Impressions: NCAA Football 2008 (360) (with a note about All-Pro Football 2K8 (360) as well)It's been three years since I played a great football game.
Just for reference purposes, here is a list of the football games I considered great in their time:
TV Sports Football (Cinemaware, Amiga, 1988).
Front Page Sports: Football (Sierra, PC, 1992)
Front Page Sports: Football Pro (Sierra, PC, 1993)
NFL Gameday (989 Sports, Playstation, 1995)
NFL 2K1 (Sega, Dreamcast, 2000)
ESPN NFL 2K5 (Visual Concepts, Xbox, 2005)
Tecmo Super Bowl isn't on the the list because it was far less of a simulation (although it was really fun).
The point, though, is that I've played almost every football game that's been released for the last twenty years, and I've listed six as "great" titles.
In other words, it's a high bar.
So when I say that I strongly believe that NCAA Football 2008 AND All-Pro Football 2K8 might both get added to that list, I'm as surprised as you probably are.
Let me tell you how much I've played and what I've done in both games. It's still early, but I am deeply impressed by both.
Since I got NCAA on Saturday night (thanks JT!), and I've put in 6+ hours at this point, let's talk about it first. I'll have All-Pro Football 2K8 impressions on Thursday.
You guys know I'm a big Dynasty guy. I really, really enjoy the recruiting engine in NCAA (I've said before that I think it's the single best feature implementation in a team sports game), but the on-field action has never had the same quality (which I've written about in detail before).
This year, though, I decided to take Campus Legend for a spin first. I created a middle linebacker, and the game took me right to the high school playoffs.
I figured I'd be playing Dynasty mode in thirty minutes.
Here's how Legend mode basically works in-game. When you're on the field, the play is called for you, and you can't make changes. You also can't change your player, so if you get beat, there's no pressing a button and automatically changing to the player closest to the ball.
If your ass gets beat, then it gets beat.
The first thing I noticed, though, was that the camera angle was playable. In Madden last year, the camera angles in Superstar mode were shanked beyong belief--totally unplayable--so having a workable camera angle was not a given.
The camera is much closer to the field. Much closer. And because of that, the action feels much more intense.
The second thing I noticed is how difficult it was to play as a middle linebacker (All-American difficulty). Read a key wrong, get out of position, and you're done for the play, because you just don't have enough speed to catch up. It's the thinking man's position on defense.
The third thing I noticed was how excellent the sim options were. When you're not on the field, instead of the game playing in hyperspeed or something, you have multiple options: you can sim until you're back on the field, you can sim play by play (with a nice graphic overlay that is basically a drive chart with a play-by-play outcome in text), or you can watch one play at a time.
You're watching from the sidelines, though--literally. The camera angle is a few feet above what it would be if you were actually standing on the sidelines.
Giving us multiple options in terms of what happens when we're not on the field is good design. And it means you can sim play-by-play as long as you want, then watch a critical play or two near the end of drives. It's terrific.
The high school atmosphere was terrific, too, with small-town fields to play every game but the state finals. The finals (I was in a Texas high school) were in Austin at the University of Texas, which is a 90,000 seat stadium, and while the stands were full (not realistic, although 45,000 have attended high school games, believe it or not), it just felt exciting, not like a gaffe.
I had a huge number of scholarship offers, but I wanted to go somewhere and work my way up. Texas Tech (great offense, lousy defense), offered to let me come in as 3rd string, which was perfect, so I went there.
Once you're enrolled in school, you see a calendar view of the schedule. Monday through Friday, you have an afternoon practice and an evening activity (you can sim through them if you prefer).
Practice consists of ten plays, and by making plays (for a middle linebacker, it's tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, etc.), you earn points. You'll be told how many points you are away from the next level in the depth chart, and when you've earned enough points, you move up.
Ten plays is the perfect length of time, and the practices are fun, although you'll probably start simming them after you become a starter.
The evening activity consists of a situation where you have to choose a course of action. Not every night--some nights you just hang out in your dorm room and study--but quite often, you'll be given a choice. For example, you might need to choose between playing basketball with your friends or staying in your dorm room to study. Study, and your GPA gets a boost. Play hoops, and some of your physical attributes might increase, as well as your popularity.
You might also get hurt.
It's not complicated, but it also only takes a few seconds for each night, and I've enjoyed making decisions about the situations they present you with. It could be more fleshed out, but it's a good effort.
When the season started, I was still third string, and for the first game, all the action I saw was on special teams. I ran my ass ragged on the kickoff and punt teams.
This was also the only time the camera confused me, because when you turn to run downfield on a kickoff return, for example, the camera swivels to stay behind you, which means you're looking away from the defense until you turn back around. This is totally confusing at first, but as soon as you remember that left-trigger makes you strafe, you can turn the camera around whenever you want.
Before the second game, I managed to move up to second string, and I still played on the kickoff team but not the punt team. I also managed to get in a blowout for a few series in the fourth quarter. It was easy to notice the difference in speed and size between high school and college players (I noticed it right away in the first practice, actually).
After the fifth game of the season, I finally earned enough points in practice to start. No more special teams, either--when I got promoted to starter, my special teams days were over.
Playing as a single player, in a college atmosphere, is incredibly intense. It's amazing, really, how focused you have to be, particularly as a defensive player. Tech's defense is not good, and I had to make plays to stop drives. Make a mistake, and I didn't have five all-conference players to cover for me.
We played UT near the end of the season, in Austin, and UT was rated #2 in the country. Seriously, I was amped for the game. And we jumped out to a 13-0 lead. It was freaking great, and I was playing really well--I had four tackles after the first quarter, and seven at halftime.
In the third quarter, it was 13-7, and UT was on our three-yard line. Second down. They ran an option play, and I stuck the quarterback right between the numbers. I mean, I tatered him.
With 90,000 people in the stands, I'd just saved a touchdown and put a brutal lick on their quarterback.
The next play, I was assigned in man coverage to the tight end. Right before the snap, I cheated over just a couple of steps toward the middle of the line--I expected them to run the ball up the gut. The quarterback took two steps back and threw a strike to the tight end--my assignment--and they scored.
If I stop that play, it's going to be 13-10, at worst, and we would have still had the lead. Instead, UT took the lead, and they wound up going on to win the game.
That was the single most important play in the game, and I blew my assignment.
And it was great.
There's no sense of that kind of responsibility when you're calling plays, and always auto-switching to the man with the ball. You can always make it up later.
This time, though, I had to go to the sidelines and watch my offense puke all over themselves. I was totally helpless.
What you also get a strong sense of is how often you can influence a play without making a tackle. Sometimes just occupying the right space at the right time is enough to disrupt the flow of the offense, and disrupting the flow can blow up a play. It's a subtlety that video games almost never capture, but it's captured extremely well here.
During the season, I saw the offense score two touchdowns in 90 seconds to win a game that we had no business winning, and also saw them not even get a first down for the first quarter and a half against Oklahoma (I actually muttered "bitches" after their fifth three and out in a row). I have never--never--seen a game capture the "boom or bust" essence of Tech's offense that well. At times, it was downright uncanny.
I've always said that great sports games involve variety inside repetition, and my first season in Legend mode epitomized that. It was a phenomenal experience. I've had so much fun in Legend mode (now in the third game of my sophomore season), that I still haven't touched Dynasty mode.
The game looks much better than it did in the demo, by the way--surprisingly so. The animations have also improved significantly this year (particularly when players engage--I've been very impressed). The game also feels polished, and I can't remember the last time I said that about an EA Sports game.
Here are a few notes about exactly what I've done.
--I turned off the announcers. I'm on the field--not watching on television. It makes the game much more intense.
--I'm using five-minute quarters. If you're playing mostly on special teams and simming 90% of the plays, it will give you about 130 plays a game. If you're starting, it will give you about 115-120. That's below the real college average of around 140, but I prefer the slightly streamlined version.
If you're wondering why five-minute quarters work in this mode, it's because no time is taken off between plays except for pre-play time at the line of scrimmage when you're on the field.
--I adjusted some of the kicking sliders, and I think these are significantly better.
CPU and Human power on field goals=30
CPU and Human accuracy on field goals=60
CPU Punt power=60
Human Punt power=40
I haven't actually tested kickoff power yet, but it's too high. You might try 40, which would probably be about right.
Games in Legend mode, if you're not watching plays when you're off the field, take about 25 minutes (if you're simming play-by-play). That's if you're starting and it's not a blowout, because if you're way ahead or behind, you may get pulled from the game (another nice feature).
So far, it's been a thrill (another word I rarely use). I can easily see myself playing just this mode for 50+ hours, trying out different positions and playing through careers.
There's another 50+ hours, at least, in Dynasty mode. Or more.
By the way, the guys at Blog for the Sports Gamer are going to be putting up impressions, and they're always thorough and generally spot-on. Bill Abner has already noted that he really likes the changes they made to recruiting, which is a very good sign. Take a look at what they've put up so far here.
I'll be spending quite a bit of time in Dynasty mode, but it may not be for a week or so. Right now, I'm having too much fun to change over.