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Gonzo Reviews Stuff: NCAA Football '10 (XBox 360)

Yes, it's officially that time of year. . .everyone's waiting for Training Camp to start, the release of Madden (insert year here) is a month or so off, and everyone's jonesing for a football fix.  Oh, and this year, we're all waiting for that whole "Favre" thing to resolve itself, too.  However, there is something to take your mind off of all that stuff, and that's what I've spent the better part of my weekend doing.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that of which I speak is the latest installment in the NCAA Football series from EA Sports, NCAA Football '10.  Yes, I know that the college game isn't the same as the NFL game, and that's a big part of what makes it great.  Now, I used to be one of those people that would get both the latest NCAA Football and Madden games every year, but lack of disposable income last season caused me to miss NCAA.  So, all I have to compare this year's version to is NCAA Football '08. . .which, quite frankly, was pretty abysmal, particularly by next generation standards.  There were no real features, no real bells and whistles. . .it was really a pretty boring experience, and I don't recall playing it very much before Madden '08 came along.

Believe me, there's no such shortage this year.  Particularly with all the online options that this year's game comes with.  What do I mean?  Well, hit the jump and you'll find out!

The thing that I'm the most psyched about in this year's version of NCAA Football '10 is that Create-a-School is back!  Create-a-School has been absent from the NCAA Football series. . .at least on the 360. . .since the jump to next-gen systems happened a few years ago.  Well, now it's back, and it's ridiculously advanced.  The reason for that is largely because it's now all online at EA Sports' website rather than actually being built into the game.  The interface takes a little getting used to at first, but once you get the hang of it, there's almost nothing you can't do with it.  Alter helmets, jerseys, pants, stadium, location, all that other good stuff.  The end result looks a little something like this.

That logo in the middle of the field look familiar?  How's about that little Minnesota at the 20-yard line?

Yes, the Team Builder allows you to use any picture you might want to use as a logo (provided you have the rights to it, natch).  The site will even allow you to match your team colors to the logo by dragging a couple of little circles around the logo until they're centered over the colors you'd like to use.  You also get primary and secondary helmets, primary and alternate home and away uniforms, and primary and alternate pants.  After that, you can go through and name the players on your roster, name your stadium, all that good stuff.  Honestly, Create-a-School could almost be a game in and of itself.  Heck, you don't even have to own the game to play around with it!  Just go to the site and play to your heart's content.  Then you or any of your friends. . .or anyone else, really. . .can download your team and use them in any of the game's many modes.

Of course, the main feature of the NCAA Football games is the Dynasty mode, where you try to take your team to the National Championship.  I took my little created team, the UM-Winthrop Berzerkers, and immediately plugged them into the Big Ten conference in place of Indiana University.  (Sorry, Hoosier fans, but your team is projected to finish last in the conference.  Hence, out you go.)  There's much more to the Dynasty mode than simply lining up and playing football games, though. . .you have to go through recruiting, targeting prospects from different states, arranging campus visits, talking to recruits on the phone, all of that fun stuff.  The recruiting mode is very in-depth, and if you're not quite into that level of micro-management, you can always let the CPU handle some of the harder stuff for you.  As you progress through Dynasty mode, you might get offers from other schools, and you have to decide whether you'd like to be a Nick Saban-esque mercenary or a Joe Paterno type who stays in one place forever.  In addition, you can join up to 11 of your friends online and play out a dynasty together, which sounds like a whole lot of fun if you can get everyone's schedules worked out.

There's a slightly different type of "dynasty" called "Road to Glory" that you can partake in as well.  In this mode, you start as a high school player in your state playoffs, and you control your player's movements only.  If your player is a receiver, you'll run his routes, a defensive lineman will be rushing the QB, and so forth.  After the playoffs are over, you'll get scholarship offers from various schools, and upon accepting one you'll be a freshman working your way up the ladder.  Oh, and it features a fully-clothed Erin Andrews. . .so EA has that going for them.

Which is nice.

The actual gameplay element of the game is pretty exceptional.  It feels a lot like Madden, but the game is a little slower, which is what you'd expect from the college game.  The biggest difference is the types of offenses and defenses you'll be seeing in the NCAA Football games that you won't see in Madden.  You'll see a lot of spread offenses, obviously you'll see a lot of option-type plays, and some formations that are pretty rare in the pro game.  But once you get into it, you'll find yourself reading defenses and making cuts just as seamlessly as you do in the Madden games.

There are a couple of interesting elements to the gameplay, though, that the Madden games don't have.  The first is "icing the kicker."  When a time out is called in a big situation that has a team lining up for a field goal, the "kick meter" gets covered with ice, the camera pans down to field level, and your controller will vibrate with the rhythm of your kicker's heartbeat.  The first couple of times you do it, it's a bit nerve-racking, to say the least.  The other one is what's called the "quarterback quiz."  Whenever your quarterback throws an interception, it will show an overhead view of the defense, along with three potential choices for a defense.  If you can pick what defense was called by the computer, your quarterback will regain his "composure."  You can flip through the defense frame-by-frame, but the more frames you need to select the correct answer, the less composure your QB will regain. . .and if you get it wrong, he loses all his cool.

There are also some interesting mini-games for you to try if you need a quick fix of football.  Five, to be exact.

Horse - You pick a spot on the field to kick a field goal from, and if you make it, your opponent (human or CPU) has to make the same kick.  If they miss, they get a letter, just like playing HORSE with a basketball.
Special Teams Challenge - Holy cow, is this one frustrating.  It starts with a kickoff, and then it's nothing but special teams plays.  Punts, field goals, and so forth are the name of the game until either a) one team returns a punt for a TD or b) a team gets close enough to attempt (and make) a field goal.
Tug of War - Start out at the 50-yard line.  If you gain 10 yards, your opponent gets the ball at their own 40.  If they turn around and gain 30 yards, then you get the ball back at your own 30.  This goes back and forth until somebody scores.
Bowling - Start out 10 yards from the end zone.  You get two plays to get in.  If you get in on the first play, it's a "strike."  If you get in on the second, it's a "spare."  If you don't get in at all, it's an open frame.  You then go back to the 10-yard line until you go through 10 "frames."
Option Dash - You get two minutes to march down the field as many times as possible using nothing but option plays.  Points are given for yards gained and touchdowns.

Ultimately, NCAA Football '10 is a heck of a lot of fun, and should be an addition to any sports gamer's library.  I've read some reviews saying that this is the best installment of the series yet, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that.  I know it's a vast improvement over the '08 version of the game, and I can't help but think it's an improvement over the '09 version as well.  Throw in the cool online stuff (including the ability to upload highlights and pictures, as you see at the top) and the phenomenonal Create-a-School rebirth, and this will probably be the best football game you play on the XBox 360 until. . .well, until Madden comes out.  Unless you're not getting Madden.  In that case, this is pretty much it, yeah.