NCAA Football 2006 Impact Players Preview

We have the latest on the NCAA game and its focus on the movers and shakers on the field.

Every college football team has them, though some have more than others. Every coach wants them, though some coaches are better at recruiting them. And every fan cheers them on during Saturday games in autumn, though some fans have a lot more to cheer about than others. Of course, we're speaking about impact players--the guys on the field that can single-handedly determine the outcome of the game through a combination of dogged determination and sheer talent.

EA Sports' upcoming college football game, NCAA Football 06, will put a spotlight on the players that can carry a team on their backs. We've already taken a detailed look at the game's "race for the Heisman" mode (see previous preview), but this time around we want to take a look at how the game showcases the college superstars on the field. The players who make a difference in NCAA 06, nicknamed impact players, make appearances on both sides of the ball. On offense, you'll most often see impact players taking snaps behind center, running the ball at halfback, or catching passes as a wide receiver. Practically any position on defense is worthy of impact status, however, from defensive lineman to strong safety. Even kickers and punters can get in the impact game as well, reflecting the absolute vital nature of the kicking game in college ball.

Impact players are highlighted on the field with a small white icon that denotes their athletic prowess. You're able to spot the impact players on the opposing team as well, as they'll be illuminated both on the field and in the play-calling screens, allowing you to adjust your game plan accordingly. Just as in real life, the line between the "haves" and the "have nots" in NCAA 06 is sharply drawn. Some teams may have only one or two impact players on the team, while perennial powerhouses like Michigan and USC will be stacked on both sides of the ball. An added side benefit to this system is that it's easy to take control of a team with which you may not be familiar and find out exactly where the talent lies just by scouting the roster for impact players.

With high-impact players come high-impact moves, and the so-called breakaway controls in NCAA 06 will let you make the most of your top talent. The most important of these is the use of the right analog stick, which is used on offense to control impact moves, like the direction of juke moves and the brand-new butterfly-step juke. Moving the juke moves to the right stick makes a lot of sense, mostly because it feels "right" to your thumbs, and secondly, because of the added control it gives in specifying the movement of your player.

Just as players can find a special zone of performance where they can exceed their already-extraordinary abilities, the impact players in NCAA 06 can also turn it up an extra notch. By entering "the zone," as it's known, players are noticeably quicker on the field and capable of incredible dodges or bulldozing power moves (which you can control by repeatedly pressing the X button) that are showcased through special animations specifically created for these power moves. During an "in the zone" stiff-arm, for example, the camera will temporarily swing around and focus on the player in question as he viciously puts down his competition, only to immediately swing back to the traditional view of the action on the field. The entire animation only takes a few seconds to complete and isn't really distracting, though it might have been nice to have the option to turn it off if you wanted to. NCAA producers told us that these "in the zone" moments aren't that common and will usually come once you've found success with that particular player throughout the game. Certain game situations--such as rivalry games--might create "in the zone" situations; while other situations--a huge hit suffered by your star wideout, for example--will lessen your chances of reaching that mystical zone.

Environments and stadium models get a face-lift in NCAA 06. Check out that Florida State sunset.

Success begets success, it seems, and just as impact players are created by repeatedly feeding them the ball over the course of a season, so too are "in the zone" moments created by consistent and successful play on the field. If you want to create an impact running back, you'll need to make sure you recruit a player capable of sustaining 40 to 50 carries a game. Likewise, if you want to make an impact player out of a punter, you can create plenty of three-and-out situations to pump up your kicker's stats. It's probably not the best way to win games, NCAA producers admit, but it's definitely possible in NCAA 2006.

Some finer points of the NCAA's new look include better and more varied blocking types on the offensive line, like pancake blocks and seal blocks, which can open up huge running lanes to send your back through, as well as some improved option-play artificial intelligence on both sides of the ball. The runners seem to follow their blockers more closely this time around, and the defensive players assigned to the QB and the pitchman seem more assured of their assignment than ever before. Similarly, defensive players will key in on impact players as the game goes on, meaning that unless you want your superstar shut down by double coverage, you'll need to spread the offensive love across the team.

Racing Toward Heisman Gold

More details are surfacing about the game's race for the Heisman mode as we get closer to its release. We already know you'll start the mode in spring drills, looking to impress a group of college recruiters with your on-the-field performance in things like pass-skeleton formations. However, because race for the Heisman mode will let you choose from several different positions, you're not simply restricted to making passes in order to catch the eye of a college coach. Choose to play as an option QB, for example, and you'll have 10 opportunities to make it into the end zone running the option. A touchdown will obviously earn you maximum points, but well-timed tosses to the pitchman will also earn you points. Make a bad pitch, get brought down or, worse yet, lose the ball altogether, and your overall point total will actually suffer, so therefore you'll want to perform at your best as you prepare to enter school.

Get your impact player 'in the zone' and he'll be throwing stiff-arms like Rocky Balboa.

At the end of your spring evaluation, you'll be recruited by three universities, which are comparable with your performance level. Fortunately, you'll be able to enter as a walk-on to any school in the game if you so desire (an understandable, if not realistic, design choice). Even if you wowed the coaches in spring drills, you'll still need to earn impact-player status through strong play on the field. Fortunately you'll be a starter right out of the gates, which should up your chances significantly. During the regular season, you'll have three evaluation opportunities, whereby, based on your performance on the field, you'll be able to assign points to your player in a number of different categories, with the ultimate goal of becoming an impact player.

Also new since the last time we saw the game is a Heisman hype meter, which will give you a quick and easy gauge to let you know how your race for Heisman gold is unfolding. Initially, the development team was going to use fan mail as the primary indicator of your Heisman chances, but decided a more overtly placed meter was a better fit. Over the course of your college career, the meter will fill up based on your on-the-field performance. Don't assume the trophy is yours if you fill up the meter completely, however. Once the meter is full, it only means your player is high profile enough to be among the top 10 Heisman hopefuls that year. There will still be a lot of work to do if you want to be giving an acceptance speech at the Downtown Athletic Club after the regular season.

Building a successful college football program is a year-long process, and NCAA 2006 will address this aspect of dynasty building by finally allowing in-season recruiting in the game's dynasty mode. You'll be able to talk to talent year round, pitch them with the specific strengths of your school, and even invite them to big game weekends to show off the campus' true atmosphere. Keep in mind that your team's performance in the big game will have a clear impact on that recruit's willingness to sign with your team. So unless you're certain you've got a handle on your archrival's game plan, you'll need to dole out the campus invites with care.

A tweaked pipeline system returns in NCAA 2006, but it has been greatly expanded this time around. Pipelines will be the direct result of your program's prestige and its continued success on the field. As such, traditional powerhouses like Notre Dame will have long-established pipelines into states like California, while up-and-comers like Louisville or South Carolina will have a long way to go before getting a recruiting toe into the Golden State. In fact, states will have their own prestige levels of sorts, and it will be much more difficult to establish a recruiting presence in traditional-talent farm states like Florida or Texas, for example, than in Kentucky or Connecticut.

We call this screenshot 'Another look at the sidestep juke' or 'Anything to make USC look bad.'

We're still eager to get our hands on the dynasty controls in NCAA 2006, as that mode has proven to be one of the most popular in the series, and one that has consistently improved, both in terms of presentation and execution, with each entry. We do know that the well-known brands such as the Athlon (publisher of popular preseason guides) and rivals.com (which will be used to track prospect interest in your program) will make their debut in the game, and the popular Sports Illustrated magazine covers will return (perhaps with your player's face on the cover).

With the announcement of Desmond Howard as the cover star of NCAA Football 06, the game is one step closer to being complete. We look forward to getting our hands on a full preview build of the game in order to give you an extensive look at some of the more in-depth dynasty and season features. We'd also like to take a more extensive look at the nuts and bolts of the on-the-field action in the near future.

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