I'm going to admit right up front that I am a gamer who played a lot of NCAA Football on the Xbox 360, before EA's decision to shut down their NCAA game division due to the very sticky subject of player compensation. (Not to mention just how curious it was that "QB #15 from Florida," which was totally not based on any real individual, had plays in his playbook called "Tebow_Run_Left" and "Tebow_Wildcat_Sweep_Right.")
Anyway, I played the shit out of those games. Year after year, I built Iowa State from Big 12 doormat to 3-time National Champion once the 'croots kicked in. I even played the not-as-great basketball series. Since the NCAA games went out of production, there's a void in my gaming habits I've never really been able to fill.
Still, I was as shocked as everyone else to when EA announced they were partnering with the NCAA to make perhaps the only game they could legally make based around college athletics—a football manager-esque simulation of what it's like to be an Athletic Director at a Division I school.
For those of you who may be more familiar with Madden these days, you'll recognize a lot of the same mechanics from the "Owner" side of Franchise Mode. Each school has different facilities that can be customized or upgraded, provided you have the cash. The difference here is the whole thing is decked out in logos of whatever school you choose, which somehow makes it oddly more satisfying to raise the price of refreshments to $8 for a large soda in order to pay for the big-ass scoreboard and bowled-in end zone.
Of course with Madden's franchise mode, you are only looking after a single team. Much of the game play of NCAA AD 2017 comes from micromanaging any number of sports, some profitable and (most) not. Women's soccer may be your school's best shot at a national title, but it's not going to bring in the same amount of profit as a 6-6 football team in a power 5 conference. The key is to divert as many resources toward the money-making programs without triggering a Title IX lawsuit.
MINI-GAMES AND RECYCLED CONTENT
As for the gameplay itself, the player is given the option of playing rivalry games or other important matches for any of the sports. In some cases, like football and basketball, they appear to have just brought the old NCAA/Madden engine back, albeit in a very simplified and much more shallow form. Soccer plays a lot like a FIFA game, golf consists of a Rory McIlroy 2018 demo, and strangely, the wrestling mini-game played more like a Mortal Kombat match than anything else. These mini-games offer a distraction, but the core of the game involves hiring and firing coaches, managing budgets, and seeing just how much profit you can turn in the name of amateurism.
Speaking of profit, it must be noted that once again micro-transactions make an appearance in this game, specifically in the form of "Bag Men" powerups that can be bought for real money, and which attract a higher grade of recruit to your school. (Just be sure to keep paying your legal staff in case something goes wrong.)
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
But despite the obviousness of its corporate, sewn-together nature, the game slathers every loading screen and cutscene in enough cardinal and gold (or whatever colors your school is) and collegiate trimmings to be somewhat compelling. The graphics are standard for an XBOX ONE title, and the game smartly makes use of multiple logos for each school. The sound borders on criminally repetitive however - between your school's fight song playing on every one of the many loading screens, and the 12 Brad Nessler play-by-play calls that get repeated over and over, you'll be reaching for the mute button within the first hour.
CREATE A SCHOOL AND BUILD YOUR EMPIRE
The game also has a pretty excellent Create-A-School Mode, likely carried over from the old NCAA Football series. This option allows players to create their very own customized D1 school from the name and location to custom logos and mascots. There's even an option to rename any of the 12 default sports. I was sad to find when I tried to play the mini-game for my custom-titled "NCAA Quidditch League" I ended up playing the volleyball mini-game. Still, it's somewhat satisfying to see the dickbutt logo you created appear on the 50 yard line and in the various office cutscenes.
Most of the biggest choices revolve around which coaching candidates you hire, fire, or retain each year. I went all in on football, thinking that I would be able to make all the money I need off the contracts associated with a conference champion team. But lo and behold, you don't get to recruit. Only the coaches do. And if you've saddled yourself to a long term expensive contract with a guy who can't recruit or win, the computer overwhelms you on the field again and again.
ARE YOU DISCIPLINED?
Each coach you hire has 15 different statistics associated with them, including a disciplinarian statistic that determines how much trouble your players will regularly get into. And while most of the in-game content is pretty tame, with things like a missed class here or a failed urinalysis there, there is a scenario mode where you play out major challenging rebuilds such as the "Baptist University of Waco" at the height of some "terrible crisis scenario" where your football coach has just been fired, and multiple recruits are looking to get out of their commitments to the school. Another (presented entirely in black and white, for that nice touch) has you ruling a land grant university in 1919 shortly before the great depression set in. Playing through this scenario was the first time I've had a character get cholera and die since The Oregon Trail.
Overall, it's an obvious corporate-collegiate cash-grab and blatant attempt to sidestep the issues of fair usage and compensation of student athletes. (Speaking of - EA says they plan to include the option to pay student-athletes within the game in an upcoming expansion pack, priced at $29.99.) But the fact is, the corporate or collegiate entities involved in this debacle clearly give zero fucks about how bad it looks from a PR standpoint, and it's done with the usual EA polish in terms of sports games.
I give it 7 out of 10—if NCAA College Football was your crack, this is basically a far-too-late shot of methadone. It's totally not the same, but after a 5 year absence of any collegiate sports titles, it does take the edge off.
NCAA Athletic Director '17 is available in retail and online stores now for PC and XBox One.