The old college try.
We were shocked by EA's school spirit last year when we played the incomparable NCAA Football 2005. That game's innovative match-up stick coupled with the crowd excitement meter made it one of the most progressive, brilliantly designed football games we'd seen in years, and we couldn't wait to see where the team from EA would take their game next.
Well, it turns out they took it for a first down, although not all the way to the end zone. NCAA Football 06 for the PS2 and Xbox enters players in an uninspired race for football's most inspirational trophy, the Heisman, and introduces the impact players who can potentially break open a game when they get "in the zone." Underlying these features is a slew of welcome tweaks and adjustments, as well as everything that made NCAA Football 2005 great (read our NCAA Football 2005 review if you need a refresher). The result is another great day on the gridiron, albeit with a few dropped passes.
Perhaps the most glaring of these is Race for the Heisman mode, which the game actually throws you right into the first time you play, forcing you to gaze upon its weakness. After choosing your favorite team as in NCAA Footballs past, you're asked to choose a position for your future Heisman candidate (i.e. pocket passer, running back, linebacker, etc.) Before you're recruited, you have to complete a drill related to your preferred position as coaches and scouts, whom you never see, look on. Our Pocket Passer had to run a drill called Pass Skeleton, which simply required him to throw completions against various coverage packages.
After drilling, you're presented with scholarship offers from three seemingly random schools and a walk-on option. But the scholarships are an illusion, because you can walk-on at any school you want and even start! This entire segment of Race for the Heisman mode should have been benched.
After getting "recruited," you name your player, decide where he's from, and create his appearance. The player creator is pretty dull, but then again, this isn't NFL Street. You're next plunked into a typical college dorm room, the hub of Run for the Heisman. Here you can read fan mail, check newspaper headlines, look at a picture of your fake girlfriend (FYI - the girl in the picture is black when you start the game, but gets whiter and blonder as you improve. Social commentary?), run your player's one specific drill, check trophies and stats, and finally play through or simulate the season. In other words, Race for the Heisman plays like Dynasty mode without decisions.
If you think there might be a slew of drills to play through in the off-season, you're really, really wrong. You can't play through any drills. Your only option - aside from checking fan mail and headlines - is to tell the game to simulate all the standard off-season processes (recruiting, training, etc.) and wait for the new season to load. On the Xbox, this takes about five minutes. That's a pretty long time to leave a gamer hanging, but the PS2 version cranks it to a whopping 15 minutes. Not only does this demonstrate that the Xbox version handles its business three times faster than the PS2, it's also proof that Race for the Heisman mode is a complete waste of your time, regardless of your preferred platform.
Thankfully, this weak mode isn't all that's new in NCAA Football 06. Spring Drills is a collection of four mini-games including the aforementioned Pass Skeleton, Rushing Attack (run and get points for touchdowns and jukes), Option Attack (Option version of Rushing Attack) and The Oklahoma (you and a blocker make a charge for the end zone). While none are original, all are good ways to get used to this year's gameplay tweaks. It's just too bad you can't fool around with them online.
Not that you'd need to, because the bulk of NCAA Football 06 will keep a college football fan busy for weeks. Returning modes include Exhibition, Dynasty, Rivalry Game, Mascot Game and Practice.
Dynasty mode has received a cool boost in the form of In-Season Recruiting. This essentially works like off-season recruiting with one major difference. Now you can invite players to visit your school on the day of a big game and score serious points with them by beating the other team. Not only does this give you more to manage during the season, it can also raise the stakes of your biggest games.
Of course, you still have to win, and that comes down to playing the game. The most notable new feature is the presence of impact players. Every team gets three of these, and who they are is determined by what they've accomplished over the course of a season. An impact player always plays with a higher level of artificial intelligence than the rest and can occasionally get "in the zone." Offensive players "in the zone" are tough to tackle while defensive players are more likely to cause turnovers.
We really appreciate the idea, but its implementation leaves a bit to be desired. It's silly to think that a team like USC, with so many returning stars, would have the same number of impact players as Cal. Instead of picking a lucky number and binding every team to it, the designers should have bound the number of impact players to some transitional stat, like returning upper-classmen. It's also strange that players seem to enter the zone at random and quickly leave again. In real football, players get into rhythms. Running backs don't just feel bad ass for one play and then simmer down, they get used to the speed and flow of the defense after being fed the ball consistently.
Still, impact players do add a strategic dimension to the game that wasn't there before. For example, if a receiver enters the zone, the player on offense can either set him up with a hot route or use him as a decoy and go to the running back instead. It's a good new concept that will hopefully improve with age.
Most of the R-stick functionality of the Madden games has been added. Defensive players still have the hit-stick option, and offensive players can now stop on a dime to make would-be tacklers miss by pressing down on the R-stick. Also, passers can now tuck the ball away and run by simply holding a button, then resume a passing posture by letting go. While this is a small change, it represents a huge improvement over the old scheme, making it much easier to scramble as a quarterback.
Then again, given a good scrambling quarterback's capacity to cut through NCAA Football 06's defensive AI, maybe the old clunky system should have been left in place. Actually, what the game really needs is a much greater penalty for throwing on the run. Nobody in college should be able to play like Michael Vick, yet somehow most of them do in NCAA Football 06.
This is especially the case online, where all but the very best resort to tricky scrambling attacks. At least the games run smoothly, even if the defenses don't. Players can easily jump into quick and opti-matches, as well as play ranked, unranked, or Overtime Drill games. All that's missing are the Spring Drills, which might have been nice for extremely short online sessions or warm-ups before a game.
The PS2 and Xbox versions look almost identical, with neither receiving significant visual upgrades in the off-season. However, the ugly slowdown that practically ground gameplay to a halt in last year's Xbox version has been left in the past, as both versions run pretty smoothly. The engine doesn't push the kind of detail that Madden does, but it's built for speed, not looks, and is still quite solid.
There's nothing solid though, about NCAA Football 06's obnoxious soundtrack. If you want your kids to go to college, don't let them play this game with the volume on. Sure, you can turn the music off, but then you still have Lee Corso's color commentary to deal with, and it will make you want to die. Once he's out of the way, all that remains are the sounds of the stadium, whistles, and some bone-crushing tackle sounds, which add way more to the game than Corso ever could.
We're not exactly looking forward to 2006 - NCAA Football 06 isn't better than last year's game and our Cal Bears are sure to do worse than 2005's miracle run - but for all the inexorable fumbles, stumbles and bumbles, we expect plenty of daylight for our Bears and plenty of green for this game. Go teams.