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NCAA Football 09

While I can't say I'm the biggest fan of watching college football on television, seeing the games live is an exciting, fun experience that doesn't cost one an arm and a leg. Getting tickets for a local college team doesn't require camping out on, nor do great seats cost an arm and a leg. Snacks aren't a fortune, and some of the players on the field could go on to become tomorrow's stars.

Football season (well, pre-season) is starting up and fans - as per usual - have a variety of Football games to choose from. The NCAA Football franchise from EA Sports has recently released their '09 edition, and while it's obviously not you-are-there realism, it's a good solution for those who don't want to venture out into the progressively cooler temps or those who want to play friends and family on the other side of the country via XBOX Live.

While the online play mode will be an entertaining option for many, EA has, unfortunately, kept everything else largely as is. While the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" motto works for some things, some additional inspiration would have been welcome for this new entry into the franchise, as those who've played prior editions will - with some exceptions - largely get what they expect. The gameplay does feel a little more responsive on offense, with the process of running plays feeling quite smooth, with intuitive controls. Players can juke, spin and pull off a series of moves together to evade the defense. While players can also run a successful defense just as easily, the AI had noticeable difficulty trying to stop the offense.

Fans will be familiar with the "Dynasty" and "Campus Legend" modes, which make a return appearance in this year's feature line-up. "Campus Legend" allows players to create a player and follow their career, even starting at the high school playoff level and working on his recruiting rating to get scholarship offers. Once you're in school, you must work to impress the coaches and your teachers.

There are a handful of new features this year, although some of them aren't of as much interest as others. The "Home Field Advantage" allows players to have the fans get behind them in order to try and psych out the visitors. While this was an interesting idea in theory (I suppose), I didn't find it added to the gameplay a great deal and the effort could have been put towards other aspects of the game. The higher your school is on the "Toughest Places to Play" list, the more the impact of the "Home Field Advantage".

Another feature to try and mess with the other team is "Ice the Kicker", where players can call a time out before a field goal attempt by the other team in the 2nd/4th quarters in an attempt to cool off the kicker - ice appears over the kicking meter and the camera angle changes. The results are a bit much, and while some may find this fun, I found it to be an unnecessary addition.

The better timeout feature focuses on strategy, as "Interactive Timeouts" allow players to offer different coaching strategies to the team members while on the sidelines. The Quarterback Quiz also adds an element of strategy to the gameplay - if the Quarterback throws an interception, the player is shown a series of defensive plays. If you guess the correct defense, the QB regains his composure. If not, his ratings take a hit. Elements like the Quarterback Quiz, Interactive Timeouts and the new Formation Audibles are strategic elements that, at least in my opinion, added to the depth of the game more than the "Ice the Kicker" or "Home Field Advantage" additions.

A couple of additional mini-games ("Horse" - which is the field goal version of the popular game - and "Special Teams Challenge", where you compete against the CPU to try and be the first to make a Special Teams score) also find their way onto the title this year. Bowling, Option Dash and Tug of War min-games also return, and we get the "Coke Zero Mascot Match-Up", where players can pit different mascots against one another for a practice game.

While the window dressing aspect of the "Home Field Advantage" didn't catch my interest much, some new additions to gameplay do help. Many will find that the gem of the new features is the "Online Dynasty Mode", where players can take their teams online and play with up to 12 others up to 60 seasons of play. You can also recruit players from around the country and convert and online dynasty into an offline dynasty or vice versa. You can even play as commissioner of your newly formed league. Online play ran smoothly, with no apparent lag.

One of the game's handful of letdowns are the graphics, which - while certainly not terrible - are not much beyond average. The players don't have much detail to them, their moves appeared somewhat stiff and clunky at times. I noticed a few moments where players seemed to get a little stuck and ran in place if they bumped into another player until they moved enough to free themselves.

Player animations have been improved over prior years, but there's still some work to be done in order to get player movements appearing more fluid and life-like. As with many similar sports games, fans lack much detail at all, especially in some of the wide shots. The fans do react reasonably well to exciting plays (one of the game's new features for this year is "Home Field Advantage", where the fans will get behind the home team and try to psych out the visitors), but it's a bit difficult to get too pumped up when their movements are repetitive. While the gameplay itself is capable of being fairly exciting at times, the presentation is pretty standard stuff, and keeps the gameplay from feeling as urgent or energetic as it could have been.

The game's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a little above average for a football game, with the surrounds chiming in with some enjoyable ambiance, crowd noise and other details. Although certainly nothing aggressive or dazzling, the audio sounds crisp and well-recorded - cheers from the fans don't sound like an audience of two or three, but a full stadium cheering on the home team. The commentary comes from the team of Lee Corso, Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit. While the commentary does follow the action reasonably well, it's a little on the low-key side, and does eventually get repetitive. One can also use their custom playlist to start different songs whenever a special event happens, which is a fun touch.

Final Thoughts: "NCAA Football '09" could use some graphical polish and the AI isn't dazzling, but the game remains an entertaining time overall and the online dynasty mode should keep fans busy for the Winter months. Hopefully next year's edition will shake things up a little more, but "NCAA Football '09" does get a recommendation for fans.