Madden got the attention in the off-season, but NCAA Football now sports an Exclusive License logo as well. There has been no competition for EA with this style of football game for the last few years, so exclusivity should make little difference and concerns about the game suffering due to lack of competition aren’t really applicable here.
In some respects, it might be argued that EA has already rested on its laurels, as the Xbox version of NCAA Football 2005 was nearly ruined by atrocious frame-rate problems. Happily, these framerate issues are fixed for NCAA Football 06, as the gameplay and graphics run smoothly, even online. The player graphic details are only an incremental improvement and the animation is largely fluid, although there is the odd aliasing gaff. Apparently, EA doesn’t consider the graphics engine a key selling point, as the screenshots on the back of the case are only of cutscenes.
The soundtrack would fit right into a modern rock radio station’s playlist, and most of the tracks are quite good. Many of the included bands are relatively low-profile, like Lush or The Pietasters, but there is the occasional bigger name like The Pixies. The number of songs on the soundtrack, though, leaves much to be desired. The game cycles between approximately ten songs, so even one’s favorite tracks lose their potency after a few hours of play. This could have been alleviated with the ability to play custom soundtracks off the hard drive, but bewilderingly this feature wasn’t included.
Flashy graphics and sound alone won?t make a sports game a success if it can?t capture the essential feel of the sport and deliver compelling gameplay. In this respect, NCAA Football 06?s predecessors filled these requirements admirably, and could still produce a solid game with minimal ambition in building upon past successes. It is disappointing, then, that EA’s design ambition seems misguided for some of the gameplay advances: some areas still need work, and some of the innovations simply leave one wondering why they were implemented in the first place.
The most hyped new feature is the Race For The Heisman mode, so much so that upon loading the game for the first time, the user is dumped right into this part of the game before even seeing the main menu. For this mode, a freshman player is created who then competes in a mini-game based on their selected playing position. Depending on how successful the result of the mini-game is, the player receives an offer from an appropriate school; NCAA Football veterans will likely receive invites from top schools like USC or Texas, while new players are more likely to be offered spots at much lower-ranked schools. This aspect of the game becomes largely meaningless, though, when it is apparent that the player can walk on to any school’s program, regardless of who invited them in the first place. There is a bit more of a hurdle in terms of prestige for the player if they choose to walk on at a different school, but the difference is trivial.
From this point, the gameplay in Race For The Heisman mode resembles the traditional NCAA Football season play mode with the focus placed squarely on the player. Even as a freshman, the player is immediately a starter, and the more detailed management features like recruiting are disabled. The essence of this mode is to build one?s player to the point where they win the most prestigious college football trophy for a player, the Heisman award. The game also tracks other rewards and accomplishments the player gets, in a graphically pleasant but sometimes confusing interface, from ordinary trophies to an ever-changing series of “improving” girlfriend pictures. The overall idea here is fairly interesting, but the role-playing elements are so minimal that it feels like Race For The Heisman mode as it stands could have been better off if it were integrated with NCAA Football‘s Dynasty mode.
There is one noticeable change to Dynasty mode: the welcome addition of in-season recruiting. The recruiting aspect of NCAA Football 06 is well-done to begin with, as there is an excellent strategic balance in pursuing players already interested in the user’s school and not-so-interested players that the user would rather pursue. The lack of other new features in this mode doesn’t hurt the game, since Dynasty mode was already quite solid in previous NCAA Football entries. There are the usual management features that are to be expected in a sports simulation, with the tweak that the user has certain goals to meet in order to keep coaching at the same school. If these goals aren’t met within a certain period of time, the user is fired but will get the chance to go to a different, lower-ranked, school. The aspect of Dynasty mode that could use definite improvement is the method of disciplining players. The user receives a certain amount of points to penalize players for infractions, and while on the surface this seems like a good model to add strategy to the game, the idea is arbitrary and unrealistic to begin with. It feels more frustrating than strategic to manage the team?s discipline in this way.
One strong addition to the game is the idea of Impact Players, who are essentially one’s best players who have their on-screen icon highlighted to emphasize them during a game. Perhaps surprisingly, their presence isn’t a distraction and one of the more compelling strategies in NCAA Football 06 is to develop one?s plays while taking into account the location of the opposing Impact Players. A slight downside to this feature is that these powered-up players can pull off arcade-style moves, but in terms of maintaining a realistic atmosphere, this is an issue with the game in general. The jukes take a while to learn to time properly, but an experienced player can use arcade-quick reflexes to pull off jukes where something similar would never happen in real-life. The hit stick is one arcade-like feature that is a good idea, but in this game the timing is horrible in comparison to how it was implemented in last season’s Madden.
One of the most important modes for the Xbox version is the ability to play over Xbox Live. There are the standard matchmaking services for individual games, as well as the ability to play strictly overtime games or engage in a single-elimination tournament. I had no technical difficulties playing online, though I found that one major issue with finding people to play is that so many users use the unfortunately-still-existing “money plays” ad nauseam. Without learning how to defend these specific plays, games lose a lot of their interest and feel like a painfully extended practice session. Unless one knows a solid group to play with before hand, or enjoys spending a lot of time playing redundant defensive mind-games, there will be a lot of trial-and-error in building up a list of quality competitors.
It’s clear that the NCAA Football franchise still has issues, but even so, its strengths are greater than its weaknesses. For Xbox owners, this version is especially enticing since the graphical bugs of NCAA Football 2005 are fixed. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that the game feels like it?s not living up to its potential. NCAA Football has really taken off in this generation of consoles, with the 2005 version selling well over a million copies. The 2006 version is in all likelihood the last one built for this console generation and it could have been a great send-off, but feels more like a stopgap until the “real” version comes out next year. College football fans are still well advised to give this game a look, if only because it’s the lone college football game left in town.