NCAA Football is Madden’s little brother that seems to get left in the dust the every year in the wake of Madden’s massive release. This year, though, is different. With the addition of Online Dynasty Mode and Mascot Mash Up, among other new features, it might finally be the year that the game won’t be forgotten in the daunting shadow of Madden. However, some bumpy gameplay, weird graphical errors, and a complete lack of any informative tutorial makes the game a difficult hill to climb for any player that isn’t already fully invested in the series.
The two newest modes in the game, Mascot Mash Up and Online Dynasty Mode, are welcome additions into the series. Online Dynasty mode is probably the more notable of the two major additions to the game as it is the single biggest feature asked for in previous versions. All features of Dynasty mode has been integrated seamlessly online, making for a deep and engrossing experience against up to twelve other people. On the other end of the spectrum is the Mascot Mash Up that pits an entire team of mascots from one school against another. Every mascot has close to max stats and special moves for juking, such as flips, making this an almost arcade-like experience that is more “girlfriend safe” than any other mode.
Create-a-character, or Campus Legend Mode, is one of the more interesting, and perplexing, features in the game. New characters may be named anything as there is no filter declining the insanity that can be entered. Likewise, the customizing the appearance of the character has no impact at all on the game itself. My first character was a 7 foot tall, 400 pound quarterback with hands the size of hubcaps. None of this affected the way that he played and just added to the amusement as he towered over both the offense and defense, making them both look like he was playing with children.
Parts of the actual custom character’s college life feel rather tacked on. Most colleges start the new freshmen off as a third-string player, rarely put into any game played. This can be easily changed through simply performing well in practice and advancing up to a starting position, all inside of the first month of classes. The concept of grades, or studying, seem to also have no impact on the game, only reflect that a player can be pulled from playing if his grades fall below a 2.0. This can be avoided by simply going to the library sporadically, although the game doesn’t ever really give motivation to keep the grades at any level above that just passing mark.
During the Campus Legend games, the player is never allowed to call any plays as those are handed down from the coach. This becomes rather annoying as sometimes the computer decides that it is a good idea to run the same play over and over again. This normally doesn’t work because the other team normally seems to figure out what is going on rather quickly and responds in kind. Thankfully, the game can be fast forwarded, through an option called Super Sim, when the ball is pried from the player’s team’s possession to the point when the ball is finally returned. The reward for all of this, playing through an entire college career, is the ability to import that character into Madden.
While playing on the road, in any mode, quarterbacks can be flustered, lose confidence, and begin to make worse and worse choices during plays. When a quarterback starts to lose confidence, normally from throwing an interception, the play indicator line that normally appears under them will start to become unclear making the play harder. The shaky nerves can continue on until the QB has no idea what play is in motion and the receivers all have question marks instead of buttons indicators. This can be avoided by taking a quiz, after an interception is thrown, of what play the other team used. A correct answer has the QB shake off the bad play and regain confidence. The disadvantage of this is that most of the plays thrown up during the quiz are almost identical, thus making it painful to keep the quarterback under control after a series of bad plays.
NCAA does a good job of making each stadium feel unique as well, the one exception is the single high school field (which strangely looks exactly like the field at the high school I went to) that is used for all high school games besides the finals. Each stadium has its own characteristics that make them feel unique, along with interesting factoids on the load screen pertaining to each place and their team. The Play Now mode even has a choice of modifying the weather to any possible, or using the real conditions currently at that field.
None of the depth means that NCAA is without its problems, though. Random graphical errors are constantly present, the commentators sound like they couldn’t care less about what is going on as well as having nothing interesting to say, and the crowd has too few animations or unique fans in it. Half of the Achievements in the game can be gotten by using the fast forward option, Super Sim, through an entire game, making them feel worthless. None of this ever really seems to effect the core mechanics of the game, but it is a wonder, when the play is so refined, why most of the extra material in the game feels so unpolished.
NCAA ’09 manages to pull together a game that may possibly rival the upcoming Madden. With solid game play, an interesting, although strangely lacking, Campus Legend mode, and the addition of Online Dynasty, the game is a wise buy for any fan of football games. Although the absence of any form of a useful tutorial and only one new player-friendly mode means that this year probably isn’t going to be the one to win any new converts into the ways of college football.