In football, the NCAA videogames have always paled in comparison to the almighty Madden NFL lineup; year after year Madden grew better and either NCAA stayed the same or EA didn’t seem to get college football. However, it didn’t take EA too long to figure it out. If you are a fan of football, then you know that there are big differences between pro and college football, and they are not all about the rules. The biggest difference is the tradition and passion that college football brings out in people; rooting for a NCAA team is not just a choice, maybe someone in your family studied in a certain university and he would kill for that team. You don’t find the same passion for a pro NFL team. That’s what NCAA Football 2004 probably does best: translate the tradition and passion of college football.
Madden NFL = Ultra-realistic graphics, every year impressing more with the player models, stadiums, crowds, realistic moves and the works. NCAA Football doesn’t compete with that; just think of all the college teams there are, and how hard it would be to make every player realistic). The player models in NCAA Football are better than in other installments, no doubts there. It’s not the player models as much as the player moves that are realistic. The game is top notch in that respect, and those moves are fun to watch. The models do a good enough job at not making too many players look the same, even the created players (you have good room for customizing). However, where NCAA Football destroys Madden games is in the stadiums and the sheer number of teams available (and if you add the Create School feature, even more). The stadiums are like their real-life counterparts, they are very alive like the real thing. So, you may not recognize your favorite collegiate stars, but they will certainly be moving like them: tackles, juke moves, stiff arms, catches, blocks, all done in a very realistic way. If you add celebrations, you’ve got the whole package.
The sights and sounds (and sometimes the smells, BBQ) of college football are the things that make it so compelling. The passion in the stadium translates in sounds: crowds chanting school songs, the bands playing away. NCAA Football captures all that, and it’s an awesome aural experience. Just hear when the home team enters the stadium, a bone-crushing tackle, a hip-dislocating juke move and the crowd goes wild. When you play, you really feel the support, and adding the fact that you can taunt the crowd when you’re the away team or asking for support when you are at home. The commentators are none other than the best. Just hearing Lee Corso going at it is fun and sometimes you can learn a thing or two, but this is just dressing on a very hearty salad. The incredible work in the sound department deepens the experience.
With some very small problems, game play is another touchdown for NCAA Football 2004. The main thing is that the game is very fun to play. It’s exciting how you can pull off great plays and have a difficult time all at once. Easy to learn, difficult to master – that’s how many games should be. All of the buttons, control sticks and digital pad are used in the game in a very effective and often very intuitive way. Throwing passes is done in the same way as many recent football games (a button for each receiver, the longer you press the button, the faster the pass), but with the recent addition of leading your receiver and hot routes. This makes the passing game a little more complete and difficult at the same time, but you don’t need to use these features to win. It’s up to you if you use them or not. Again, it’s easy to learn, difficult to master. Running the ball is fun as it should be. Juke moves and stiff-arms are done with ease (pressing the R and L buttons, the longer you press them the greater the effect), twists aren’t that easy to pull off, but when you do they are amazing yard-eaters. When you have an agile halfback, it shows and feels when you play. You feel lighter and you evade tackles better, and the same thing goes for a power halfback – you can feel the defenders going down, bouncing off you. As for the receivers, that part is a bit off. You would agree that in most football games you don’t use the receivers before catching the ball (most people prefer controlling the quarterback), just use them once the ball is caught, and that’s the problem in NCAA Football. Some passes that you think, “Even I could catch it,” the receivers drop, and they don’t need to be too bad in ratings. However, thankfully, it doesn’t happen too often. It can be frustrating at times and it can hinder the momentum of the experience, but it improves if you practice your touch when you pass and the routes and the position of the receiver when you throw the pass. Like all moves in NCAA Football, the catches can be amazing to watch.
In the heart of every good football game is the strategy, the offensive and defensive plays. If you know your football chess, you will be happy with the variety of plays (and some trick plays you don’t see in the NFL too often), and if you don’t like to go too much into them there’s a great option for you to use on offense. Ask Corso by pressing the Y button on the plays screen, and you will get a tip on which play to use and why. You get the play chosen for you by Lee Corso, so most of the time he will give you good advice. Once you get familiar with the set of plays your team has, you will be using this feature less each game. Really pay attention to the routes and the colors of them because you may be selecting a running play when you want to pass or, even worse, an option play when you want to pass – a guaranteed sack on your QB. So, you need to know what you’re choosing and how it works, and once you get the hang of it, you will laugh at how cleverly you are choosing the plays.
Sports games nowadays need to have a lot of game modes and options for season management and when playing a game, and recently, playing dynasty (or franchise in some games) is a must and an amazing addition to any sports game. In NCAA Football you get the option to play a normal game, a rivalry game, for trophies, all kinds of games, but you have to do yourself a favor and play only Dynasty mode (or Create-A-School, almost the same thing). Dynasty mode is complete with all the management features you can have. You can check all sorts of statistics at any time: standings, leaders, team historic stats and records, player stats, user stats and records, etc., but there’s a new one: Sports Illustrated covers. It is such a rush to make the cover, every week a new one. It’s not easy to appear there, but when you do it’s fun to read the highlight. You can also make Players of the Week, divided by NCAA or by conference. When you are ending the season you can see Bowl Predictions, and Heismann candidates, and again, it’s a rush to see one of your players there.
You get all the usual Team Management options like depth chart, substitutions by formation, all that good stuff. However, when the season ends, another game starts, and recruiting is like a mini-game inside NCAA Football. It’s fun to see the top prospects, your team needs by position, and targeted players. For each player you plan on recruiting you have to assign a call from the head coach or the assistant and/or a visit from each one, or just one of them. The more interest you put in the player the more likely he will go to your school. Although players already have interests prior to yours, you have to make a stand and try to convince a player you really want to join you, especially top prospects. It sounds difficult, but don’t worry. At all times you can check how many players you need (each season players graduate) and in what positions, and how many of those positions you have either targeted or covered. By the end of the whole process you will have a complete team and if you play your cards well, a competitive one. It’s a thrill to see a player you recruited on the off-season playing well on the field. You also have the Coach options and Coach contract; now you have to worry not only on the field but off, too. When you start the game you get a three-season contract and goals for those three years (maintain team prestige and win a conference title, mostly). If you cover one of them with good numbers you may get an extension for your contract. Everything from records against top 25 and rival teams to attendance (start a losing streak and see the people not going to the stadium) directly affect your contract and your status.
The season can be scheduled for you, or you can do it yourself or choose the difficulty of the schedule. Rivalry games give the feeling of tradition, winning trophies throughout the season and achieving school records; you really do feel part of the school, and if you studied in a particular college you will be even more excited about this game. There’s more reward than that feeling of tradition and passion. You get points in reward of winning certain games and achieving certain goals in a game (receive no TD’s, +X number of yards rushing or passing, among others). These points are used to buy pennants, which can unlock cheats or team boosts, or new teams and stadiums, all of them usable in the game when you want them, so you have that extra push to win games and achieve these game goals. As you know by now if you own any new EA Sports game, you get these achievements saved to your EA Sports Bio: win-loss record, major and recent acomplishments, your player ranking, all the things that you want to brag about.
No videogame fan, let alone a college football fan, should miss the experience of this complete game. Not many sports games recently can say they have all the simulation must-haves and all the fun arcade elements that make a sports game fun to play. Do yourself a favor and try out NCAA Football 2004.