Thunderbolt logo

NCAA Football 2004

Fall is great. The brutal heat of the summer surrenders to milder temperatures and the landscape is covered with striking shades of scarlet and amber. But, more importantly to us pigskin fans, gridiron gladiators across America begin to don pads and uniforms in preparation for the new football season. At the college level, century old rivalries are renewed, the inevitable Heisman hoopla heats up, and Top 25 ranking charts change and shift in both subtle and shocking ways. You can also count on sports giant Electronic Arts to release their yearly iteration of NCAA Football, with more features, game modes and improved gameplay elements over the previous year’s version.

Those of you who have played the stellar NCAA Football 2003 might find it hard to believe that this year’s game could be significantly better. How could it? The gameplay last year was airtight, those collectable pennants were insanely addicting and the dynasty mode was amazingly deep. But, somehow Electronic Arts managed to take all the good points from NCAA 2003, tweak and expand them, and release a completely superior product that is absolutely worth your money, even if you own last year’s version.

So what’s new this year you ask? Let me break it down for you. First off, there is the NCAA 101 mode. This is nothing more than a series of tutorial videos that coach you in the ways of passing, running, performing the option and other college football essentials. That may not seem impressive, but each lesson is extremely thorough and quite helpful for even the wiliest of veterans. Kirk Herbstreit’s explanation of each of the main gameplay elements is spot on and even interjected with a few well-placed bits of humor. NCAA 101 is definitely a welcome addition to this year’s game.

Another great new feature is the Create-A-School option. This mode allows you to finally create that unknown community/junior college team near your hometown (or any fictional school you’d like) and throw them in the hunt for a national championship. The options in the Create-A-School mode are very robust, with everything from the team’s colors and name to the layout and capacity of the home stadium completely adjustable. Inserting your created school into the game’s Dynasty mode is quite rewarding and extremely fun.

Speaking of the Dynasty mode, it has been significantly beefed up from last year. Additions like a better coach contract system, conference invitation bids and easier recruiting add more depth than I thought possible. Though somewhat superficial, in my opinion the best new feature of this year’s Dynasty mode is the inclusion of Sports Illustrated covers and articles. As you play through your virtual college football season, every week a new issue of SI can be viewed with a cover the reflects the happenings of your season. Even better, you can actually flip through your virtual mag to view articles on the Heisman race, big upsets and conference standings, amongst others. When one of your players is finally mentioned in one of the weekly stories it will undoubtedly bring a huge smile to your face. I absolutely love these new Sports Illustrated articles; it’s just too bad your virtual mags can only be saved for up to one season.

NCAA Football 2004 is the first game to use the EA Sports Bio feature. The bio tracks your accomplishments and gameplay time over all EA Sports games (well, all 2004 releases anyway) and rewards you with some cool secrets the more you play. Even though this is obviously a ploy by EA to get you to buy more of their games, it is well-implemented enough ploy to make it a worthy addition to this year’s game. The only real problem I have with it is the timer – I don’t really want to see the unhealthy amount of time I spend playing EA Sports football games broken down to the exact second.

In terms of actual gameplay, there have been a number of notable improvements, most importantly with the tightening up of the computer’s AI. Defensive backs play more intelligently than they did last year, blockers react more realistically as plays unfold and the CPU-controlled offense is infinitely better at mixing it up. The improved blocking is especially noteworthy as it makes a huge difference during trick plays, kick returns and screens. No longer will you watch a lineman run in the other direction when you need a block, they will always do their best to try and spring you for a big gain. Moves like stiff arms, spins and jukes have all been tweaked and are now much more effective when used in the right situation. EA even added the ability to choose one of eight different celebrations after you score a touchdown, but beware, you may get flagged for a 15 yard taunting penalty.

After years of stagnation EA finally took the time to enhance the game’s visuals. Textures are now sharper and more detailed on both players (a new sweat sheen has been added to skin) and environments and oodles of new situation-specific animations have been added. It’s nice to see players now swat away balls much more realistically and dive to push the ball carrier out of bounds. EA even added some polygons to the player models and replaced the slightly artificial helmet reflection with a much more convincing shine. And finally – dreadlocks! It took three years, but EA finally figured out that many football players have long dreads that protrude from the back of their helmets. So now, this year players like Oregon State’s Steven Jackson and the University of Washington’s Charles Frederick look just like they do in real life. Great stuff.

The audio in NCAA 2004 is awesome. The smacks, grunts and crunches of hard-hitting college football are all there and the commentary by Lee “The Sunshine Scooter” Corso and Kirk Herbstreit is second to none in sports games. I could be on year three of my dynasty and still swear I heard something new from those two energetic, amusing and utterly amazing commentators. Even the play-by-play work by Brad Nessler is fantastic as it is both timely and totally accurate. EA has also added quite a few new team-specific band songs to help make the game as realistic as possible. Unfortunately, there are a few minor audio hiccups in the game. Every once in a while during gameplay, a band song will begin to play and then quickly stutter for a few seconds. This is nothing more than a small annoyance and only happens once or twice per game, but it is an irritation that must be mentioned.

NCAA Football 2003 was stellar pigskin game that did nearly everything right. Yet, somehow, Tiburon dug way down into their bag of tricks and managed to create a college football game that is even better than last year’s version and only a few small nitpicks away from being perfect. If you live for the drama and passion of Saturday’s gridiron battles, then this is a title you absolutely must not miss. Even those who aren’t interested in college football will likely find themselves permanently hooked after spending only a short time with this fabulous game. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Bowl game I must be getting to…

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

Gentle persuasion

Think you can do better? Write for us.