One caveat in the realm of console sports gaming is that first-year products in general are marred by a variety of glaring flaws. No matter how impressive, the first-year sports game is usually not able to compete with the refinement of seasoned competitors. However, Visual Concepts shattered those conventions with NFL 2K for the Dreamcast, as right out of the gate, the game seriously challenged EA's veteran Madden series for console football supremacy. With NCAA College Football 2K2 for the Sega Dreamcast, the company has achieved a repeat performance--the game capably competes against any other college football product on the market.
NCAA 2K2 shares some of its look and much of its gameplay feel--particularly the control scheme--with its pro football counterpart. However, there are plenty of new college-specific additions and refinements in the game. A new development team within Visual Concepts took the NFL 2K1 engine, kept only the best parts, and rebuilt the rest of the code from the ground up. The enhancements, in gameplay terms, can be seen in the advanced defensive AI, realistic passing game, and tight, responsive controls. The primary improvement--when compared with NFL 2K1 and just about any other football game, college or otherwise, is in the passing game and defensive AI. Money passing plays, which have been a significant problem in most football simulations to date, are virtually nonexistent in NCAA College Football 2K2. Really, for the first time, defensive backs display realistic decision-making tendencies. For example, play bump 'n' run, and the AI defensive backs will crowd the receivers and actually put their hands on the receiver to slow him down and throw off timing routes. Out routes, which in other games can be generally counted on to pick up chunks of yardage, are no longer automatic in NCAA 2K2. Double-team the out route in the game, and the safety is able to read the route and is generally in position to knock the ball down or even pick it off for an interception. In NCAA 2K2, it is doubly important to mix up the offensive plays and to read the safeties before making a pass.
The running game, now with the college-specific option plays, is nearly as adept. AI running backs cleverly read defensive formations and blocks, while on the defensive end, the computer-controlled down linemen and linebackers run blitz packages on third and long and are able to realistically react to option plays. However, despite all its gifts, there is one glaring flaw in the game's offensive AI. When running option plays, the computer-controlled quarterbacks are prone to making the most brainless decisions. More than a few times, the AI quarterback makes pitches regardless of the situation--he throws the ball right at a defensive player standing between him and the intended running back or runs the ball into a defensive hole and makes an unnecessary and futile pitch. Generally, these mistakes result in turnovers or loss of yardage. The problem is something that must be addressed for next year's game.
NCAA 2K2 includes seven primary modes of play. They are scrimmage, tournament, exhibition, season, legacy (or franchise), tutorial, and network. The scrimmage, tournament, exhibition, and tutorial modes are rather self-explanatory. In the network mode, up to eight players on two Dreamcasts can compete head-to-head online over SegaNet. As with NFL and NBA 2K1, games played online generally have limited lag when they're within the player's geographical region. Cross-country online games can be troublesome over a 56k, and NCAA 2K2 does not support broadband. Offline, the primary modes of play are season and legacy. In the season mode, you can take your favorite team through one college football season and the subsequent bowl games. Interestingly, EA holds the exclusive rights to the Bowl Championship Series for this year, so BCS bowls such as Orange and Fiesta are not in the game. Additionally, although awards like the Heisman Trophy made it in, Sega was also not able to secure the rights to have an All-American team in NCAA 2K2; a fictional Sega Sports team has replaced it. However, the game does hold the rights to the Rose Bowl, which is of course the venue for this year's national championship game.
The final mode of play, the game's legacy mode, is essentially the franchise mode in NCAA 2K2. Here, you can take charge of a college football program and lead it through several consecutive seasons. Player management is generally the most involved in any franchise mode, and that holds true in NCAA 2K2. The game features a legacy management option through which you can cut and red-shirt players, examine team needs and the depth charts, scout competing college programs, and even check lifetime stats such as win-loss records and bowl appearances. The game also includes a recruiting period, during which your team's coach is able to visit promising high school seniors. Each of the high school recruits is from a different region in the country, so each has his college of choice. For example, a highly ranked quarterback from California might prefer to attend UCLA or USC. It is up to your team's coach to visit the most attractive recruits through a course of several weeks. Each week, the coach is given five visits, which must be spent wisely on the best recruits. Pay a high school player enough visits, and he might change his mind and attend your program. But beware, for some recruits, no number of visits can change their mind about attending their favorite college, so the visits must be spent wisely. Complementing the recruiting options is a spring training mode, in which you can allocate points to build up various skills for players in each of the primary positions. Both of these options add a welcome dynamic to an already robust franchise mode.
Off the field, the game's graphics are comparable to that of NFL 2K1. The college-specific jersey textures are generally accurate, and the player animations are outstanding. Linebackers will sneak up to the line, and running backs will feel for contact before spinning off the defender. The individual stadiums are designed to the specifications of the real-life counterparts. For example, Penn State's Beaver stadium sports its familiar upper deck by the south end zone, and the crowded confines of Florida's Ben Griffin stadium is faithfully re-created in the game. Other visual nuances include sidelines cluttered with 2D sprites of players, coaches, and photographers, 2D crowds that react realistically to the action on the field, and environmental effects, like a sky full of stars during nighttime games. Although not as impressive visually as some other college football games on the market, NCAA 2K2 is easily among the more graphically robust sports games on the Dreamcast.
In the past, one of the areas where college football games have separated themselves from their NFL counterparts has been in the audio department--and NCAA 2K2 is no different. Fight songs from each of the top colleges are included in the game and are fully orchestrated. Play a Saturday afternoon game against Notre Dame, and you'll hear the familiar Irish fight song. The chatter on the field and the announcing team are both quite versatile. The game's commentators, although a little sterile at times in terms of announcing charisma, will not only call the action accurately, but will also make references to in-game stats and individual player performances. On the field, you can hear linebackers barking out orders, quarterbacks calling audibles, and receivers taunting their opposing DB after a particularly long completion.
NCAA College Football 2002 proficiently upholds the legacy set forth by Sega's NFL 2K series. Although not quite complete (because it is missing such elements as the official BCS license, division I-AA teams, and also has some AI issues), the game is an excellent first-year effort. As the game's development team continues to build on the formula set forth by NCAA 2K2, the game should find itself competing favorably with other seasoned college football simulations on the market.