Summer vacation has barely begun for many school-going football fans, but with the release of NCAA Football 06, EA Sports is looking to send you on an early trip back to campus. The game includes several major tweaks and upgrades, such as the race for the Heisman mode and in-season recruiting. Perhaps more importantly, the game balance, especially in the passing portion, is much improved over last year's edition. The improved game balance and new features make NCAA Football 06 arguably the best in the series, as well as a game that's a must-have for college football fanatics.
You'll do one of these drills to start off your race for the Heisman.
EA took a major departure with the marketing of NCAA 06 by not choosing a member of the recent NFL draft class as its cover athlete. Instead, 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, a wide receiver from the University of Michigan, was picked to grace the cover. Certainly, his memorable on-the-field pose played into that decision, as one of NCAA 06's primary new features is the race for the Heisman mode. The race for the Heisman plays out much like a football role-playing game, as you take the role of a fresh-faced high school recruit looking to break into the big time in college football. When you first boot up the game, you're actually dropped immediately into creating a character for the race for the Heisman. You'll select from one of eight different positions, including quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and even defensive positions, like linebacker and defensive back. From there you'll run a drill that will determine the starting stats of your created character, as well as generate scholarship offers from interested schools. This doesn't really matter though, as you're able to walk on to any school you please to take over the starting job.
From there, the race for the Heisman plays out like dynasty mode, sans the recruiting and coaching decisions. You'll play up to four seasons of football while attempting to generate eye-popping stats that will attract the attention of Heisman voters. As you play and win games for your team, you'll accumulate trophies to view in your dorm room, as well as get fan mail. There's even a picture of your girlfriend that you can view on the computer. You'll start out with a rather homely looking lady, but as you become a bigger star, the girls in your pictures become more and more attractive. The fan mail and girlfriend pictures don't serve any real purpose aside from, perhaps, being a not-so-subtle social commentary. Getting back to the point of the race for the Heisman... The ultimate goal is to win the year-end award for being the best player in college football. This means that playing in this mode can skew how you normally play out games, as you'll tend to call your own number each down on offense, or you'll take more risks on defense in hopes of earning interceptions, forced fumbles, and sacks. This can be unrealistic. So, for example, if you're playing as a quarterback, and you're well ahead in a game, you'll be tempted to keep throwing the ball to pile on stats when the correct strategy is to run the ball to drain the clock. Despite these issues, the mode can be fun for those who seek individual glory, and it's a nice twist on the standard dynasty mode.
Recruiting is a yearlong process in NCAA 06.
Speaking of dynasty mode, a couple of new wrinkles have been added in NCAA 06, the most significant of which is the inclusion of in-season recruiting. Week by week, you can allocate a percentage of your recruiting clout to pursuing top high school players. Over the course of the season, recruits will cull their lists of prospective schools down, and if you can make it to their final three, you can invite them on campus for a visit and a hard sell. You'll want to pick a weekend where you play (and hopefully beat) a marquee opponent. If you're shrewd, you'll be able to pick up a few blue chippers before the real bulk of the recruiting happens in the offseason. The inclusion of in-season recruiting is a nice touch, giving you more to do during the season. But it's not perfect. For example, if you drop off of a recruit's list of prospective schools, you can't (for some unknown reason) pursue a new player that you didn't target at the start of the season. You must simply reallocate your points to one of your other preseason targets.
The developer has also added the notion of recruiting pipelines into NCAA 06. If you have a good number of players from a certain state, that state becomes a pipeline for you, and it supposedly becomes easier--later on--to recruit players from that state. For most schools, only their home state and maybe a couple of neighboring ones are designated as pipelines. However, as you advance through the years of a dynasty and improve your school's standing, you'll create more pipelines in different states. It sounds nice in theory, but in our testing, we had a hard time discerning the tangible effects of creating a pipeline. Still, there have been other nice tweaks made, such as a running notebook that keeps track of which pitches you've already used on a recruit and how effective it was, as well as a scouting system that updates all of a recruit's vital stats (instead of just one at a time).
As far as the actual gameplay goes, NCAA 06 is much improved over last year's version thanks to a refined balance in the passing game. One of the criticisms of last year's game was that it was all but impossible to throw a pass, as defensive backs reacted too quickly to balls in the air. Receivers in 05 would frequently drop passes as well. In NCAA 06, it's much easier to throw the ball with success. You'll still need skill to pass well, but good placement of the ball (and using highly rated receivers and quarterbacks) means you'll get away with throwing into coverage from time to time. Another change to the passing game is that you no longer need to bring down the passing windows to scramble. Simply hold down X on the PlayStation 2 (or A on the Xbox) and your quarterback will bring the ball down to move more quickly in the backfield. The passing icons stay up, so you can quickly flick a pass once you've stopped running. This tweak sounds subtle, but it makes rollouts much more effective.
It's no longer impossible to pass the ball thanks to the refinements in game balance.
It's also much easier to practice passing in NCAA 06 thanks to the inclusion of the passing skeleton minigame, where you can practice throwing passes against a coverage, but without the pressure of a pass rush. This mode is extremely useful for honing your coverage reading skills. There are three other minigames that can help you improve your skills in the running game, the option, and defense; all four are dubbed "spring drills." These spring drills seem to have replaced the college classics mode, which is not included in NCAA 06. However, the spring drills do help you improve on different aspects of the game, so they're less of a gimmick than the college classics mode was.