Summer has barely gotten into full swing, and Electronic Arts has already released its newest college football game, NCAA Football 2005, out of the gates. The developers at EA's Tiburon studio have added a number of interesting new features to NCAA Football 2005 that help distinguish the game from Madden. Unfortunately, the added effects these new features have are tempered by the fact that the game has failed to evolve in other important areas--namely presentation. The Xbox version in particular is also plagued by some noticeable technical problems. All in all, NCAA Football 2005 is still a great college football game, but longtime fans will have trouble shaking the feeling that the series isn't quite living up to its awesome potential.
The biggest new changes in the game this year revolve around the implementation of home-field advantage. More so than in the pros, the effect of home field in college sports is huge. The developer of NCAA 2005 has made a great first attempt at modeling this effect into its video game. In the game, when you play in a hostile stadium, you'll hear the crowd start roaring as your offense approaches the line of scrimmage. This adds a great deal of ambience to the game, and it even affects the composure of your players on the field. In particularly rowdy venues (the game includes a ranked list of the nation's "toughest places to play"), your controller will actually rumble, the screen will shake, and your quarterback will have difficulty calling signals and audibles. Move the ball effectively and the road crowd will quiet down somewhat. Falter in your offense and you'll incur the wrath of 100,000 screaming fans. If you're the home team on defense, you can pound on a button to rile up the crowd and incite them to make more noise. If you're controlling a linebacker or a defensive back as you do this, he'll wave his arms in the air to ask for more noise.
NCAA 2005 also attempts to model the composure and poise of players on the field. You can see your current players' composure levels via the "matchup stick." Prior to the snap, you can toggle the right analog stick in different directions to see how your men stack up against their opponents on the other side of the line. Hit it to the left and you'll see comparisons between receivers and defensive backs. Push to the right and you'll see offensive versus defensive lines. Pull it down and you'll see how the linebackers fare against the offensive backfield. You'll also see how the composure ratings are affecting each player's relative skill level. In practice, this is most noticeable in the passing game. If you toss a string of incompletions, it becomes all but impossible to complete a long pass. Either the passes will sail far off target, or, more often, the receiver will inexplicably drop an easily catchable ball. Conversely, if you can string together several completions, good quarterbacks can get very hot and will start threading passes into really tight quarters. You'll be tempted to rush eight men at the QB to try to disrupt his rhythm if your opponent goes on a hot streak.
Aside from these new features, the core gameplay feels largely the same as that of last year's NCAA iteration. Veterans will notice a handful of changes, such as new tackling animations that give NCAA 2005 a somewhat more solid feel. On defense, you'll now be able to press a button when tackling to try to apply a big hit, which can force a fumble or cause an incomplete pass. The artificial intelligence of blockers seems to have improved somewhat, thus enhancing the running game. As a result, sweeps and counters feel more viable this season than in last year's game, although running and wide receiver screens still don't seem to work all that well. On the downside, it's more difficult than ever to complete a pass, especially with the composure ratings that affect the game. At times it seems as though defensive backs bat down far too many balls. To be effective, you have to be very precise with your coverage reads and your timing, and you must make certain that your quarterback's feet are set before trying to deliver the ball. Stepping up in the pocket also helps a bit, so those who like to drop back 15 or 20 yards before heaving the ball will have a more difficult time than ever.
One of the biggest strengths of last year's NCAA Football was its excellent dynasty mode. The recruiting process was surprisingly deep and fascinating, at least for college football junkies. EA has evolved its dynasty mode this year, and though you'll still enjoy weekly Sports Illustrated covers, there are now even more options in the offseason portion of the game. You'll set a budget for recruiting, training, and discipline prior to the recruiting season. So put more points into training and your current players stand to gain more skill before the start of the next season. Spend more on recruiting and you'll have added points that can be used to woo incoming freshmen.
The actual recruiting process is fairly similar to last year's, so you'll peruse huge lists of players that are sorted by position, hometown, skill, and level of interest in your program. From these you can pick the players you want to recruit, and you can attempt to pitch them on your school based on a variety of factors, like program prestige, location, and promised playing time. What's new is that you can now choose to scout or give a recruiting pitch. Scouting gives you additional physical and skills information about a player. You also won't choose between phone calls and home visits now. Instead, the amount of effort you put into a player is simply measured in points. Players across the country cost more points to recruit than home-state players. Also new is the ability to recruit "athletes" that can slot into a variety of positions. It can be risky to take in such players, because they're usually just jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-none. But once in a while you can find a diamond in the rough who turns out to be unusually gifted at one position. Before his freshman season, you'll have to pick where to slot him into your roster.
There was also supposed to be a new discipline feature included in NCAA 2005, where your players would sometimes end up disrupting your program with personal issues, such as missed classes. It would be up to you to apply suspensions or otherwise to maintain order in your program. However, we never actually managed to run into a discipline issue during our play-testing. We tried simulating a few years each with both Cal and Miami, and never once was our simulation stopped to warn us of disciplinary issues. This is particularly surprising, especially given that the real-life University of Miami can't go a few weeks without a problem case, let alone a few years.
Aside from standard games and the dynasty mode, NCAA 2005 includes all of the same modes from last year's game, like the campus challenge (where you use points to earn pennants and other unlockables). You can also play mascot games and college classics, like the end of the 1982 Big Game between Cal and Stanford, where the Bears executed their amazing multi-lateral kickoff return to spoil John Elway's final collegiate game with The Cardinal. You can still create a school and create a player, but this year's version also lets you create custom signs for fans to hold up in the crowd. Additionally, you can create custom playbooks. Both the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions offer online play, which includes leaderboards, instant messaging, quick tournaments, and an "even teams" feature that lets you pit any school against another without worrying about one team being unfairly stacked. The new EA Sports ticker also appears to be operational, keeping you informed of real-life sports scores and news while you're in the online lobby.
Unfortunately, the worst aspect of NCAA 2005 is its presentation. Sure, the game animates fairly nicely, the players look reasonably detailed, and grass stains will appear on uniforms over the course of a game. But it doesn't appear as though player models or faces have been updated much at all since last season. The fans in cutscenes who hold up signs look decent, but the crowd behind them in the stands looks flat and primitive. Stadium models don't appear to have been updated either. Worst of all, players and referees blatantly clip through one another in close-up scenes between plays. On the sound front, the voice clips from announcers Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso are pretty much the same as last year's, with seemingly nothing new recorded. On its own, the game still looks good on all platforms, and there are no major differences between the three. But when compared to its pro football brethren, ESPN and Madden, NCAA 2005 is falling behind quickly.
The Xbox version of the game is also plagued with several technical problems, the most serious of which involves gameplay slowdown and online play. We tested the game by using a variety of different combinations, and we even used two different Xbox consoles. However, we still haven't quite determined exactly what combination of factors contributes to gameplay slowdown. Oddly, we've seen it happen to varying degrees with weather effects, online and offline, and in widescreen and normal modes. The point here is that slowdown is present in the game, and it can noticeably affect gameplay from time to time. EA is also having problems with the reliability of its Xbox Live servers at this time. As a result, about half of our attempted matches ended in disconnection. The GameCube version of the game also seems to have a bit of the same slowdown problem, but it only occurs during the close-up views in between plays. The PlayStation 2 version of the game seems to have dodged these issues, because we noticed no noticeable slowdown while in-game. Furthermore, there were minimal lag or disconnection issues during online play on the PS2.
Overall, NCAA Football 2005 offers a fine overall package and should appeal to just about any hardcore college football fan. The new home-field advantage and composure ratings do a lot to give the game a true college sports feel, and the core gameplay has evolved to a satisfactory degree as well. Unfortunately, the series is beginning to lag behind in other areas, and Xbox owners will find that EA's first foray into Xbox Live has been a shaky one. If all you own is an Xbox, you may want to hold off on purchasing this one to see how--and if--the developer can address the game's slowdown and online problems in a future update. If you have the choice, the PlayStation 2 version of the game is the one to get--for now.
Editor's note 07/22/04: Since publishing this review, the developers have fixed the server-side issues that were causing Xbox Live games to disconnect.