On the professional side of things, the football war is heating up, despite being a war of attrition this year. With Madden NFL 2005 going against the outstanding ESPN NFL 2K5, all the attention is directed to that, while college football just moves along as always. Such is the case with NCAA Football 2005, the latest in EA's popular franchise. While it doesn't get the cover stories, fanboy flamewars, or general recognition as its pro brethren, the series has hordes of fans who believe that the college game is leagues better than either pro pigskin effort?and it's a tough argument. The 2005 edition builds upon what made the series so popular, with deeper Dynasty action, the addition of the home-field advantage, and the matchup stick, but in some ways, the game has taken a step back in the most important aspect ? gameplay. Yes, NCAA Football 2005 is an outstanding football game, but compared to the amazing 2004 edition, it is a tad of a step backwards ? it won't ruin the game for anyone, but longtime fans will surely notice the good and bad of NCAA Football 2005 in comparison to older games in the series.
NCAA Football 2005 comes with all the trimmings that you've come to expect ? exhibition games, mascot games, all-time games, the College Classics (though they're the same damn ones from last year, with only the home field advantage added in), Dynasty, and online play through the PS2 Network Adaptor. Dynasty is of course the meat of the game, and it has been enhanced to be a bit deeper, but not fully revolutionized (basically the same thing as last year). The few additions include a revamped recruiting setup, and the inclusion of NCAA sanctions. The NCAA sanctions are basically rules broken, like missing practice, getting bad grades, being caught out partying past curfew, etc. You have the option of suspending players for their actions, or letting them slide?but if you do, eventually the NCAA will come after you and hand down punishment. The only problem with this is it happens too often sometimes ? week in, week out there's a handful of players that need to be dealt with, which seems too frequent, especially at a small school where you don't get as many ?troublemakers' like some of the larger universities. There's some other minor tweaks like more specific yearly goals for coaches (like beating a major team on the road, or whatever), but the normal season progression is the same process as last year.
The off-season stuff has changed though, with recruiting most notably. Though it's nice you can have 70 man rosters now, spending time with recruits is a pain in the ass due to the new system. Instead of the past system where you selected a player and chose the recruiting method by sending the head coach, assistance coach, and on down out to recruit, it's all on a clumsy points system which can get ugly when you run out of points for getting players if you spend them all on a prized prospect. They should have stuck with the old method?if it ain't broke, don't fix it, in this regard. On the other hand, you can now recruit ?athletes' who don't have a specific position, and then take a chance guessing where they'd best fit. Sometimes you get a star, sometimes you get a bust. You also can actually change the position of players between the seasons, so if you were to, say, shake up your offense from the option to a more traditional style, you could take your option QB and make him your starting tailback instead. It allows for some customization.
On the field, there's the two new enhancements ? one works great, the other is kind of?not so great. The home field advantage, though not mindblowing, goes beyond a basic ?gimmick' and actually can be of some use. Basically, it puts the fans in the game ? pressing the R2 button at home games will pump up the crowd (moreso if you're in a stadium that's packed) and the screen shakes like crazy, throwing off the opponents. If you're on the road, the exact thing happens to you, which can get a bit crazy when the screen goes batty and your controller starts vibrating. What's cool is each year of a Dynasty, the game reorganizes the top 25 toughest places to play, so if you've taken a bad team to major success and develop a rabid fanbase, you might be a top dog one day, even if you aren't now. The matchup stick is the other thing?and to be honest, it's kinda worthless. Using the right analog stick, you can compare players to see their level of confidence ? or intimidation. It's an interesting concept because if it worked, a crappy, rattled DB could be exploited by a talented offense ? but it never happens. It's just a gimmick, it seems, and one I barely even used when playing the game. The ?hit stick' from Madden 2005 is also included, but it's mapped to the L2 button instead, so it doesn't quite get the attention in comparison. Using that renders a powerful hit, if you can land it, enough to cause a fumble sometimes.
Otherwise, the gameplay remains the same as NCAA '04, with some minor changes. To its credit, the passing is much more challenging than ever ? the defenders will really attack the ball and bust up a lot of plays in the nick of time. You really have to thread the needle and expose a defense to make a good pass work, which is always a good thing (something also in ESPN NFL 2K5, though NCAA doesn't have the crazy interception problems). The problem is?this is somewhat offset by the ease of running the ball. Without playing with the sliders, it's exceptionally easy to just run around defenses for huge yards and not worry about passing the ball much. Even with an average tailback, it's feasible to get 2000 yards a season merely by putting emphasis on the running game instead of the passing game. Sliders definitely fix it, but the ease of running by default is a bit worrisome.
Especially because it's not the only thing easy ? pretty much everything is. Last year's game was well balanced, with or without sliders. This year, I set up the game exactly as I had 2004 set up?and still haven't even lost a single game. Playing defense is incredibly simple, because of how much EA focused on making defense the most important part of the game. It doesn't help that the computer AI has been completely dumbed down and practically incompetent when dealing with a good defense?sometimes they get lucky but even on the All-American difficulty level, it's so easy to dominate the computer, and even expose players not being controlled in a human vs. human game, online or off. Your only hope is sliders, and that's not a bad thing, but you can tell almost instantly how much they eased up the difficulty.
That's not to say this isn't a great game ? because it is. When everthing clicks, this is still the deepest, most advanced college game around, with incredible depth and replay value to go along with the still-polished gameplay. All the different tweaks and additions, good or bad, do add up to make the game feel somewhat different than ever before, even if there are many times the 2004 edition will seem superior. NCAA '05 captures what makes college football great ? the fan support, the postseason bowl chases, the weekly BS?err?BCS reports, the Heisman awards, etc?it truly feels like a college football simulation in every sense. There's quite a bit of stuff I'm not overly thrilled with, but on the whole NCAA Football 2005 is still an outstanding football game that will occupy plenty of hours this fall during the real season.
Visually, as always, NCAA '05 looks good but doesn't fall far from the NCAA Football 2002 (the first PS2 installment) tree. Tiburon did spend plenty of time making the game more colorful and detailed on the field, and the players look generally better and have much better animations. They still haven't gotten rid of the ?ping pong' animations that clog up running plays up the gut, but that's been going on for so many years now it's easy to forget about (though after extensive time with ESPN NFL 2K5 it's easier to notice). The stadiums look great as always, and the addition of the cutscenes showing fans and their general antics (including the signs you make for them to put up, whatever those might be) is a nice touch as well (some of them are hilarious). Overall the game has a nice clean look to it, and is sharper and more colorful than the more ?gritty' Xbox version.
Keeping with the theme of lacking a ton of change, we come to the audio, where the 3-man announce team of Nessler, Corso, and Herbstreit still say the same things from NCAA Football 2002 constantly. There's a decent amount of new stuff, but that's usually Nessler spouting off about how loud or quiet the crowd is every play. Thus, familiar players will tire immediately of the same phrases being used every time, seeing they've been said the last three NCAA games. Much of the crowd sounds remain the same, but it's accented by how damn loud they get if things are going the home team's way in the game. On the other hand, it can get incredibly quiet if things go the other way, and they lustily boo when the home team is sucking it up badly. It's all around insanity, really. Accenting it all is the huge array of fight songs that play frequently, making up for the old and busted play by play.