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NCAA Football 2009
Score: 85%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2; 2 (Online)
Genre: Sports (Football)/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
After years of asking for the ability to import their own sounds, NCAA Football 09 features the ability to drop your own songs into the game rather than listening to the same set of generic songs that drone throughout the season. Though I'm sure there are numerous people throwing everything from speed metal to rock into their stadiums, this is one of those features that will make a lot of hardcore college fans extremely happy. College fans are, well, fanatical about their traditions, so letting them throw in stadium-specific songs is a great move.

The only things you can't change are the announcers. The College GameDay crew is back for another year. The commentary is okay, though it really hasn't evolved much over the years and still feels just as static as ever. For whatever reason, the stops and stutters between tracks of dialogue seemed more noticeable this year than in past years, especially during pre-game introductions.

NCAA 09 has received a bit of a visual overhaul to go along with the new audio options. After the initial boot-up, you can customize the look of your title screen by selection from a list of teams. Compared to last year, the title screen isn't as flamboyant and is a lot more user-friendly. The variety of photos that are displayed is cool and shows more than just players, but cheerleaders, bands and mascots. These photos also show up during your season during short background blurbs that describe the team's history or, if you're playing in a rivalry game, information about the rivalry. Like the stadium songs feature, it won't matter to everyone, but it's a nice touch for college football fanatics.

On the field, you'll notice a number of new animations, most of which involve celebrations. Actually, the post-touchdown celebrations take a few liberties with the NCAA rules since most of them would see teams slapped with 15-yard penalties. Still, it's all in good fun. There are also a number of smaller details that really sharpen the entire experience.

NCAA Football 09 features all of the traditional modes and offerings fans have come to expect from the series. Aside from Dynasty mode, Campus Legend is where you'll find a lot of the game's meat. The mode hasn't changed too much from last year's version. You still make a player and guide him through his college career. You'll still have to go through practice, classes and outside social activities, but the entire interface has been streamlined. You can skip through the week-to-week activities and focus just on the game. Like last year, Campus Legend is a lot of fun, but wears thin after the first season or two.

Getting back to Dynasty Mode, you can now play with up to 12 players in Online Dynasty Mode. In order to participate in a Dynasty, you need to be invited, giving you access to a special online lobby. One player will take the role of commissioner and set up all of the rules and regulations, as well as the difficulty level. The commissioner can also change play schedules to ensure that you'll play against human opponents. When online, you'll compete against other players in games and for recruits. It's pretty clear that EA put a lot of thought into planning; the commissioner can "force" weekly progression by either simulating the week or even booting players who join and are never seen again or refuse to participate. New players can also join in if your numbers ever get too low.

Whether online or off, Dynasty has been streamlined. You can now have the A.I. deal with certain details and it's easier to get in touch with recruits. Recruiting seems to be one of the franchise's "love it or hate it" features, and the lack of major changes this year won't do much to sway you either way. I've personally never enjoyed recruiting; it's dry and gets tedious after a while.

For casual players, NCAA Football 09 should offer a good challenge. You'll get a good game and there's just enough give in the rubber band A.I. that you'll never fall too far behind (unless you're really bad) nor will you ever get too far ahead. I had a really hard time with shutouts, even when playing lower division schools.

For the hardcore fan, most of the challenges will come from learning to deal with new gameplay mechanics. Most of the changes to this year's edition are on offense. One of the more noticeable changes is with the animation system, which is slightly more dynamic and allows you to chain moves like spins and jukes together rather than hitting a button and locking your player into an animation. This opens up a whole new level of gameplay and offers more of an opportunity to turn what looks like a stopped play into a yardage gainer. There's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to pulling these moves off; I routinely lost yardage and the ball the first few times I tried to turn nothing into something. Additionally, there are a few technical issues that could stand a little extra tweaking. It's easy to accidently spin into the waiting hands of a defender and cuts aren't always that smooth. This is especially frustrating when you're close to the sidelines since players can unintentionally go out of bounds.

Defense has seen a few tweaks, but nothing major. Gang tackles are a little more prevalent and tackle animations have a little more weight to them. I also noticed a bit of a decrease in the number of impossible catches, while tipped balls are a little more common, adding a little more pressure to the passing game.

Game Mechanics:
When calling plays at the line of scrimmage, you can now switch up the play without switching the formation. This allows you to disguise plays and ties into the new "bluff" system that is used in multiplayer games. In past games, once a play was called the menu would shut, signaling that you had made your final decision. Now you can continue cycling through plays to hide the actual play.

There's also a new mini-game of sorts that pops up after your QB throws an interception. Rather than rebuild his confidence through a series of complete passes, you are presented with a series of plays and asked to decide which defense resulted in the interception. Guess right and your QB will get his confidence back; guess wrong and his morale will plummet, upping the chances for mental mistakes. Things can get even worse if you're the visiting team. The crowd really gets into the game this year and can easily fluster your players. Depending on your team's composure, routes can become impossible to read, linemen will jump the count and players will be more likely to blow positions. Even the DualShock 3 in your hands will begin to shake. It only takes a few good plays to quiet the crowd down, but if things get out of hand, you can always call a timeout and coach your players with different strategies like ignoring the crowd or getting open.

Timeouts are useful for more than just settling your team down and are a major weapon this year. During a kick, you can call a timeout and activate the "Ice the Kicker" mechanic. Once activated, the camera angle changes, the controller starts to shake and the kicking meter becomes iced over. This adds a whole lot to the overall effect and really ramps up the excitement level, but works a little too well. The camera angle change makes it really hard to get a good angle, so short kicks are next to impossible - which goes completely against the norm where icing the kicker is little more than an extra commercial break.

NCAA Football 09 is, as you would expect, an improvement over last year's game. Most of the tweaks have enough of an impact on the overall gameplay, though the underlying gameplay is still unchanged. If you're a die-hard college fan Online Dynasty Mode makes NCAA 09 a must-have purchase, but if you're just a casual football fan, it would probably wait until Madden 09 before making a final call.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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