NCAA Football 99
Windows - 1998
Description of NCAA Football 99 Windows
Thanks to the gaming industry hype machine, there aren't many surprises these days. An exception to this rule came last fall, when EA Sports released the unheralded NCAA Football 98 to great acclaim. Many pundits -- including myself -- thought that it was the best arcade pigskin title of the year. Now it's a year later, and NCAA Football 99 is on the streets. Thanks to the success of its predecessor, the sequel features all the bells (3D hardware support) and whistles (simulation features like Dynasty play) that the original lacked. It should combine the best of both worlds. It should be a winner. Is it?
In a word, no. Unfortunately, a lot was lost in the translation from arcade fun to football simulation. While the addition of important elements like 3D support and Dynasty play was crucial to the long-term success of this series, gameplay must always remain the main concern of the producers. And after playing NCAA 99 for the past couple of weeks, I'm not sure that it was.
My expectations started to be dashed when I opened the NCAA 99 box. Not that I expected anything different, but the manual is horrible once again. EA Sports continues with the fine tradition of useless documents with another waste of paper. The basic features are covered, but in a slight and disorganized fashion, and absolutely nothing is in there about strategies. I understand that the expected profits from a college title like this wouldn't justify an extra disc like the one that traditionally ships with the Madden games, but can't somebody slap together a text file? I love football and am probably more knowledgeable than the casual fan, but the esoterics of play calling on such an advanced level sometimes escape me. When I'm settling into a new game, I want to experience the challenge represented by trying to win -- not that of simply trying to understand what I'm doing.
Installation was also a let-down. I was glad to see that the designers carried over the 5mb minimum install option, but irritated that the only sane install setting was just 60mb. If you want to go any higher than that, you have to install the full 508mb. As I don't have the fastest CD-ROM drive going, I rely on being able to load most games from my hard drive. And even though I've got a pretty big drive, I sure don't have half-a-gig to spare. So I was stuck with a lot of extra time waiting between menu screens as the CD was accessed. I can't understand why custom installation settings weren't included here.
Once everything is up and running, you're faced with a clunky interface. As a console port, NCAA 99 brings a lot of baggage to the PC. Nothing is as intuitive as it should be. You can't select a team from a list; you have to click through every single logo. Even mouse support is strangely wonky, with the cursor being sluggish and non-responsive at times. It's a big contrast from the silky-smooth mouse movement in Windows. I should be accustomed to this by now, but I'm still annoyed every time I boot up a sports game that has carried its menu system over from a console. Is it really that extensive/expensive a process to provide PC users with a proper interface?
At least the options are plentiful when you can finally locate them. A total of 112 of the top teams Stateside are featured with their home stadiums. Around 60 school fight songs are also included. You can throw your teams into four main play modes -- Exhibition, Dynasty, Tournament, and Great Games. The first two are exactly what you'd expect, while the tourney mode lets you set up a four-, eight-, or 16-player single elimination draw, and Great Games allows you to replay some of the most memorable contests in NCAA history. A welcome addition to this roster is a Practice mode where you can try out all your moves. You can run these drills with or without opponents on the field. All the modes can be played on one of three difficulty settings -- Junior Varsity, Varsity, and All American (which actually maxes out all player ratings, so Varsity is actually the most realistic play mode).
Unlike last year's edition, you actually have more than one viewing angle to choose from while playing. Unfortunately, none of these angles are very good. The default EA Sports view is similar to last year's, and is probably the best, but it's still too close to the action. The pan back feature here is nice, but if you want to get the ball off quickly, you'll be throwing to invisible receivers a lot of the time. All of the other angles are too far away to be of any help in the trenches. Another addition is 3D acceleration support. Right now this is only available for 3Dfx owners (Voodoo 1 and 2 supported), although a promised patch with help out Direct3D people.
Steel Purple People of the Apocalypse?
Gameplay is a decidedly mixed bag. The bad stands out above the good for me, however, as there are some glaring flaws here. My biggest problem has to be with the juggernaut-like AI defensive line. Even an OL comprised solely of All-Americans is routinely turned into Pop Warner rejects by the computer. Ratings are meaningless here. Much like the super goalies that have long been a factor in the NHL series, an A-rated offensive line is cannon fodder for C- and D-graded computer defensive lines. In games that I've played on the Junior Varsity and Varsity settings, the Navy Midshipmen (D+) beat the living hell out of the Ohio State Buckeyes (A+), the Syracuse Orangemen (C+) swatted the Penn State Nittany Lions (A), and the Kansas Jayhawks (C+) whomped the Texas A&M; Aggies (A). The computer, of course, doesn't suffer from this problem. The worst OLs in the country have no problem holding me off until the cows come home.
At first I hoped that this was just representative of some steep learning curve. So I tried moving out of the pocket, staying in the pocket, taking two steps back and throwing, taking three steps back and throwing, and so on. On defense, I played around with different formations, ran a lot of blitzes, ran no blitzes, and so on. Nothing worked. Long after I should have seen some positive results, my beloved Nittany Lions (well, beloved is kinda strong for someone who rarely watches the college game -- let's just say I always thought Joe Paterno looked pretty cool on the sidelines) were still getting sacked 10-15 times per game in Dynasty play. At the same time, my B-rated D-men were rarely able to even hurry the opposing quarterbacks, let alone actually sack them. I can't believe that such an obvious flaw got through play-testing. It all but ruins NCAA 99 for me.
As if this weren't enough of a problem, you also have difficulty completing passes the odd pass that you do get off before crunch-time. Receivers drop or simply miss the ball far too often. At first I chalked this up to a lack of experience, but after a number of games I was still being frustrated by good wide-outs who continually watched balls bounce off their shoulder pads. This seems completely random. At times you'll make a drive-saving catch in heavy traffic...only to be foiled on the next three downs by wide-open receivers with the dropsies. To say that this is aggravating would be putting it mildly.
And there's more. The average return on punts is way above average, particularly for the PC. Expect to surrender a good 15-30 yards each time you kick on fourth down. The coverage just seems to be slow arriving. Adding some hang-time to the punts would help, but as of right now, this is real encouragement to go for it all the time. Even though the game boasts that all rosters are accurate as of the current season, no players have names out of the box. Yeah, I know that this is some stupid NCAA licensing thing, but I'd say that this walks awfully close to false advertising. You can get names on jerseys and PA announcer Chuck White calling most players (between 50-60% of the common names in the NCAA are in the audio database, so you might actually hear your own last name if you edit yourself into the game) by their names -- but only if you input them yourself. Sure, there's a full player editor feature this time around. Sure, there's roster files on the web to help you along with this. But to me this isn't the same as noting that "Every Division 1A team with 98 rosters" is included.
Dynasty mode is seriously disappointing. I was expecting something along the lines of career play here, but in reality it's just a way to turn your roster over at the end of a season. After wrapping up a year as 'Bart Paterno' of Penn State, I'd hoped to do some serious recruiting. Uh-uh. Instead of scouring the country, paying off players Nick Nolte-style (sorry, but is there anyone who wouldn't like to see an illegal recruiting option?), you simply select what area you wish to focus on. If your top gun QB leaves via the NFL draft, you'll probably want to look into the best high school arms available. Then just pick a setting -- Aggressive, Hard, Moderate, Soft, or None -- for your category, and the program does everything else. About the only real element of reality (meaning the occasional surprise) present here is when your better players abandon you for the show a year early. I must admit that this mode probably gets more exciting if you continue for a good number of seasons. Personally, though, I found the action mode far too frustrating to even think about this.
There are some good things in NCAA 99, though. The accurate running game is back this year. Even with the continual backfield penetration, you can develop a realistic ground attack. This isn't as novel as it was in 1997, however, as both Gameday 99 and Madden 99 also allow the gamer to run effectively. Bowl game match-ups and season-end rankings and player awards are better. Play calling screens are very well done. Everything is much clearer and cleaner than last year, and teams have individualized playbooks. No play editor yet, though. There's a good use of 3D acceleration here. I found that the designers hit on a good balance between chrome and playability; everything looks good (but not great, so don't expect too much), but you don't need the machine of the gods to run it. Having the fight songs and constant marching band music still helps build a college football atmosphere. The audio is sparse but well done. Crowd noise is properly responsive to what's happening on the field.
But that's not much, is it? The worst part of all this for me was that I was really expecting good things from NCAA Football 99. I loved last year's game. Even with a lack of anything even resembling options (one camera?), that was a good football game. They added the options this year but subtracted a lot of the fun elements. I've often had to force myself to play the sequel, and that was never the case with the addictive original.
With all of the other options out there this season, you'd have to be a real college football nut to bother with NCAA Football 99. Gameday 99 offers a better action game when you start calling plays. Madden 99 seems to lack the obvious AI flaws while also offering franchise play to compete with the multiple seasons of Dynasty play. NFL Football Pro 99 will arrive in November with full management options.
To me, this is a definite step back from the fun, simple gameplay of last year's model. If you want to run your alma mater's program, give NCAA 99 a shot. If not, stick to the NFL and one of the better titles currently available.
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