It's odd how sports seasons come and go. For the longest time there was no college football, and then all of a sudden the Cal bears are playing the Kansas State Wildcats on August 27th. Another 11 or so games, the same Cal Bears, but an entirely different team. Somehow the same thing never gets old.
Unless, of course, we're talking about sports video game franchises, which have a penchant for getting repetitive. Why change things when they work? There's a reason the Madden games have changed so little over the past few years, yet still dominate the competition.
So the new NCAA Football 2004 isn't bad by any means; it's only the best college football game ever (with last year's NCAA Football 2003 coming in a close second). With tons of teams, more dynasty options and the essential online play of the PS2 version, this is really the only game in town...even if it feels a lot like last year's game.
There aren't that many new features, just big updates of existing ones. For example, tons of teams have been added (you can play as Sac State!), leading to a grand total of about 350 teams available for play. If you went/are going/plan on going to college, it's probably in here.
However, some of the new features are basically just "stuff" thrown into the game for the sake of...well, stuff. For example, take College Classics Mode. Trying to recapture past glory by recreating some of the greatest moments in college football is an interesting idea on paper, but it's not that great when you get down to it. While it gives you an appreciation for how difficult most of these game-winners must have been to pull off, it doesn't capture the intensity of those moments at all.
The Dynasty Mode is another great example of the game's emphasis on peripheral stuff over real tweaking. You can examine TV ratings for your team, make different promises and boasts to potential recruits, select how your plays are called if you don't want to play a game - there are so many little side projects, you could probably never get around to finishing a season. The stat tracking is incredible.
Names, though, would be nice. The fact that your starting 6'2" 195 pound quarterback is called Quarterback #10 and not Aaron Rogers if you're Cal is a bit annoying, but I suppose that's the way it goes when you're dealing with amateur athletes.
Of course, the one new feature that actually is a new feature is the ability to play online with the PS2 version. Not only does online play work, but it works well and you can even use the SOCOM headset (assuming you have one) to speak to your opponent. One thing that might make this mode a bit cooler would be eight-player support; four on four would rock. But as it is, the PS2 version's online component is pretty cool. Xbox and Gamecube owners, eat your hearts out.
The gameplay is marginally different from last year. Defenses definitely play better zone as they'll regularly intercept ill-advised passes and clog passing lanes. The play-action system is also a little bit better as it looks more like you're executing a running play than last year.
However, the penalty calling by the referees has become extremely obnoxious. Pass interference is almost never called (even though it happens on practically every passing play), and random things like holding and facemask violations are thrown in for no good reason. You can get penalized for over-celebrating if you high-step into the end zone, but this only makes me wish there were more ways to celebrate.
Otherwise, the gameplay is the same as it has been since this series debuted on the PS2, which means it still kicks ass. Very little has changed; I suppose EA is probably taking an "If it ain't broke.." attitude, but that also leaves the door open a bit for rivals like Sega Sports.
Especially in the graphics department. Shots of the coaches look awful and the cheerleaders look like inflatable sex dolls. Wait...is that a bad thing? On the other hand, the animations are wonderful and there are a couple new ones, but as a whole the game doesn't fare better than last year.
The sounds are excellent, with good collisions and crowds yelling "Block that kick" and "Defense," although the next step is clearly to throw in the various teams' rally cries such as "Go Bears!" The commentary team of Kirk Herbstreit, Brad Nessler and Lee Corso has more lines and has become more sophisticated. For example, if you throw two interceptions in a row and then get the ball back, they'll mention your previous two interceptions and then speculate as to how your QB will perform on the current drive. Impressive.
Despite the fact that this game does just about everything well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit disappointed. Even though it's an improvement over last year's version, it at times feels a little too familiar. Still, the addition of online multiplayer is very hard to resist and takes the series to a new level, keeping NCAA Football 2004 for the PS2 at the top of the college pile.