Ah, college football! Arguably the biggest, most colorful, and all-around most entertaining drain on the resources and integrity of our nation's higher-education system! For many fans of The Savage Ballet, it's also the best brand of football there is. And EA Sports' latest NCAA offering, NCAA Football 06, featuring a few hundred colleges, the few thousand student-athletes on their rosters, and an apparently infinite variety of plays, is the company's largest football game yet.
It's also its best. Which is a relief, since NCAA 2005 was god-awful, with overpowering, telepathic defense and an inexplicable bug that made receivers drop almost every pass. While 06 is easily the toughest edition yet, its difficulty isn't arbitrary, and the CPU isn't unbeatable. You'll still have to work at the passing game, or at running well between the tackles, or—possible controller-breaker here—defending the deep ball. And on every play, you'll be constantly reminded that college football is a sport where future NFLers line up against future middle managers.
That said, the big sell for 06 is the Race For The Heisman mode, where you create a skill position player and play out his three- to four-year college career. It's just okay. Although tracking your invariably rocky progression is a decent challenge, the "dorm room" feature is a joke, with tacked-on bits like insipid fan mail and tasteless girlfriend upgrades. Much meatier is the improved Dynasty mode, where taking, say, the Wyoming Cowboys from outhouse to penthouse now includes tougher, in-season recruiting for even fewer blue-chip prospects. And as far as pure gameplay is concerned, the new "Impact Stick" (right thumbstick) means running the ball is pure joy, allowing you to rip off silky jukes and truck defensive backs harder than Cal ball-carrier Kevin Moen hit Stanford band member Gary Tyrell.
Beyond the gameplay: Atmosphere has always been a fun part of the NCAA Football series, but '06 is a step back. Play-by-play is acceptable, but the animated-polygon Brad Nessler/Lee Corso/Kirk Herbstreit pre-game shows and Heisman ceremonies are just flat-out creepy.
Worth playing for: Box-stock settings lead to blowouts one way or another, so for relatively realistic gameplay—and to give our Wyo 'Pokes half a snowball's chance against USC's spoiled pretty-boys— try tweaking the slider settings. USC will still win, but it will be close enough to be fun.
Frustration sets in when: That damn long ball is always there. Keep a safety in a deep zone. And online play is a poorly moderated convention of cheating jackasses; stick with your friends.
Final judgment: The best football game in the history of mankind, at least for the next couple weeks.