NCAA Football '09 scores a touchdown

NCAA Football '09

EA Sports, for all major consoles; $39.99-$59.99

Here's the first thing worth noting about Electronic Arts' latest college football simulation: It looks dynamite.

On a neighbor's 60-inch plasma TV, the PlayStation 3 version offers absolutely beautiful visuals. And the clarity of the surround sound audio is every bit as good as an ESPN broadcast's.

This year, the players are bigger, the dynasty mode has been revamped (you can have up to 12 people nationwide participating in 60 game “years”) and a brand new game-play engine adds to the authentic feel.

Players move more fluidly and realistically than ever. I saw receivers juggling the ball during diving catches, for example. And weather really plays a role much more than in past iterations.

Also, home-field advantage – missing in team-sports games for years – is now a key factor.

If you're on the road, your controller will rumble before a big play; question marks sometimes will pop up over your players' heads in key moments, and the pre-play routes morph into squiggly lines – indicating that your man is not sure what to do! If you lead your team of visitors down the field, the home crowd will quiet. Score a lot, and they'll leave.

Other related touches: If your QB throws an interception, a mini-game pops up to ask you to identify the defense you just faced. Get it right, and you'll gain a little composure for the next series; get it wrong and you'll play poorly again when you go back out on offense. And now you can “ice the kicker,” by calling a timeout before your opponent makes a big field-goal attempt.

Speaking of timeouts, they're more effective than ever. When you stop the clock, you can choose up to six strategies, on offense and defense, that will last for the entire drive. One of them is “ignore the crowd.”

About the only thing that bothered me was that this game is really offensive-minded. Pass defense has been ramped up, but against the run, even average running backs can too easily break the first line of defense and bust out for big gains.

This year, you can personalize the experience by uploading music from your hard drive to be incorporated in the game. For instance, if you want a song by Usher or Lil Wayne to come on after a big play or a first down instead of a fight song, you can do that.

You can return missed field goals or even go online and download rosters (www.earosters.com or Xbox Live are among many sources).

Played alone, the dynasty mode can get pretty boring. But take it online, and you can have up to 12 other gamers nationwide participating in 60 game “years,” with one person acting as league commissioner.

Bottom line? I think EA Sports has a hit here (again), and this makes me want to get my grubby little hands on Madden even more.

Get more at langstonwertz.blogspot.com. E-mail: lwertz@charlotteobserver.com.