When I bought my new Xbox last November (or October) it came with 2 free games. The games were both on the same disc; Top Spin and EA Sports NCAA 2005. I would never have played NCAA 2005 if I didn't get it for free with the system. I did try Top Spin before and was very impressed. For a tennis game, it's really good. The graphics are stunning, the gameplay is surprisingly fun and it's online capabilities made it an immediate success. But, this post is about the NCAA series. So, one Saturday morning (it's weekend mornings that I usually play new games or try something different since I have more time) I decide to pop NCAA 2005 in and check it out. First thing I noticed is that it very closely resembled it's big brother counterpart; Madded NFL 2005. It had been years since I played a console football game. Naturally, since I grew up in the video game console era along with Sega Genesis, Nintendo, etc, I had heard of Madden NFL football and even played it a few times years ago. I recall one weekend staying in all day and charging through a whole 17 game season just so I could get to the Superbowl. In those days you couldn't simulate the games? Which is pretty strange now that I think of it. It was on Sega Genesis and I believe I was playing Madden 94 or 93. Either way, that was the last time I played Madden (except for one brief game on PC for Madden 02). When I first got into gaming about a year and a half ago, ESPN NFL 2K5 was the first football game I played. I really enjoyed it and thought the graphics were awesome. The presentation was amazing and the gameplay was enjoyable, exciting, and very rewarding. You can see that I really liked this game. I played a bunch of seasons, won Super Bowls, created my own team, etc. etc. I really got my $20.00 worth out of this game. I had seen Madden advertised a lot so I finally decided I'd give it a try. Mainly because I would see a lot of controversy in the message boards about which game was better; Madden or 2K5. I rented Madden and immediately was turned off by the poor graphics, less than impressive presentation (at least compared to ESPN's) and arcadey gameplay style. I don't even think I finished a game before I turned it off and went back to ESPN's NFL 2k5!! So, you can imagine my surprise when I started playing NCAA 2005 that morning and found myself having a lot of fun. Like I said, the gameplay was very similiar to that of Madden, so it was sort of acardey and seemed archaic compared to NFL 2k5. But, the more I played, the more I began to appreciate it. I even started to see the graphics, player models, animations as being pretty good. They didn't appear to be as bad as they did when I first saw them. One of things that I didn't like about NCAA 2005, was there are no names to the players. Because these players are college students, game developers are not authorized to use their names. However, the virtual players usually have the same jersey numbers as their real life counterparts. And also have the same physical dimensions as well as statistic ratings. So, all but the names are accurate. However, this was a turn off to me as I enjoy following a players stats through the season and it wasn't as exciting playing with WR #28. Not the same as having Randy Moss lining up in the FL position. So, I rented Madden again. And, this time, everything opened up for me and I began to appreciate the game and see it the way millions of other Madden fans did. It really was a good game; gameplay is solid. The playbooks and formations are very accurate and give a sim-like quality to the game. And, a big thing, is the passing game was much easier to execute. As much as I enjoyed NFL 2K5 and thought it had the best grahpics, presentation, sound, etc. It drove me crazy that the passing was so hard. And, it was normal to throw 3 or 4 interceptions a game. So, being able to pass consistently was a huge part of why I liked Madden so much. But, I'm getting way off the point that I wanted to make in this blog. So, let me speed things up and get away from a NFL 2k5 vs. Madden thing. But, just to finish off about Madden, I really ended up getting into the game. I played a bunch of seasons with the patriots winning two SuperBowls and then started a Dynasty Mode with the Chargers where I'm currently in the 4th season. I've imported the NCAA draft class 3 times now so I have Leinart, Bush, Rolle, Williams, etc all in the NFL. I drafted Reggie McNeal, Kejuan Jones, and some good defensive players. I started playing NCAA on weekend mornings working on a dynasty. I found that running the ball is fairly easy and a consistent way to gain yards. But, I found out also, to my dismay, that passing the ball was damn near impossible and a very frustrating experience! From reading the message boards I learned there was some sort of wide receiver glitch, where WR's would just drop the ball all the time. I didn't matter if they were good players, composed, in coverage, etc. They would drop perfectly placed passes. In many instances, the ball would actually bounce off of their hands!! OMG, this was a very tough thing to deal with while trying to enjoy a game. But, because I was Intrigued by the game, and really enjoyed alot of the aspects of it; running the option was fun, I liked the ability to use my players in this game and then export his likeness into Madden and then use him there in a different context and see how he measured up in the different leagues. But, trying to deal with that awful glitch was rough. And, not only did the wideouts drop passes constantly, but the passing mechanics themselves were terrible. There was another glitch called the beach ball effect where the football would actually look and move like a beach ball when it was deflected or tipped. Also, when you threw a pass, the ball moved way too slow giving any defender on the field ample time to react to it. By the time the ball reached the receiver, the whole secondary would be surrounding him. There were many good features in the game, but passing was certainly not one of them. The weird thing is, I would occasionally have games where the passing game would just 'work' great. Passes were caught, the ball moved well and receivers were open. But, it didn't happen enough. Now enter NCAA 2006. All the things that made the passing game terrible in 2005 have been fixed and there is a whole new feel to it. The ball moves much faster, receivers don't drop nearly as many passes (although, I would like to note, they still drop more than I feel is realistic?), and route running has improved. Meaning, the receivers actually get open from time to time. Not only has the passing game improved, the overall look of the game and the presentation have been improved on and polished. The players models look great and a whole bunch of new tackling, running, and catching animations have been added which really make the game come to life. This game really captures the excitement and drama of college football. Turnovers are well timed (nothing like coughing up the ball in the redzone to blow a 14-10 lead in the 4th quarter. Just ask me, I did it this morning). The AI provides a good challenge when your playing a top ranked team. The stadiums look fantastic as well as the in game cut scenes like the coach yelling at an official when a penalty is called. And, the new player celebrations are awesome. Some of them are really funny. There's one where the player holds the football as if it's a phone, makes like he's dialing a number and then puts the football to his ear like he's talking on the phone. It's halarious. Another end zone celebration has the player going to spike the ball only to act as if the ball is stuck to his hand. He then goes on to try and pry the ball off his hand with his foot. It's fun stuff. Overall, NCAA 2006 improved on so many areas of the game that it feels like a completely new game. And, while your playing it, it certainly does feel different. It's more fun, it's easier to make play action passes (which were very difficult in 2005. Most of the time your qb was sacked before he could even complete the fake handoff). The deep pass works a little too well, and some scrambling quarterbacks are ripping it up online pissing people off. But, I don't usually play online, so I'm not too worried about it. A new feature that I've enjoyed is the inclusion of Impact Players. Each team has at least two and up to four. These are the players that can really make an impact on the game. Make the big play that will turn the game in his team's favor. Make a big interception, force a fumble, break through the line and into the secondary for the huge first down. Reel in the long pass. The players are designated on field by a pulsating icon which pulsates faster if they are 'In the Zone'. While in this mode, they are more likely to make the big play, and if they do, the camera will pan in for a close up, the game pauses for a split second, and then the camera pans back out and you regain control over your player. I've seen some people complain about this, but I sort of like it. It adds to the excitement and only happens once or twice a game. So, it makes you feel like you actually are seeing a game breaking play. For example, the camera will focus in on your running back throwing a stiff arm to the line backer, and then break free from the tackle and gain an extra 4 or 5 yards. I think it's a nice touch. Another cool new feature, and the big one that they are advertising is Race for the Heisman. In this game mode, you are a freshman recruit in your first year of college ball and your goal; win the Heisman trophy before you graduate. You go through a couple drills (depending on the position you want to play) and your players attributes are set depending on how well you perform in the drill. You are then presented with a list of colleges that are offering scholarships to you. You can select one of these schools, or walk on to any campus in the nation. Either way, you start off on your college career and you are set in a dorm room where you keep track of your stats, fan mail, newsletter, trophies, schedule, and more. As you progress through the seasons, your dorm room gets bigger and better and, depending on your on field performance, your players begins to develop into a NCAA superstar. You can check your Heisman Hype meter which gets more full as you pile up the stats. It's a unique experience and a nice change of pace from the traditional dynasty/franschise mode that has been the dominating mode in all sports games for the past decade. And, from what I hear, Madden 2006 is going to expand on this and you'll be able to send your NCAA 2006 Heisman trophy winning star to the NFL draft. And, then follow him as he begins his NFL career. This is really cool and I think it's one of the most interesting, exciting new gameplay modes to be introduced in a sports game in years.