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30 Aug 2007

Game Review: NCAA 08

Xbox 360 version

reviewed by Will Carroll

There's more tricks in this year's version of NCAA Football 2008 than the Boise State team used in last year's bowl stunner. Jared Zabransky on the cover should have been the tip off, but the added complexity of this year's game is a double-edged sword. Yes, it allows for an unbelievable level of control, from player highlight moves that will shake the defense out of their shoes to recruiting controls that seem way more than anything they have in place at South Carolina. Unfortunately, all that control makes for a steep learning curve and some frustration.

While I've played NCAA before (way back in the days of the Gamecube), like most gamers I've always seen it as the younger brother to Madden. While there's some interplay between the two, I don't know anyone that actually transfers their NCAA data into Madden. Much like the controls, there's always more that you can do, but unless you're on the pro circuit, you're not fighting to get that last 20 percent of the game mastered. The biggest difference in the game is skill level. Just like the real game, there's much bigger chance of a big mistake in college football than in pro football. There are more fumbles (maybe too many), more big plays, more chance to find a big mismatch due to giant gaps in talent, and perhaps more chance to make a difference on the coaching side of the game, compared to the more arcade-style action of Madden. The Raiders can beat the Colts when things go right, but trying to take on Florida with a team like Southeast Tech State A&M is going to get ugly early.

At the heart of the game is the gameplay. As with the Madden franchise, EA has the realism down and this year's Xbox 360 version takes full advantage of the graphical capabilities of the next-gen platform. The stadiums look great, the players move realistically, the uniform and grass have some real depth and texture, and if you have surround sound and HD, there are times you'll flinch at the realism. There was a play where I very literally heard footsteps coming from my backside as I was getting ready to unleash a long pass. I stepped up and on replay, I could see the blitzing corner go flying by. If I hadn't stepped up, I think I'd be writing about myself in my next Black and Blue Report!

The controls are as complex or as simple as you want them to be. To be good, you'll have to be a ritalin-fueled, prehensile thumbed joystick master and the learning curve here is standard. You can be competitive quickly, but mastering the system takes a lot of practice and frustration. I had a major problem with fumbling, something that was covered only by the tendency for the other team to do the same thing. The "Super Sim" mode is golden, if you want to save a bit of time for eating and sleeping, but the rest of the game's AI is a bit goofy. Play calling isn't going to challenge you too much and seems very conservative, especially when you're playing a team that you'd think would pass more. I played a couple games against Florida and Utah and saw draw after draw on third-and-long.

One of my favorite parts of past NCAA Football games is the Dynasty Mode, where recruiting is king. My requested feature of bribes being available still isn't in the game -- you call this realism, EA? -- but seemingly everything else is. The problem, once again, is the complexity. It took me several tries to figure out the new system and even then, I always seemed one button-push away from disaster. The new system allows unprecedented control over scouting and recruiting, but again, you're going to have to give up your day job. In previous years, a savvy gamer could figure out the quirks of the system and take a team from mid-major also-ran to national power in a way not unlike what we're seeing with the blue-turfed coverboys, Boise State. (I always enjoyed the Idaho Vandals, for the name and for the fun home stadium. Seeing players run through the back wall at the Kibbie Dome was a great bug.) It's still possible, but the task is much steeper and longer.

The Campus Legend mode is an interesting way to go, but you're going to have to really have some time on your hands to make much of it. You'll create a character and he'll start off in the high school playoffs. No one will be surprised to see Odessa Permian back in the Texas finals, but it was nice to see that there are so many options. Yes, you can make your own personal "Two A Days" if you want to play as Hoover (AL), but once your character makes it to campus, you lose a lot of the control that the game offers. You'll play as your character and your character only. You'll run the plays the coach calls (horrible and predictable) and be at the mercy of the surrounding cast. Maybe you'll find the pep rallies peppier than I did, but it's the slow pace that makes it tough for me to recommend this section. It's nice for a while, but going to practice is never a fun endeavor, even in a video game. Let's face it, there's a reason there's no "Certified Public Accountant" on the shelves next to "Grand Theft Auto." This section is for those that have completed their umpteenth watching of Johnny Be Good and still want more.

There's some solid mini-games, new additions to the title, that will help. Whether you're doing the ten-yard OT-esque "Bowling" or playing the percentages with the full-field "Tug of War", there's skills here that will help you once you get into the real seasons. It's here where you can really hone those jukes and shakes that take you from a passable player to Big Man on Campus. I'm less impressed than most with the "trophy case" metaphor that's used. Sure, it's pretty and plays to the college atmosphere, but mostly it's just eye candy. Seeing the Little Brown Jug didn't really add much to my experience.

Of course, the commentary from the ESPN crew is solid, much better than the "radio" voice on Madden 08. Lee Corso can get on your nerves after a while, but that's realism, baby! NCAA Football 08 is a solid game and a big graphical improvement on past games in the franchise, taking full advantage of the 360's ANA engine for HD goodness. If you're willing to invest the time in learning and have nothing better to do for a month or so, NCAA Football 08 has everything in it but tailgating, agents slipping you cash, and cleatchasers after practice.

Playstation 2 version

reviewed by Aaron Schatz

When we contacted EA about reviewing their games this year, I requested two copies of each: one for Xbox 360 (Bill Moore is doing Madden) and one for Playstation 2. I may buy a 360 after the season is over and I have more time, but for now I'm stuck in the last generation with my PS2. For all of you out there stuck with me, I'm here to answer the question: given that most of the development resources are now going to the next-generation games, did they manage to put anything new and useful into the PS2 versions, or are these just lame roster updates?

When I first bought my PS2, it was all Madden, all the time. Russell Levine convinced me to go blow five bucks on a copy of NCAA 2004, just to get see how the college game was different. I played it, played it more, and eventually discovered that I liked playing NCAA better than Madden, even though I don't follow college football closely. Why is NCAA better? Three reasons:

1) Dynasty Mode is far better than Franchise Mode. It's a much greater challenge. In Madden Franchise Mode, you pretty much can just do what you want. There's really no wiggle room with contracts; if you don't offer a guy what he wants, his "interest in your team" bar goes blank. When you hit free agency, you decide who you want, and you sign them. There's no competition with other teams, no give and take. The draft was ruined last year when they took away scouting, instead forcing you to run mini-game drills to learn about prospects, and only letting you scout eight of them. What NFL team only scouts eight guys? The other problem with the draft is that there are no surprises. You know exactly what a guy's ratings are from where he is selected, and any pick after the fourth round is going to be completely worthless. Why not randomize things so that you have a chance to stumble into Marques Colston?

Dynasty Mode is much more of a challenge, particularly recruiting. There's much more strategy, as you decide which players to pursue, and who should get more of your resources. On the other hand, you never can be sure that you will get a player. You don't know which pitches will work on which guys. (It would be nice if there were some indicators, but not knowing is better than having it be completely obvious.) Building up a bad program is tough and takes years. Even if you are playing as a big mega-program like USC, you are going after players who are also being pursued by Ohio State and Michigan and other big programs, and you can't just say "I want this guy" and automatically get him like you do in Madden. Sure, college football has no trading, but since the trading AI in Madden is so bad, who cares? I got to the point where I was simming all the games and only using the Dynasty Mode features, trying to see how long it would take me to build teams like Temple and UNLV into national powerhouses. (I got Temple into the ACC and then the BCS championship game in 20 years, but never was able to get UNLV out of the Mountain West.)

2) NCAA gives you a lot more freedom on the field, mainly because of the option, but also because college football just uses a wider variety of plays in general. There are more special teams choices, defense has the 4-4 and 5-2, offense has more reverses and interesting pass routes.

3) Since I don't know much about college football, I can't get angry if the ratings are badly done. Madden just makes me shake my head sometimes. How can Leigh Bodden and Fred Thomas both be rated 82? Did anyone at EA actually watch a Cleveland Browns game over the last couple years?

Now, let's talk about the PS2 version of NCAA 08. With both Madden and NCAA, developers were stuck putting in half-assed versions of new features that work much better on Xbox 360 and PS3. For NCAA, the issue is the new Dynasty Mode recruiting system. On the next-generation systems, it has been totally overhauled, with a wider variety of pitches. On the old-generation systems, they handled this by... leaving the same general pitches as before, but splitting each category into two more specific pitches when a player visits during in-season recruiting. You have to choose five, but there's no sense that anything is really different from before. It just adds more busywork. The "player promises" feature seems mildly half-baked -- everybody seems to be obsessed with their uniform number.

(By the way, when are they going to develop a scheduling system that forces you to play home-and-home series when you schedule out-of-conference rivals? Imagine if Texas got to schedule Ohio State whenever they wanted, but always in Austin. I think there would be complaints.)

There are a couple of good additions to Dynasty this year. They now have the medical redshirt, so you don't completely lose a year of your best player just because he broke his leg in your first game against Southwest Cupcake State. I thought that summer college drills -- basically, the same thing as the training camp mini-games in Madden to improve players in the preseason -- were introduced in NCAA 07, but it says here they are new, so I guess that on Playstation 2 they are new to NCAA 08. They're very useful, and introduce more strategy than in Madden, because you have to decide whether you should try to improve that senior to win now or that freshman to build your team three years hence.

In an attempt to get people to still buy new games for their old systems, the EA developers also added a new mode to both Madden and NCAA that is only available in the old-generation versions. In NCAA 08, this is called "points pursuit" and it is totally, completely pointless. The load screens advertise it as "arcade-style football" but it is the exact same game as regular NCAA, played at the same pace, with no weird cheats or simpler play-calling screens. The only change is that standard scoring has been replaced by an incomprehensible points system that gives you points for yards, for sacks, for various things, and then randomly screams "DOUBLE POINTS!" or "TRIPLE POINTS!" at you -- usually on important third downs, but sometimes just for the heck of it.

The other thing that is supposed to be new this year: more varied playbooks, inspired by coverboy Jared Zabransky. I have no idea about the next-gen games, but this is hit-or-miss in the PS2 version. Yes, Nevada has the pistol, and if you search Boise State's playbook you will find Circus (the hook-and-ladder) and Statue (the game-winning Statue of Liberty play). Other cool college formations are tougher to find. Arkansas has the Wildcat, but it isn't marked as Wildcat, it is hidden in some shotgun formation and only consists of three plays. That ain't gonna win McFadden the computer Heisman.

The most obvious change, however, is not a college-specific play that was added but a college-specific play that was removed. Where the hell is the triple option? In previous NCAA games, the triple option was in every team's playbook at least once, because it was part of the goal-line package. Unless the team ran an Ace- or Shotgun-heavy spread offense, it was usually in there two or three times. Now, it is only there for a couple of very option-specific teams, like Navy. How can Army's playbook have just one triple option in it? Yes, fewer college teams are using the option now, but it was unique plays like triple option that made NCAA different from Madden. Get rid of that stuff, and it really is just Madden with different teams and a better Franchise Mode.

What about Campus Legend? Without SuperSim like the 360 and PS3, it's a mind-numbing waste of time.

When all is said and done, despite a few nice adds to Dynasty, the old-generation NCAA 08 just doesn't add enough useful and fun new stuff to make a $40 purchase worthwhile, unless you have a desperate need to play as Jimmy Clausen. If you do, just use create-a-prospect on your old NCAA game until you are ready to go spring for a next-generation system and take advantage of the version of NCAA 08 that is actually worth your money.

Personally, I just hope NCAA 09 for the Xbox 360 has the triple option available.

Posted by: admin on 30 Aug 2007

9 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2007, 12:24pm by Dru


by lionsbob (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 12:45am

I love NCAA football's dynasty mode. Thats all my friend and me play-dynasty mode. He picks one team, I pick another. We recruit and simulate the games. We did the mini-games in the 08 version (on X-Box), but we played no games, no spring game, nothing. We just tried to make powerhouses into dynasties forever. I liked it better then the 07 version, because it seemed to me the 07 version loved teams that ran the ball a lot and they pretty much won all the time. They need to fix the top 25 rankings somewhat and there seems to be too many undefeated and one loss teams throughout the year. But I love making a defense full of speed and an offense full of big WRs and big RBs. Its the closest I can get to actually being a real coach....

They really, really need to add an Assistant coach mode. I would love to be able to hire an OC and a DC (keep it simple at first) and also you can choose to start off as an OC or DC at a program.

by Fergasun (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 2:24am

The last time I played a video game football game was NFL 2K2 for Dreamcast. I have a feeling when my son gets old enough to play something like Madden 2018 it'll be the game I always dreamed of.

If they made a comparable PC version to the "next gen" version, I think I'd probably give it a shot, but I don't want to buy a new console for Madden... actually I'd probably play NCAA... I think the last one I played was NCAA 02 or 03... and I absolutely loved the triple option...

In my previous lifetime as a younger person I enjoyed Bill Walsh Football (included top 25 teams, and each one had a "classic version"). I actually don't think it had the real teams, but the locations... ie. "South Bend, IN", "Palo Alto, CA", "Los Angeles, CA".

It was around this time, that I think Sierra released the Front Page Sports Football series which I played every year of. Man that was the best football game ever, and it was PC exclusive! You could create your own play, even make a funky formation... I bet you could even have the Statue of Liberty and other trick plays... (no option). Like any Redskin fan I tricked up Darrell Green to be the faster player in the game... and I also used the 49ers... I created a few of my own money players... Jerry Rice fakes a slant and breaks outside while Steve Young runs out of the pocket... IIRC running up the middle in those earlier versions were damn near impossible, partially due to collision detection and the fact that your running player could get stuck on an offensive lineman... but FPS Pro 93, and 95 are probably the best football games the PC has ever seen... (true, I didn't play Madden). I think I gave up on the series after '97 and didn't ever buy it when Marino was on the cover.

By that point I became enthralled with College Football USA '97 (the one with Tommy Frazier)... I even created a 300 lb RB who had no hands an stamina but beasted up everywhere else... oddly enough he had no problems taking the option from... Ron Paulus (?).'

From playing Madden 360 demos at Best Buy and watching the ESPN show, I can see it's the game I always wished they could make. I can only hope that whatever my son plays makes these games look like John Elway football in comparison...

I sound like an old codger...

by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 10:29am

Does the AI punt from your 40 when trailing by 21 in the 4th quarter in the playoffs?

by TheWedge (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 11:23am

I have to say. I hate NCAA 2008. I loved 2007, but I think that EA really crapped the bed with 08. Basically, there's one annoying new thing and one big blunder.
The annoying thing is the new play calling system which 1.) is IMO harder to navigate, at least compared to the old system and 2.) Allows someone playing against you head to head to know exactly what play you're running (I know, honor system and all that but come on).
The big blunder that I've found is that it's absolutely impossible to stop the run. In franchise mode on All-American difficulty, I'm averaging 246 ypg and 9.8 ypc with Penn State. Meanwhile I'm giving up 180 ypg and 8.7 ypc. It doesn't matter who I'm playing with/against I put up 300 yards on the ground against Michigan with Hawaii! Cornerbacks are simply unable to bring down RBs and the juke stick is way too powerful. It's Tecmo-esque with 80 yard runs on every 3rd play. Kinda ruins the game for me...

by mactbone (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 12:52pm

Recruiting may have added more options, but it's the same - find the thing that the recruit likes and keep pumping that until he signs. With the old system you could do all that in the offseason for a half-hour total for the five weeks. Now it takes at least ten minutes every week of the season and at least another half-hour in the offseason. If it was interesting and fun this wouldn't be a problem, but it's really just rote.

Super Sim is really nice, but it's messed up at the end of games - I tried to use it to run out the last minute figuring that the comp was smart and would kneel. They did kneel, but they snapped it so quick every time that hardly any time was taken off. The other team got time to score and recover an onside kick but fortunately time ran out and they still lost.

by TheWedge (not verified) :: Thu, 08/30/2007 - 1:16pm

Re: 5
I had that same thing happen to me and I ended up having to go to overtime.

by David Arnott (not verified) :: Sun, 09/02/2007 - 2:05am

5 - I play the regular XBox version, and I've watched others play the PS2 version. The reason running is so easy is because the cpu-controlled players are totally screwed up when it comes to pursuing the ball carrier. They always go directly at the ball instead of cutting off angles. Thus, if you're running at a 45-degree angle toward the left sideline just as you cross the line of scrimmage at the left hash, the safety who started twenty yards downfield on the right hash already has no shot at stopping you unless he can catch you from behind.

There are many more AI issues that you'll notice after playing awhile, but I'd like to highlight a couple of great improvements. First, QBs get pulled if they throw four INTs in a game. It would be nice if that sort of thing applied to other positions, if the threshold changed depending on how close in talent the competing players are, and if that sort of thing carried over from game to game. So, for instance, if Sean Glennon has three straight awful games, wouldn't Frank Beamer be strongly tempted to play Tyrod? Yes. Yes he would. Second, bugs in the polls and game results from the last weeks of seasons seem to have been fixed. In past game editions, I noticed that undefeated teams would leapfrog one-loss teams in the polls as the season wound down. Not so anymore. Just like in real life, you have to get on the national scene and climb the polls quickly to have a shot at the national championship. Furthermore, in past editions, top-ranked teams would consistently lose their conference championship games or final games of the season in order to create a clear-cut national championship game. Again, through the six seasons I've played, that sort of weirdness hasn't happened at all; smaller-conference teams get screwed by the polls unless they have sustained season to season success.

by Unshakable Optimist (not verified) :: Tue, 09/04/2007 - 5:53pm

The draft was ruined last year when they took away scouting, instead forcing you to run mini-game drills to learn about prospects, and only letting you scout eight of them. What NFL team only scouts eight guys?

It's still workable because the prospects stay the same once they've been generated. I always save my franchise and disable autosave before I scout, then I grab a pen and a piece of paper and write notes about my draft prospects. After working out 8 guys, I just go back a reload my franchise. Rinse and repeat until you're satisfied, and then from there you can work on your draft strategy.

by Dru (not verified) :: Sat, 10/20/2007 - 12:24pm

so i've read all of this and i'm still kinda confused because i want to purchase madden and ncaa, i have a ps2 and a xbox which do you think is a better syatem to purchase the games on