EA's Blue Chip.
In these sad, slow summer months, when baseball is like a sip of saltwater to dehydrated sports fans, the faint glimmer of football on the autumn horizon is as invigorating as the coolest iced tea.
If you love the NFL, your salvation lies in the pre-season games; in all their ugly awkwardness they're still better than watching baseball on TV. But for the college football fan, EA Sports' new NCAA Football 2003 is more than a refreshing sip - it's an Olympic sized swimming pool full of college football goodness.
This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Last year's NCAA Football 2002 really put college football gaming on the map, and this year's iteration secures the series' hold on the genre.
The modes are substantial, to say the least. EA's yearly offering of an awesome Dynasty mode is one of the coolest traditions since Christmas. As if control of nearly every aspect of your team weren't enough (red-shirting players, selecting blue-chips, hiring, firing, scheduling, trading, drafting, and building), now players can create their own school. Logos, fight songs, playbooks and, of course, players are all at your disposal in what is the most comprehensively immersive college football game mode I've ever seen. It's pretty much worth the price of admission alone.
Also included is a Mascot Mode in which you can play as one of fifty teams' mascots. At first I was shocked that Oskie (the Cal bear) was excluded from the game, but on second thought, I'm more surprised that the Cal football team was included in the regular game, given the fact that they belong on a football field about as much as a bunch of paraplegics belong in a step-class. Tack on the ubiquitous Practice mode (which is handled very counter-intuitively), Regular Season and a Trophy room with authentic trophies to round out the experience.
Given my horrible penchant for irony, I can hardly reconcile that NCAA Football 2003 is also a lot of fun to play. I actually prefer NCAA ball to NFL thanks to the Option plays, which are handled better this season than ever before. The same goes for draw plays and play-actions, both of which run more smoothly than ever.
However, it's about as difficult to finish plays in NCAA Football 2003 as it is to start them thanks to some great defensive computer AI. This game demands more from the player in terms of play-calling than previous offerings; if the computer can guess your plays, it'll beat the crap out of you - even with Cal, which is about as embarrassing as a mortal wound from a water balloon.
Aside from the improved difficulty, the game plays a lot like every other recent EA football game thanks to its use of the Madden engine. So yes, tackling is still impossible. Also, the fact that the X button boosts on offense and changes players on defense needs to be changed, as you'll find yourself switching players far too unexpectedly and far too often. The running game could also stand a better scheme, as the same juke, hurdle, turbo thing is probably older than most GR readers.
Graphically, NCAA Football 2003 is mixed on the PS2, with a bad case of the jaggies, some weak textures and the lamest looking crowd I've ever seen. It's actually a step backwards from last year's effort. Fortunately, the animations are all really good and the players themselves look great.
The sounds in NCAA Football 2003 could have been taken from NCAA Football 2002, which is in many ways a good thing. Supposedly there are over 8,000 lines of new dialogue, but if that's the case, those 8,000 lines were poorly spent, as I recognized nearly everything I heard Lee Corso say from the last NCAA game. Maybe the guy in my copy of the game had a stroke or something.
Despite its niggling flaws, NCAA Football 2003 for the PS2 takes the managerial aspects of college football to new, unexpected heights. There's just a ton of stuff to fiddle with. Still, it would be nice to see the effort and imagination spent on the modes and details applied to the gameplay. Perhaps we'll see that kind of dedication in Sega's upcoming NCAA 2K3, but even if we don't, there's at least one college football game fit for your PS2.