NCAA '08 Preliminary Review
I don't have the game. I decided against it for now for the sake of the blog. But my friend Anthony does. He also has a very large TV. Sometimes I envy Anthony. Anyway, anyone wondering about making the purchase or not, his review follows.
The unofficial beginning of each college football season has become the release of EA Sports' annual NCAA Football offering. There was more excitement than usual brewing for this year's edition, partly because last year's 360 offering felt incomplete in many ways. The last gen '07 versions were good, but not too different than what's been coming down the pipe since 2001. Word is that the last-gen versions of '08 are completely unchanged, save roster updates, and the 360 version is the only way to go this year. The demo released late last week on XBox live played very well, much better than last year's, so I was eager to get the game. As I stood in line with a large group of fellow degenerates, the excitement was palpable.
The backstory: I'm a simulation and realism freak. I only play online with friends, and I usually get through a couple dynasty seasons annually. I'm a software engineer by trade, so details stick out to me on some things that others wouldn't normally notice or care about. Here are my opinions:
The game plays great. Much better than last year's 360 and PS2 versions, in every way. The button responses are crisp, the physice are solid (although the ball doesn't bounce much), and everything is smoooooooth. There are occasional graphics hitches and minor collision issues, but nothing that impacts gameplay in the 6 or 7 games I have played so far.
The user interface is nearly flawless. Its easy and fast to do what I want to do when not in the game.
The playcalling is different than last gen, but easy to follow and navigate. I feel that I am less apt to accrue a delay of game penalty with the new interface. There are also a boatload of new plays, and there are motions built into some plays, which is a nice touch. There are also new trick plays, which had inexplicably been absent since the PS1 days (EA â€“ please bring back custom playbooks from the PS1 grave, as well. Its 2007 for Christ's sake.)
One of the things lacking for a long time that had great affect on the realism of the game was the poor implementation of lineplay, both offensively and defensively. EA has taken great strides with this and the result is a much more rewarding experience. Nothing seems scripted. If you blitz well, you'll be rewarded instead of having your players get clogged at the line. If you set up your blockers well, you'll have the extra time to make the pass or find a hole. This ultimately makes the game more playable and addictive. One thing I was interested to see, especially since it was mentioned in the demo, is zone blocking. So far, I have not seen any plays that use it, so I will have to dig deeper.
[I still feel somewhat unfulfilled when attempting to create a pass rush with a defense end or tackle. There are now "finesse" and "power" moves you can use to get around blockers but I must be using them wrong because mostly they do nothing. I would like some sort of pass rush minigame... some sort of defensive minigame at all. Still feel like a passenger on D a lot. -ed]
The passing game has improved. No longer do linebackers make plays on balls they shouldn't, but at the same time, the defensive backs make much better breaks on the ball. Reads are more important than ever, but they are more true than ever before. The passing game is where the beefy AI really shines, both offensively and defensively. If you make a bad throw, without your feet set, you will pay, even on the default difficulty.
[Seconded. Finding actual holes in zone coverage and then throwing guys the ball without Luigi linebackers is nice. -ed]
Pre-snap activities, like shifts and audibles, are plentiful. The only problem is that there are so many adjustments one could make, its often hard to make all your adjustments before the snap, especially defensively. All the extracurriculars just further enhance the experience, the same way a few extra shots make Sparty girls look better. [ba-dum ching! -ed]
The kicking game hasn't changed much, but there was never really anything wrong with it. I haven't played enough to see if blocking kicks was actually a possibility, like last year's PS2 version.
[Yes. So far the stick-up-stick-down kicking thing seems like a different way to push a button. One note: we did see an onside kick recovered by the kicking team. I can't remember that ever happening before. -ed]
Campus legend is MOTS, except you get to play out your senior year high school state tournament, which determines your rankings instead of the "mini-camp" of old. I found myself engrossed in the tournament, and that is only the beginning of the game. A nice bonus: your state title game is at a large stadium, relevant to your area. Mine was at Michigan Stadium. You also get to skip through all the plays that you are not on the field for. The rest of the campus legend plays out the same as in previous versions, as far as I could tell. Its a definite change in perspective of the game, in a good way.
The dynasty mode's big change is in recruiting. Much more depth has been added to the recruiting mode, scheduling visits, making promises to recruits in the off-season, and a lot more depth to the 'pitches' you must make to the kids you are trying to get. Its much more meticulous than in the past, and if you aren't going to sim through recruiting, you'll be spending 30 minutes on average between each dynasty game. You get a certain amount of time each week to devote to the recruiting trail, and you must spend it wisely. I did notice that if you play with Ohio State, instead of a time budget, you are given a 'salary cap'. Nice touch.
I did notice that changing positions in the off season no longer cripples your players ratings, like the previous versions did. I swapped a RT to LT and saw minimal drop in ratings. Thats how it should be. Most other aspects of the Dynasty mode are tweaked for the better.
Also, the 'Super Sim' feature is a Godsend. It lets you sim plays, series, etc. Very useful if you are dropping the hammer on some Sun Belt team and you don't want to spend the entire 2nd half handing off to your 59 rating 5th string running back. This feature has been in baseball games for a long time, and it increases playability exponentially.
Things I didn't like (General EA Sloppiness)
- No alternate jerseys [I think these may be sold on XBox live eventually, which is worse than just leaving them out of the game, IMO. -ed]
- Still missing stadiums (lots of mid-majors)
Sidenote: Brian cracked on me for this, but I know that there are a lot of folks out there that like to take "Nobody State" to multiple national titles and get invited to a major conference. Those folks should not be subjected to playing half their games in generic stadiums! There is no excuse for this. Modeling stadiums is not difficult (I've done it), the fact there are some missing is corner cutting, nothing more. EA â€“ Hire some more people to get this kind of stuff in the game.
- No 1-AA teams. Bad timing for Michigan fans, we have to pound '1-AA Southeast' instead of ASU.
- No create-a-team [Seriously? Who ever used that to do anything other than create the Hyyyyarrrr State Pirates? -ed]
- No custom playbooks, and limited team-specific playbooks.
- TERRIBLE ROSTERS
Freaking Brandon Graham is a 99. Yes, a 99. He is the 3rd best player in the ENTIRE GAME. Antonio Bass is still in the game! Adrian Arrington is not! Morgan Trent is an 89! Half the players' eligibility is wrong, redshirt sophs are listed as true juniors, et
c. Michigan was the only team I scrutinized, I'm sure there are atrocities in all the rosters. This would be OK if EA hadn't ripped the ability to edit a players class (was in last years 360 version). EA needs to 'do work' and get the rosters right. [The removal of something completely basic like editing a players eligibility is really bizarre. That sort of thing should take, like, one developer a few hours. -ed]
- No on-field referee â€“ this affects the clock starting after a first down, a little detail that bugged me.
- Only one playable camera angle. It's a good angle, but still, if I didn't have a widescreen TV, it wouldn't show enough field. [This is also weird. Camera positioning is dead simple. -ed]
- The off-season for the dynasty lacks the 'spring game' that the last-gen versions have. Player ratings are increased on a random basis, much like the old NCAA games.
None of these are deal-breakers, but most of the missing features were included back in the PS1 versions in the late 90's. Why take them out? Will they be back before Notre Dame wins a bowl game? [Hey, that's my line. -ed] Only time will tell.
Overall, the game looks, feels, and plays like a 'next-gen' game for the first time, and it is a huge step up for the series. Its crisp, realistic, and addictive. In conclusion, this game is a must-buy for any sports fan. Goodbye sunlight! See you on the first Saturday in the fall!
So you see my dilemma, right? I can get the game and subject you guys to Penn State Golden Gopher previews that talk about how Joe Paterno got fired and was replaced by Jim Kewster, light bends coach for the Menver Loncos or I can not spend the next month and a half driving Idaho to a national championship. Sigh.
Update: Michigan Sports Center also has impressions. Same general tenor.