College football game is a masterpiece

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

It's a crisp fall afternoon and college football fan is glued to the television, where his favorite team is hammering its traditional rivals into the gridiron.

If that mythical fan isn't watching a real game, it's probably because he can't stop playing the latest in EA Sports' excellent series, "NCAA Football 2004."

Sports titles normally leave me cold. But when I guided my alma mater, the mighty Fresno State Bulldogs, to a convincing win over their WAC rivals San Jose State in my first try, I was hooked.

I'm now 2-1, with a close victory over Hawaii after a drubbing by San Diego State.

Every year, EA fine-tunes and enhances the series to make it more realistic and more fun to play. I'm not sure what they'll come up with next year, but it will have to be spectacular to top 2004.

Try to find something missing. You can do everything from playing a quick game with just the push of a button to creating a school and running its football program season after season, hiring coaches, recruiting athletes, scheduling and even focusing on one star to get him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The game offers scores of new teams this year, including a bunch of new Division 1 squads and dozens of historic teams. You can play one of the 20 greatest college games ever. If you're feeling a little weird, you can play a "mascot" game, in which all the players are dressed in the school mascot's outfit.

It looks even stranger than it sounds.

The game has a realistic look and feel, and it sounds great, too, with some of the best sports commentary yet for a videogame.

Gameplay is improved over previous versions, especially where the running game is concerned. For everyone but hardcore fanatics, the passing game is still the best way to move the ball. But at least now the running game is useful, especially in short-yardage situations.

The defense also appears to have been given a shot in the arm. Defensive backs are better able to cover and defend against the pass, and blitzes work well if you pick your spots.

The kicking game remains the hardest and least enjoyable part of the game. I'd rather go for it on fourth down in a tight game than risk a field goal. Only your console-controlled opponent has figured out how to kick successfully on a consistent basis.

The game is available for Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Game Cube, but only the Sony version can be played online.

There's also EA's fascinating new Sports Bio. In effect, it's a computer file shared by all new EA Sports titles. It keeps track of how many games you play to the end in each sport, and even how much time you spend playing, and rewards your accomplishments by unlocking secrets in the game you're playing and in future titles.

Graphics get an enthusiastic A. I can't recall better-looking player graphics in any sports title I've played. They move properly, look almost human and even have realistically collegiate hair styles. The stadiums and backgrounds are perfect.

Sound gets another A. If you've ever been to a college game, you'll recognize the roar that drowns out every other sound within miles. Fight songs, thuds and groans from colliding players and the solid announcing makes the game amazingly realistic and engrossing.

Control gets yet another A. Everything works as it should, players under your control move quickly and go where they're needed, and switching to the defender nearest the ball is just a button push away.

"NCAA Football 2004" gets a solid A. This is a truly great game, the best sports title going at the moment (I haven't tried "Madden 2004" yet) and a hugely entertaining and involving experience.

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