choosing defensive plays. Since EA has added new defensive formations this year, you'd think there would finally be an option for Corso's defensive assist, but it's not to be.
I haven't even touched on the Dynasty Mode really -- aside from player discipline -- but that's because there's really little that new or improved over last year, just very minor tweaks. One thing I do like is that you now commit a budget before the recruiting season begins. How much do you spend on recruiting as opposed to training? These decisions do have a noticeable impact on the game. If you dug the Dynasty Mode last year, you have nothing to worry about. It's really just more of the same, including Sports Illustrated covers and school prestige. The inclusion of dynamic composure and player discipline add a bit, particularly when setting the depth chart, but most of the Dynasty Mode changes are so minor, many will never even notice them.
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