Grudge match 

You wouldn’t describe college football as the pros’ little brother. There’s simply too much collegiate excitement in regional rivalries and conference championships for that. But as far as video game franchises go, Madden NFL has continually kicked its college brethren’s ass.

Madden has become a fan and sales juggernaut — annual updates make it a yearly purchase — and the softer-selling NCAA College Football series lags a year behind. Besides, NCAA’s lack of marquee names (Terrell Owens, etc.) has made it less essential than its pro counterpart.

This year that’s all changed. While Madden NFL 2006 (EA Sports; PS2, Xbox) fields an entirely new passing game option that’s going to throw off many longtime players, NCAA Football 2006 (EA Sports; PS2, Xbox) has finally put together a winning formula.

But NCAA’s advancements have little to do with its ballyhooed “Race for the Heisman” option. In fact, the new feature — what amounts to an additional stats screen and the ability to nominally insert yourself into play — is hardly noticeable in gameplay, but you do get better-looking chicks as your stats improve.

What really kicks is how NCAA cleaned up its gameplay, which is faster and streamlined; unlike Madden, the quarterback can now run without having to take down the passing icons. This option increases the threat of a scrambling QB, putting new pressures on aggressive defenses. The new “Impact Players” feature adds strategy; these offensive or defensive “in the zone” stars become more likely to make big plays — from bone-splintering hits to mind-boggling catches. And using these guys effectively helps level the playing field against a bigger school with deeper talent. Combine this with the pre-snap ability to check on the player’s confidence, and you have a number of strategic elements absent from the pro version.

What’s more, last year’s version featured far too many dropped balls — even with the sliders cranked way up. Defensive backs could leap so high and cover ground so quickly that passing to any but the most open receiver was far riskier. That’s been fixed. Now the passing game is more realistic, and the defense has to adapt.

Other game aspects have improved too. Player violations have been streamlined. They’ve added Madden’s “Hit Stick” innovation, which allows you to flatten opposing players with a well-timed joystick move. There’s a very cool new feature that allows you to add a certain number of players during the season, which relieves post-season recruiting pressure. And you can woo top high school recruits from anywhere, though the costs, in terms of recruiting points, can be prohibitive. But if you procure enough players from a certain state, you get a pipeline to that area, which cuts down on expenses.

The dramatic improvements in gameplay and the variety of new strategic gambits have lifted NCAA Football out of Madden’s shadow. It’s no longer the innocuous kid relegated to the corner of the schoolyard.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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