How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
12 Aug 2007
by Sean McCormick
For many football gaming enthusiasts, December 13, 2004. was the day the music died. On that day, the NFL signed an exclusive five-year licensing agreement with Electronic Arts, the makers of the popular Madden series, thus effectively killing off the NFL 2K franchise just five months after Visual Concepts released what many considered to be the greatest football game ever made, NFL 2K5. With no access to the NFL or the NFLPA, it didn't seem like anyone would ever be able to compete against EA in the virtual arena again. But the Madden franchise struggled mightily in its transition to the next generation of consoles, and after two poor EA efforts, Virtual Concepts decided to test the water. Enter All-Pro Football 2K8.
Rather than releasing a game with generic teams modeled after current NFL teams and players (i.e. the Indiana Stallions and their star quarterback Preston Channing), VC set their sights firmly on the retro crowd by basing the game entirely around NFL legends. There are over 240 ex-players included, and they range from first ballot Hall of Famers to non-entities like Bubby Brister and Brian Bosworth. If you ever wondered what Andre Ware handing off to Paul Hornung would look like, this is your game.
When you first boot up a game, you will be taken immediately to the team creation screen and asked to fill out your roster with legends. The legends are grouped into three tiers based on ability -- gold, silver and bronze -- and a user created team consists of two gold players (John Elway, Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, etc.), three silvers (Ricky Watters, Andre Reed, Lester Hayes, etc.) and six bronzes (Rob Moore, William Perry, Pepper Johnson, etc.). None of the legends are given a numerical rating; instead, they are assigned a series of special abilities that define how they play. How do you differentiate between John Elway and Dan Marino? Well, Elway has a rocket arm, is a scrambler, and has the ability to pull defenders offsides with his cadence, while Marino has a laser arm, pocket presence and a quick release. There are over 70 special abilities in total, and players can have up to five separate abilities. It's an elegant concept, and what's more, it works.
Because you can't field a powerhouse team with Hall of Famers at every position, you have to make difficult decisions about how to construct your roster. Any position that you do not draft a legend for will be filled by a generic player, but even here you have some element of choice. For each position group, you can opt for a balanced skill set, a passing emphasis or a running emphasis. If you draft Dan Marino, you probably want an offensive line that specializes in pass blocking. If you draft Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum as your safeties, perhaps you can afford to have generic corners that sacrifice coverage for run support. The end result really allows players to cater to their individual style. A team full of defensive superstars is going to play a lot of 10-6 games, a team built around a gold tier back and a stud offensive line is going to be very hard to stop on the ground, while a team built around a quarterback and a stable of receivers is likely to play like the '85 Dolphins -- all offense, no defense. Whatever your drafting strategy, you are going to see it accurately reflected on the field.
Team creation is simple and addictive, and frankly, it has to be in order to compensate for the extremely limited feature set. There is no franchise mode. Repeat: There is no franchise mode. Even the single-player season mode feels bare-boned, with little to do besides playing out the schedule. The game was clearly designed with online play foremost in mind, and players who have grown accustomed to supplementing their on-field experience with plenty of off-field management decisions are bound to be disappointed with this aspect of APF 2K8.
When All-Pro steps on the field, things begin to look better -- much, much better. There are elements of football that simply have not been correctly simulated before, and gamers have gotten accustomed to living with things like quarterbacks who can drop back 20 yards, roll right and throw pinpoint bombs across their body, to cornerbacks who can intercept balls without ever turning to look for them, to safeties fast enough to cover the entire field and linebackers capable of overrunning their gaps and coming right back to make the play. Those things simply do not happen in APF 2K8. A quarterback who runs back 20 yards and throws off his back foot is going to release an Aaron Brooks special, provided he doesn't get sacked first. A safety that bites on an underneath route is not going to be able to recover, and there will be no high jumping corners to bail them out.
It is on the field where the special abilities system shines. Thurman Thomas and Earl Campbell are both gold-tier backs, but they play completely differently. Campbell is an absolute bull; when he puts his head down and smashes into defenders, the defenders go backwards, and in the open field, he brushes off defensive backs with ease. Thomas runs precise pass routes, has soft hands and can juke on a dime. He is most effective on counters, traps and draws, just as he should be.
It's not just at the running back position where the abilities make themselves felt; it's at every single position on the field. A bump-and-run corner like Lester Hayes dominates lesser receivers at the line of scrimmage, holding them up, knocking them down and running them off their routes. A speed rusher like Chris Doleman will abuse a generic left tackle, beating him to the outside off the snap, spinning inside to split the gap. In one game I played, Doleman racked up three sacks in a half, but he also gave up big yardage on delayed runs to his side, as he was rushing the quarterback with his ears pinned back and paying no attention to the run. It was as realistic a depiction of a player as I've ever seen.
Perhaps most impressively, the quarterbacks play differently. Traditionally it's been very hard to parse quarterbacks (quarterbacks not named Michael Vick, that is), but here, the differences are immediately noticeable. Steve Young and Randall Cunningham are able to throw accurately on the move, while Troy Aikman and Archie Manning are terrible if forced out of the pocket. The ball flies of out Marino's hand in a way that it just doesn't out of Joe Montana's. Elway is not nearly as effective as Unitas in the short passing game, but his deep ball covers 50 yards with a speed and force that Unitas can't match. If you go into practice mode and have Joe Montana throw the same intermediate pattern to Jerry Rice, he'll put the ball on the money over and over again, allowing Rice to keep running in stride. Run the same drill with Elway throwing to Rice and the ball will move around enough to force Rice to adjust to it. It's the kind of immersive detail that can go a long way towards making you forget that you wanted things like a franchise mode or an opportunity to play with Tarvaris Jackson.
It's impossible to play the game and not be impressed with the things it gets right about football. The passing physics are spot on -- balls can be thrown at different speeds and trajectories, so it's possible to drop a ball over the linebackers and in front of the safeties, to throw to the outside shoulder on a fade route, or to rifle a quick slant into traffic. No game has ever modeled the pass pocket better. Defensive ends rush upfield and offensive tackles mirror them, forming a pocket that quarterbacks can and do step up into. Playing as a defensive lineman isn't simply an exercise in frustration, as the various swims, spins and rips all work, and you can set a tackle up over the course of a series by rushing in one way and then switching up your technique. The interactions between receivers and corners at the line are sublime. In the course of an offensive series, you can watch a corner jam up the receiver at the line on first down, redirect him on second and then miss the bump and get completely out of position on third. On running plays, guards pull and get out to the second level, and a patient runner who sets up his blocks will fare far better than one who takes the handoff and immediately speed bursts to the outside. In a great many areas, this is simply the most authentic football experience you can buy.
There are, however, a few problems with the gameplay. Fumbles are virtually nonexistent. In the course of a 16-game season, there was exactly one fumble, and it took place during a game played in heavy rain. Defensive back play, while generally solid, can be erratic at times, as defenders don't always show good positional awareness when deciding whether or not to try to intercept a ball in the air. The interior run blocking can be hit-or-miss, resulting in a boom-or-bust ground game at times, especially with the finesse backs. It's nearly impossible to generate realistic punt return totals, as the coverage is almost always right on top of the return man. The kicking game is very difficult at first, and even once you get the hang of it, most kickers are underpowered, presumably to make taking Al Del Greco or Jeff Jaeger a more attractive option.
The player control is another potential problem, particularly for players who are steeped in Madden. The 2K series has always required a light touch on the stick, and APF 2K8 is no exception. Slamming the thumbstick is a guaranteed way to get into trouble, whether trying to take a back off tackle or flowing to the ball as a linebacker. Even with subtle movements, you can sometimes feel at the mercy of the animations, particularly when on defense. It's not a game killer by any means, but your mileage may vary depending on how much control you prefer to have over the action.
As good as the on-field gameplay is, it's hard to give more than a qualified recommendation for APF 2K8. The game engine is second to none, but the feature set is severely lacking. If you are primarily an online player, you'll have a blast with 2K8 -- the online connection is buttery smooth, and the novelty of playing against new and evenly matched teams every time out instead of playing against the Patriots over and over again gives the game significant legs. But if you expect a more comprehensive offline experience, you're liable to be disappointed.
All-Pro Football 2K8 is available for PS3 and Xbox 360. For those who are on the fence, there is an excellent demo available for download at the XBL Marketplace.
(Coming soon: Reviews of both old gen and next gen NCAA Football 08 and both old gen and next gen Madden 08.)
18 comments, Last at 16 Aug 2007, 7:48am by the one-line philosopher