Video College Football Fills Void

For the next few weeks, EA's NCAA College Football 2004 will be the best sports video game ever. Until Madden 2004 drops in August, there is just no better value for your video game dollar, and if you prefer the college atmosphere to the pro game, this is the only game for you.

From the opening menu, the game is off-the-hook impressive. The first time you fire it up, it will ask you to select your favorite team, and any decent human being will select West Virginia. From there, it slips into the WVU fight song, and images of Rasheed Marshall in the background. You just can't wait to get into the game and throw a beatdown on Pitt.

When you play an actual game for the first time, the first thing that strikes you is the near-flawless rendering of Mountaineer Field. The hospital is in full view in the background, and the JumboTron is always working, which does take a little away from the game's realism. While I was also disappointed with the lack of the giant puffy helmet, overall, Mountaineer Field looks so close to the real thing that I half expected to see golf balls and whiskey bottles flying across the field from time to time.

If you lose the coin toss, the second thing that will strike you is that the Mountaineer defense is terrible on this game. According to the folks at EA Sports, it might as well by Grant Wiley and Girl Scout Troop #27. Rasheed can bring it, though, and since the option is the lifeblood of any college football game, Rasheed, Quincy and Kay-Jay (depth is important, players get tired quickly) can win games by themselves. And it's a good thing, because the receiving corps is fairly sad. They're constantly dropping passes. It reminds me of the James Jett era at WVU.

Of course, in Dynasty Mode, you have the opportunity to recruit the players you want from year to year, and if you can raise West Virginia's prestige level high enough, you can bring anyone you want to Morgantown. Generally, the dynasty mode is the same as in previous years, with the added feature of selecting what you want to stress to potential recruits, be it playing time, coaching style, program prestige, or location. The better your record, the more games you play on TV, how well you do in bowl games (hopefully, you'll do better than the actual WVU team), the higher prestige level will be. Unfortunately, though, if you aren't very good, you can be fired and then look for a job at a place like Toledo, Idaho, or if you're really terrible, Rutgers. Dynasty mode is the key to the extended replay value of this game, and it'll have you hooked for a long long time.

If you don't feel like dominating with the current crew of Mountaineers, though, the Create-A-Player and Create-A-School options are sweet. Go back in time, and make clones of some of the Mountaineer greats like Major Harris, Sam Huff, Amos Zereoue, or Mike Timko. And if that's not enough for you, you can create an entire institution of higher learning, so if you feel like establishing Granville Tech or Jane Lew A&M as a major college football powerhouse, you can do that, too.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, it's outstanding. The animations are brilliant in their subtlety, with things like receivers blocking downfield with just a push to the shoulder, seemingly countless tackle (and missed tackle) animations, DBs getting a jam at the line of scrimmage, etc. The look of the game is just unparalleled.

Another sweet improvement comes on play action. The game acts for a second like the running back got the ball and it briefly zooms toward him. It looks tight, and is very effective. The commentary is similar to last year's game, but Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso are smoother and have more things to say, and in another stretch of realism, Corso actually says some nice things about WVU every now and then. The Mountaineer playbook is also rendered fairly accurately, although they didn't include the "Forget You Know How to Play Football" play that we ran so often and effectively at last year's Continental Tire Bowl.

EA couldn't find the time to put the Mountaineers new uniforms in, and while some may see it as a flaw, I consider it a blessing. There are a couple of other annoyances, however. There are too many dropped passes (though it could just be the Mountaineer receivers), players get tired too quickly, and injuries happen a little too often. It's also very easy to get to the quarterback on defense. And while I'm quite happy to have the Mountaineer mascot represented in the game, when I see him on the sideline doing the cabbage patch after a touchdown, I want to cry.

There are, however, a few features they left out that could've made the game more enjoyable, such as an option to find John Swofford at an ACC game and deliver some abuse. The Mountaineer is missing his gun, and in Mascot play mode, I thought it might've come in very handy, particularly on defense. Unfortunately, there are no options to completely dismantle the BCS, nor is there an option to tear down three sets of goal-posts in Morgantown in after a win in Blacksburg. The world just isn't ready for the type of Mountaineer love.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, though. It's outright addictive. I highly recommend purchasing it, and then saying goodbye to the outside world for a few months.

M.J Darnell is a columnist at He maintains his own web site as well. The opinions expressed herein are his own.

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