NCAA Football 2008 Review
It's that time again. Time for college students to get ready for tailgate parties, drunken nights of football watching and morning hangovers after the big game. Even my old college is getting into the act this year with a new football team, parties and all the stuff that comes with the whole college football experience. Sure, some people will tell you that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but August and September come really close for college and professional football fans alike. However, the games haven't started quite yet. What is a football fan to do for the next month or so as they wait to watch their favorite team take on that big rival?
The answer is to check out a hopefully-improved NCAA Football 2008. As sure as the starting of the season is around August/September, we're just as sure to see EA put out College and Professional football games a month apart. Last year was EA's first next-gen entry with the NCAA series and, to put it bluntly, the game flopped. There was no Campus Legend style mode in the game, a feature that the previous gen consoles had made into something that will be included in most sports games for the known future. The game didn't run as smooth as the previous generation's counterpart, and aspects of play just seemed to be off. Thankfully, a year has made a huge difference in NCAA 2008.
First things first, though – the game runs at an incredibly smooth 60 frames-per-second. To reach this benchmark, the graphics are slightly toned down from last year's version. The small reduction, though, makes for a game that is exponentially better than last year's edition simply because of how smooth it plays. For those that were used to the way the series ran on previous consoles, this is a godsend. It might not seem like much to those outside of the sports gaming world, but it really does have that big of an effect on the game. Also, I had mentioned in my 07 review that the stadium flyovers were choppy and that was to be expected – the choppiness there is gone, too. And not just for the small stadiums, as even the bigger ones are smooth. I did notice the game sometimes taking a second or so after calling a play, with the players on the field stopping briefly, but it never happened while actually doing anything other than getting to the line of scrimmage.
Also, the Campus Legend mode has returned. Instead of just creating a player and running through some basic drills, though, you'll instead play through your high school playoffs (complete with multiple local town names for high schools). Your performance here will end up getting bigger schools to come check you out and potentially make better offers to you. It is pretty hard to do badly here, as the high school players, well, suck. This seems to be the intention from EA, though – your guy is about to become a big college football star, after all.
After you get to college, you'll see some more changes. Thanks to EA's partnership with ESPN, you'll no longer be gunning for the Sports Illustrated cover – a different goal to focus on is getting featured on ESPN's website. You'll be able to go to the espn.com menu selection to see some of the feature stories of the week – crush your rival and there's a good chance the game will be mentioned. You can also see stuff like where your team currently ranks in the Coaches' poll. Another nice addition to this year's Campus Legend mode is the way you move up the depth chart. Instead of just going in and plopping your guy in the #1 spot when you start at USC as a freshman, you'll work your way up the depth chart through practices. Each of these practices consist of 10 plays and, based on your position, you'll get points for accomplishing various tasks. A Quarterback gets points for pitching the ball and passing for touchdowns, for example. Get enough of these points, and you'll move up the depth chart. My only real problem with this mode is that you move up the depth chart exceptionally fast. I can understand the reasoning – people want to actually get their guy in the game and play instead of just doing practices for the whole season. However, there should be more than a few actual games before you're firmly entrenched as the starter with no danger of losing the position.
Also, this year's Dynasty mode is revised and, in some aspects, vastly improved. Recruiting is the biggest of these. No longer will you decide what you're going to send to some recruits that week and simulate through the week, hoping the recruit signs with you. Now, you'll pick your recruits and actually know where your program's strengths lie. As time goes on and you find more out about the recruit, you'll know what he is interested in. If your school, for example, has an awesome academic reputation and the recruit is really interested, pitching that to him will give you a much better chance of getting the guy on your roster for the upcoming year. However, no matter your school's academic rating, a recruit only interested in being the #1 QB from Day 1 will ignore your school if you have a Heisman candidate sitting in the QB position. Knowing that some people pick up NCAA Football solely for the Dynasty mode and recruiting of players/building a team, I can say this is vastly improved and something they'll enjoy much more than they have in previous years.
Of course, there have been some smaller improvements to the game that may not be as obvious at first but end up being something you'll say wow at. Take the animations, for example. While last year had some nice animations, you were often locked into them. Perform a spin and you're going to do a complete spin, whether or not you change halfway through. This year's version of the game actually lets you break animations part of the way through if it is needed – definitely a nice touch. Also, the big hits this year feel much bigger than they have in the past. If your guy gets hit hard, he'll be slammed to the ground. I'll be honest – I can't really explain why or how they feel harder, they just do. Gang tackling has also been pushed as a big feature, but I rarely saw any gang tackles while playing. At least they seemed to work well when they did happen.
Note that, while I've been pretty positive about the game, I did still run into a few issues, mostly dealing with the AI. First of all, when playing as a QB in Campus Legend mode, you'll see some absolutely horrible running from your halfback. On a third down play with one yard to go, I had my guy run towards the middle on a dive play, and then try to take the ball all the way to the outside despite a few guys from the defense bearing down on him. Naturally, he was taken down in the backfield. This happened far too many times to count and will easily get on your nerves. The same can be said for when you're playing as a halfback or wide receiver – the QB will make some absolutely horrid throws despite your being wide open every time. Now, don't get me wrong, I know players make mistakes. However, I don't expect to see this many mistakes while playing the game.
Overall, though, I have to say that I really enjoyed NCAA Football 2008. After what amounted to nothing more than a tech-demo last year, I was expecting to see more out of EA this year as they had a solid shell for an excellent game. Thankfully, they didn't disappoint, bringing back the popular Campus Legend mode, a retooled dynasty mode and a silky smooth 60 frames-per-second performance benchmark. If you are at all on the fence after last year's paltry showing, get off that fence and go to your local game store to get NCAA 08. You won't be disappointed.
Just don't let me catch you playing as Duke. UNC all the way.