At times, it is hard to believe that Visual Concepts is only in its third year as the principal developer of the Sega Sports 2K series of games. The development studio burst onto the gaming scene with NFL 2K, almost instantly carving out its place among the most eminent North American development studios. Now with its NFL 2K and NBA 2K brands firmly established, the company is branching out into other areas of the sports genre. The studio is overseeing the development of World Series Baseball 2K2 and is currently working on its first college football game, titled NCAA College Football 2K2. GameSpot recently had the opportunity to take a trip out to Visual Concepts' headquarters to check out the latest build of the college football game. Although the game leaves room for improvement, we came away quite impressed with its fluid gameplay, crisp visuals, and college-specific touches, such as fully orchestrated bands for individual teams, brand-new in-game artwork and textures, new playbooks and strategy, and highly realistic team stadiums.
NCAA College Football 2K2 is essentially based on the NFL engine, but a brand-new team has been organized within Visual Concepts to work solely on the college game. The team, which includes developers who have worked on previous games in Electronic Arts' Madden series, is determined to create a football game that faithfully captures the college atmosphere both on and off the field. "NCAA College Football 2K2 is based on the NFL engine, but we basically took it apart and built a lot of things from the ground up," explains Vu Thai Dang, the game's producer at Visual Concepts. "The plays, the ambiance, and several other elements are geared specifically for the college game."
Visual Concepts' college football game features all 117 division 1-A teams, including authentic jerseys, playbooks, and stadiums. The amount of college football-specific detail in both the gameplay and visuals is staggering. For instance, more than 700 new plays have been designed specifically for NCAA 2K2--plays that are inherent to college football and can't be found in NFL 2K2. To make it easier for the player to navigate all of these new plays in the game--particularly considering the short 24-second play clock in the college game--Visual Concepts devised a color-coded playbook interface. In the game, blue icons indicate passing plays, red icons running plays, and yellow icons option plays. According to Visual Concepts, this will let the player adapt quickly to the faster play clock and will generally speed up the pace of the game.
The roster interface is also much more intuitive, compared with the one in last year's NFL Dreamcast game. On the roster chart, NCAA 2K2 shows the actual position for each individual player. For example, instead of tagging the DB abbreviation to all the players in the secondary, they can be sorted by specific positions, such as left cornerback, right cornerback, safety, and free safety. Naturally, by putting specific players in their natural positions, you will be able to make more knowledgeable position-specific substitutions.
On the field, specific playbooks and play-calling tendencies for individual teams in NCAA College Football 2K2 ensures that every college squad plays like its real-life counterparts. If you play Nebraska, you better crowd a lot of down linemen near the line of scrimmage. If you play a team like Florida State, your secondary will get a serious workout. The team ratings reflect these tendencies and the extreme parity in the college game. On a typical Saturday, you wouldn't expect to see a team like Eastern Michigan upset the Miami Hurricanes, and NCAA College Football 2K2 reflects that through its player and team ratings. "The parity is definitely there," explains Dang. "For example, Akron is rated a 68 right now. You probably won't beat Florida State with Akron, and that's how it should be."
Although crammed with new college-specific plays, teams, and strategy, the control scheme in NCAA 2K2 works essentially like that of its NFL counterpart. The analog controls movement, the A button on the Dreamcast controller can be tapped repeatedly to run faster, the left and right shoulder buttons are used to juke in their respective directions, and the other face buttons perform functions such as dives, spins, and tackles. The passing game works exactly like the one in NFL 2K2, with each receiver assigned to a button on the Dreamcast controller. Receivers retain the ability to jump, dive, and stretch out for catches. The running game, specifically the option plays, is where the control scheme is a little different in NCAA 2K2. After the snap, the right shoulder button must be held down to turbo with the quarterback, but it must be released before a pitch is made with the A button. In the build we were shown, the turbo option for the quarterback hadn't been implemented, so all we were able to do was run in regular speed and pitch to the running back. The pitch sensitivity was also a little off in the build shown. On one play, we held onto the ball as long as possible and attempted to make a pitch as the quarterback was being dragged to the ground, but he didn't pitch the ball and ended up being sacked behind the line of scrimmage. Visual Concepts acknowledged that on plays like that, the ball should have been pitched out to the running back, so it promises to make the necessary tweaks for the final version of the game.
Visually, NCAA 2K2 effortlessly rivals the quality of its NFL counterpart on the Dreamcast. The college-specific jersey textures are generally authentic, and the animation, like that in NFL 2K2, is superb. A variety of athletes and motion-capture professionals were used to achieve the fluid and realistic animation in the game. In fact, Drew Brees, the game's cover athlete, took part in several motion-capture sessions and also provided his input on the development of specific team strategy. The stadiums in the game are all designed to the specifications of their real-life counterparts--Visual Concepts used countless photographs of the actual stadiums in creating their virtual replicas. From the new stadium in Hawaii to the legendary Rose Bowl, every last visual element is represented in the game. In fact, a variety of background objects outside the stadium premises, such as buildings, trees, and other assorted objects, were created in full 3D. On the Dreamcast, these ambient 3D objects look a little crude, but, according to Visual Concepts, they will be richly textured in future incarnations of the NCAA 2K series on other next-generation consoles.
Despite its gifts, this first iteration of the NCAA College Football 2K series is missing a couple of vital parts. First, the game does not carry the BCS license, which means that three of the four major bowl games, including the Orange and Fiesta Bowl, aren't in the game; only the Rose Bowl made it in this year's version. However, NCAA College Football 2K2 does feature the requisite 25 bowl games, and the three missing bowls have been replaced with names like the Sega Sports Bowl. "We thought about doing something cheesy like the Cherry Bowl, or whatever, but instead we decided to go with names such as the Sega Sports or Visual Concepts Bowl," said Dang. "But [the lack of the BCS license] is only for this year's game. Next year, we'll have the full license and all of the bowl games."
Second, NCAA College Football 2K2 won't have any division 1-AA teams. According to Visual Concepts, the division 1-AA teams, among a few other features, had to be left out of this year's version because the game in its current state almost entirely fills up the Dreamcast GD-ROM. The company used a variety of compression techniques, particularly focusing on the game's commentary, to fit the data needed on the Dreamcast disc. This was also the reason that the ability to use players from NCAA 2K2 in NFL 2K2 was not included in this year's games.
With NCAA College Football 2K2, Visual Concepts hopes to move college football simulations into a new era. This is reflected in the game's opening sequence, which features classic college football footage representing the old, followed by fast-paced clips from today's college football game, which represents the arrival of a new kid on the block. If Visual Concepts is able to achieve with NCAA College Football 2K2 what it has with its NFL and NBA games, sports fans on the Dreamcast and other next-generation consoles are in for a treat. Judging from our early look, Sega's college football game does have room for improvement, but it also seems to be an incredibly impressive first effort. It will also be the only online college football game for console platforms. In fact, the game was already running ultrasmooth over SegaNet, and Sega promises that although region-specific games will run smoother, cross-country online match-ups in NCAA 2K2 will run a little more lag-free than they did in NFL 2K1. The game will be released in time for the start of the actual NCAA season.