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12 Aug 2007

FO Review: All-Pro Football 2K8

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.

Getting Started

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.

Taking the Field

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.)

Posted by: Sean McCormick on 12 Aug 2007

18 comments, Last at 16 Aug 2007, 7:48am by the one-line philosopher


by masocc (not verified) :: Sun, 08/12/2007 - 11:25pm

What? I'm not sure whether I'm disappointed or pleased that there was no stab at the OJ Simpson/Assassin animation non-controversy?

by Randy S. (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 4:55am

I think I probably enjoy the offseason aspect of 2K5 as much as the actual gameplay. There's just something fun about scouting players and then trying to trade up and grab them. Or freaking out about measurables, like a 6'6 WRs with 4.3 speed.

So in that respect, I'm pretty disappointed with All-Pro. However, it's nice to see that the core gameplay is still there. The 2K5 gameplay is light years ahead of Madden. Just simple things, like the way the ball travels in the air and how deflections/bounces are handled. In 2K5, tips and such make sense, and when a WR pulls down a tipped ball, it's a very nice play. In Madden, it's all a giant crapshoot. I had a computer punt land in the endzone, then bounce back towards the field and land on the 15 yard line. That just can't happen.

Hopefully next years version of All-Pro will actually have a franchise mode, or even something along the lines of Blitz, with some kind of story arc or something.

by mryeti (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 9:05am

The best thing about this game is the touchdown celebration I like to call "The Dookie." The player squats, mimes reading a newspaper, drops the ball from between his legs, and then waves the air around him to disperse the odor. Awesome.

Also, it is possible to create a team called the Cleveland Steamers.

Oh, the gameplay rocks too. It feels very much like a real game of football. DBs don't have a four-foot vertical leap to swat passes out of the air when they've been burned deep, receivers get bumped off of routes in realistic ways (unlike in madden, where the disruption of routes is based on uncalled pass interference), and seeing your RB put his hand on the back of a blocker and then cutting outside is really cool and very satisfying.

I can see how people would be disappointed with the basically nonexistent single-player experience, but if you're looking for a great simulation of football to play competitively online (against a community of people who generally are out for the same thing), APF 2k8 is really the only game in town.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 10:54am

I've had this game since it came out, and the gameplay really is great. This is the first football game I've ever played where I've said "Man. I'm actually playing a game that is football". I got destroyed for my first couple games because of bad Madden habits (rolling around all the time because I can, blind-heaving it deep and hoping the speedster can just beat the corner) but once I adjusted to the game play, it was a lot of fun. I think a lot of Madden players dislike the game however, because the gameplay changes and when something has become such a stable the way Madden has, doing anything differently is just considered "wrong".

Just worth noting about abilities: There are numbers in this game, though the players can't see them. OJ Simpsons is a better runner in between the tackles than Gale Sayers, even though neither have any power running abilities. Some players with fewer special abilities than their counter parts make up for it by just being really good.

by mmm... sacrilicious (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 1:14pm

So... would an Elway-Marino hybrid have a laser rocket arm?

I can't wait until the EA license expires. I'm fascinated by the description of the gameplay, but I can't get excited about a game that lacks franchise mode. And I like playing with and building real teams - I'm one of those guys that WANTS the experience of playing with Tarvaris.

by Derek (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 2:41pm

I've only played the free download but found the graphics sorely lacking in comparison to NCAA 08 on Xbox 360. Without a franchise mode, the game seems incomplete.

The team-building idea is fantastic but it sounds more like a rental than a game worth purchasing.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 2:48pm

Tarvaris is a lost cause. I've tried franchise mode with him already.

By the way, don't think you can make Jared Lorenzen your starter and win more than 3-4 games.

"If you ever wondered what Andre Ware handing off to Paul Hornung would look like, this is your game."

I'm more curious to see what Andre Ware throwing to Paul Hornung would look like.

I guess Visual Concepts has no love for the PC crowd?

by David (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 2:54pm

Ugh. I'm glad the 2K team took the great job they did with the earlier games and improved on it more, and I really like the sound of the special-ability system. I just wish it wasn't for consoles I'm not going to own for another two or three years.

by Wicked (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 3:15pm

Perhaps this should have been written by someone other than an NFL 2K fanboy.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 3:21pm

It's an absolutely amazing game. It does however take a whole lot of skill, which is something that is much less required in Madden.

The fluttering of the stick is one point. Just sticking around in the pocket, you have several options.

You can flutter in a direction around blockers, flick the movement stick in a direction to go hard that way, but be unable to pass until you set back up. Use the right stick to do an even heavier avoid, or avoid a guy trying to tackle you all together. Run away.

And they all take skill to use effectively. Everything takes a tremendous amount of skill.

And the CB complaint is unwarranted in my mind. The CB's for computer control are not very good, but that's exactly the point.

As a player, you switch to them and control them when the ball is passed. It's very difficult to get anything by me when I do that. I intercept, bat down, and generally harass even the best players.

It comes down to what you want in a football game. Do you want an immense NFL like experience that requires a lot of thinking and skill, or do you want a similar NFL experience that you can coast by on some general knowledge of the game.

There's nothing wrong if you want to do the latter. I just prefer the former. I want to have to call a COVER-3, slid to the corner with linebackers strong to cover the Gold TE on the post route.

It takes a lot of skill. If you just play without consideration, you will be beaten badly.

Here is my mental process while calling a passing play.

Down, and Yards. What drop is safe here. Let's say it's 2nd and 6.

I want a play with 2 wide outs going past the first down by a 3 step drop. I want my RB out in the flat incase the rush comes before anything develops. If I'm going to run out of the pocket, I need to choose right or there won't be any solid passes. OK.

Come to the line. Call hot routes based on the defense, determine what they are in. Decide where I'm going to watch.

Ok, It looks like a Cover 2, so I don't need to bring anyone to help on the O-Line, they should be able to hold for a quick drop. I want to watch the Linebackers on the snap to see if they move in a cover 2 like skill. If they do, I will immediately throw a up and in to my main receiver. If they do not, I will throw an out to my secondary receiver. If either are covered, or pressure comes, I will throw to my back.

Run the play, try to make it work.

Conversely in Madden, I pick a guy I want to attack, and throw him the ball.

I'm good at both games, I just have more fun with 2k. Running is much more fun.

A simple run, on Madden the special moves work really well. I can kind of see from the blocking what I want to do, and just do it.

In 2k, I have my fingers on the likely buttons i'll need to hit at the snap. Run to the outside?

I need my left finger on the button for a left stiff arm. I need to charge up at the snap and follow blockers. My right hand needs to be holding juke.

If a guy is coming from an angle like a linebacker, stiff arm. If the angle is higher, juke. If the angle becomes right on, shoulder charge. If a blocker in front of me, and right side is clear, juke to the right side.

In Madden.. I can really just do anything, the special moves work well enough that you can get free in a lot of different ways.

Eh. I don't know if I'll buy madden, but I love 2k.

I didn't even touch on the great blocking. the great tackles. the great schemes. 2k has it all.

Except for the NFL license :(

by Cam (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 4:48pm

what about multiplayer w/o multiple consoles or internet?

by Sean (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 5:45pm

The multiplayer is a combination of excellent and frustrating. If you've got a friend over, he's going to have to put a team together or use one that you've created. There is no way to simply jump into a quick game with pre-constructed teams. Once you get on the field, everything is fine, but it's hard to understand why VC wouldn't allow a user to simply access the computer generated teams.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Mon, 08/13/2007 - 5:56pm

I'm right there with you, David. That review makes me REALLY excited, I just wish they would have made a PS2 version. There's no way I'm buying a next-gen console any time soon, but APF2k8 just made that decision a whole lot tougher to live with.

by dryheat (not verified) :: Tue, 08/14/2007 - 12:47pm

I haven't gamed since Madden '97, but this makes me want to buy a system and start again.

By the way, I'm taking Jerry Rice and Lawrence Taylor as my two gold players every freakin' time.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Tue, 08/14/2007 - 1:05pm

Great, so now we have two halves of games ... 2K's gameplay and Madden's franchise mode.

I'm with sacrilicious and Derek on this one. Lack of franchise mode for me isn't a disappointment (although honestly, it shouldn't be - it wouldn't make sense), it's a deal-breaker. I've already gone through the "play it over again as many different ways as you can" stage with Tecmo Super Bowl.

It sounds like a great game for online players, though. I don't even bother with online play with the sports games I have, unless it's someone I know. I think the team-construction concept really does make sense from that standpoint.

So you mean that in this game, Andre Ware is actually a pro-caliber quarterback? The wonders of modern technology ...

by Peter Libero (not verified) :: Tue, 08/14/2007 - 4:59pm

The teams don't take long to create, so unless you've really got limited time or no patience, it shouldn't be a big deal for your friend to make one for himself. I think the same-console multiplayer is the best reason to buy the game, since there isn't a dynasty mode. I love the way the animations work, particularly the passing game.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Wed, 08/15/2007 - 12:58pm

15: Madden's franchise mode isn't all that strong.

by the one-line philosopher (not verified) :: Thu, 08/16/2007 - 7:48am

re: 9

Cleverness is often the antithesis of wisdom.