NCAA Football 2003 Review

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Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube
Reviewed on Xbox

This year's version of EA college football gaming franchise throws everything at you but the opportunity to major in Communications or siphon funding away from the Music program. Pick your favorite college team or make your own. Play a game, a season or even a short career in which you recruit and train players en route to building a college football dynasty.

Solomon Dirigible

As far as games in the sports genre are concerned, perhaps nothing translates better from the playing field to the video screen as well as football. The play designs contain just enough pre-scripted motions (linemen blocking, receivers running pass routes, etc.) while at the same time allowing for enough randomness and creativity (quarterback scrambles, breaking tackles, etc.) that the gameplay doesn't become stale. When it comes to console football games, EA Sports has established itself as the premier game designer, and this year's college football entry, NCAA Football 2003, continues their mastery.

NCAA Football 2003 features 4 difficulty levels: Junior Varsity, Varsity, All-American, and Heisman, with Varsity being the default. In last year's version, the defensive AI was seriously lacking. It was routinely easy, when playing any level except Heisman, to run a 5-10 yard out pattern and complete the pass, say, 8 out of 10 times. The CPU-controlled cornerback would never break on the ball to bat it away. When you scaled up the difficulty level to Heisman, however, the defense was so suffocating that you rarely had time to find a receiver to throw the ball to, let alone complete the pass. This year, things are different. I set out to play my first game on the Varsity level, and on the first out pattern I ran, the cornerback covered my receiver, broke sharply on the ball, intercepted it, and returned it for a touchdown. Linebackers in this year's version will jump to bat down passes and react well when playing either a zone or man-to-man defense. This makes it much more difficult on passing downs to come up with a first down.

The offensive strategy is largely unaltered from last year's version. The playbooks of 117 Division One teams are included, and are stylized to match the style of that team. You can run Nebraska's option-happy offense, or choose a run and gun team like BYU or Hawaii to throw the ball deep. Incidentally, you can choose any of the playbooks no matter which team you play with. What's absent here that you find in some other football games is the ability to design your own plays. However, there are so many playbooks available, and so many different offensive sets that it's hard to feel like there's anything you could add that they haven't already thought of. Even so, the freedom to mix and match whatever offensive sets you wanted, such as the Pro Form, 3-Wide, and the Ace Backfield Trips, is missed.

When it comes to setting up to play a game, there are a few options including a Practice mode, Full Season and, the one that makes the game truly stand out, Dynasty mode. Football games have long permitted you to play a full season mode, but the detail and complete control of Dynasty Mode elevates simulation to a much higher level. This is a mode in which you control one coach, whose likeness you can create, for a number of successive seasons. You begin by creating your coach, and assigning him to a team to start off the NCAA 2002-2003 season. The coach you create will have a three-year contract, and you'll be able to view the expectations of the administration for your tenure as coach. If you satisfy them, they'll offer you anther contract. If you don't, you'll be looking for a new job. When you start off, due to NCAA endorsement restrictions, all of your players are named "# X". So you play through the season, as in season mode, until the end of bowl week. In the postseason, your senior players graduate, and the best of your underclassmen can leave and turn pro. You can then save the players who leave and export them as a draft class to be used in Madden NFL 2003, EA's NFL game. After viewing the players that have left, it's time to recruit.

Recruiting can be the most exciting part of the entire game. The players you recruit will have actual names, and they'll be referred to by their last names by the commentators, which is absolutely jaw-dropping when you realize it for the first time. You can become quite attached to your virtual players. Depending on your team's rating (from one to six stars) and the rating of the coach you have created (one to five stars) players of various abilities (also rated from one to five stars) will want to come play for you. You have a number of recruiting points to spread around, ranging from using the most points to have your head coach visit, to using the least and having an assistant call a recruit. Other schools will also be recruiting these same players, and a prospect's top three choices are listed. You can also view vital statistics on the prospect and his 40-yard dash time, GPA (an indication of his "Awareness" rating, which determines how often he might commit a silly penalty, among other things), and strength numbers. So you recruit over 5 weeks, and over the course of the recruiting period, players come to your school or attend others. As you win more games over the seasons, your school rating and coach's rating will increase, meaning that more of the upper echelon players will want to come to your school. In addition to your program's prestige, geographical restrictions can weigh in, such that if you are coaching a team in the east, a player from the west coast may be less likely to cross the country to play for you. Recruiting is such a fun part of the game that you may want to simulate games or entire seasons in your Dynasty Mode, solely so that you can return to recruiting at the end of the season.

Once the prospects have signed, you can see the training results of your returning players, which are an indication of how they have improved their abilities in the offseason. Here, too, you may wish for more freedom to control the action. In the offseason, your players improve their various ratings, presumably through workouts that you have no control over. There's no interface to allow you to tell your players how much time to devote to strength training, or speed training, or studying their playbooks. Adding such an interface would augment the coaching experience, giving you a greater overall sense of controlling the direction of your program.

Also separating NCAA Football 2003 from the previous year's version is some flexibility in season scheduling. In the 2002 version, the schedule is randomly generated at the start of each season, and you can find yourself playing the same non-conference foes season after season. Here, a season is still randomized, but you can customize up to 4 non-conference games, selecting teams that are available on whatever week you wish to schedule them. You can schedule low-ranked teams to give yourself an expected victory, or schedule a top-ten team to reap greater rewards if you do beat them.

Suppose you don't have a favorite college team, or perhaps you attended a Division III school, such as my beloved alma mater, Tufts University (Go Jumbos!), and want to play as that team. No problem. You can create your own school, designing the stadium, school colors, mascot, style of jersey, and even such minutiae as whether or not your players earn pride stickers to affix to their helmet. You can name your school, and decide where it is located, which will affect recruiting, as outlined above, and the weather conditions at your home games. The weather is sufficiently realistic, with warm weather early on in the year, and colder weather later in the year. Sadly, the rain and snow doesn't seem to affect players much. You don't see running backs sliding on a wet or icy surface, or receivers struggling to haul in a wet ball. But the rain looks real enough, and the sound effects of thunder are remarkable.

Similarly remarkable is the rest of the audio. The grunts of the players and hard hits are understated enough that you appreciate the ambience they lend and are not overwhelmed by an unrealistically vicious atmosphere. But the real treat is the commentary. Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso (part of the core of ESPN's College Football crew) take part in a three-voice commentary team. According to the behind the scenes movie included in the game, this year's game features much additional commentary. It shows. Very occasionally, the lines may get redundant, but by and large, the lines are unique, and it is possible to play an entire game and hear only a couple of exchanges repeated. Also captured are the true-to-life wordplay and wit of Herbstreit and Corso, which offers some hilarious moments.

In brief, this is a fantastic college football game. You lack some freedom to design your own training regimen and gameplan, and the weather effects are more decorative than functional. But the otherwise highly customizable Dynasty mode, sharp audio design and improved AI make NCAA Football 2003 a must-play experience for football gamers.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 16, 2002 5:47 PM.

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