August 19, 2007
Call me what you will, but I’ve never followed sports. Whether it’s my frail figure, a lack of competitive drive, or a desire to be average, I was cut from a cloth a few threads short of masculine. However, there has always been one sport that allows me to keep a shred of my male dignity; a sport filled with emotion, unity, and it’s strongest point, unpaid athletes with something to prove. That’s right, I’m talking about College Football (If you thought I was talking about Gymnastics, I’d suggest heavy therapy mixed with steady play of Boy George Albums). Only in College Football can you find that undeniable sense of spirit whether you live ten minutes from campus, or halfway across the globe. Needless to say, there are some mighty big shoes for the team at Electronic Arts to fill.
This years iteration of NCAA Football is ultimately a user defined experience, something EA is trying to nail across the board in all 08 titles. Whether it’s the addition of "My Shrine", Campus Legend, or the ability to save and view replays, NCAA 08 is about creating a College Football legacy, even if that legacy expires before 09’s offering. What better way to lay the foundation’s of your legacy, than hitting the field in the new Campus Legend mode. If you’ve played Madden 07, you’ll immediately be familiar with this updated version of Superstar mode. Campus Legend begins with the creation of your Legend, a customization lovers dream. Suit up with all the tape, wristbands, and pads that your little heart desires as well as basic appearance sliders to boot. Personally, I went with a 400 pound Wide Receiver, an example of the level of freedom you’re allowed to have.
The first thing you’ll notice (if you’re new to this mode), is the camera settled almost directly over your shoulder, taking the game from a full field experience, to a direct player perspective. You may also be surprised to find that you can’t call the plays you want, and you’ll also be forced to remain on field for the sake of blocking and running fake routes (for an offensive Legend). For what sense of control is lost, the feeling of being a player on field has never been more realized. As a High School player, you’ll make quick work of the very average competition on your way to (hopefully) winning your State title. Shortly after the title game, you’ll be recruited by Colleges across the country where you can chose whether you want to be a starter for a lousy team, or a 5th stringer at Virginia Tech (I was the latter).
Progressing through the depth chart is a pretty well executed system where you must earn points in practice which will eventually unseat the player ahead of you on the depth chart. Making big plays in practice will get you to that starting position quicker, one in which I got to about halfway into the first school year. So there you are, a starting player on your team of choice, ready to hit the field and prove your worth; It’s quite an awe-inspiring event. The stadium’s are huge with great attention to detail, the crowd is deafening, and the desire to succeed is perhaps the biggest factor…Too bad my first play was a fumble returned for a touchdown.
There are reasons the experience works, and others that prove it is far from perfection. The biggest problem I encountered was the strange play calling. You cannot control the plays the coaches call, and while that’s fine, the system in which they’re called is flawed. For instance, I ran the same pass play four times in a row, before I eventually burned three time outs just to get the damn Coach to call something different. As a running back, putting up minimal gains could spell certain bench time for a few quarters before they’ll call on you again to reconcile for a prior carry. As a receiver, dropping a pass could result in blocking for your running back for the rest of the game. The point is, you don’t get to learn from your mistakes. If you’re having a good day, the results will be in your favor, but if you mess up, the play calling will heavily reflect that. When I chose to be a running back, I did so because I wanted to run the ball (logically), but any mistake/minimal gain I made was crucial to the plays the head coach would call. Another fine showcase of the work that needs to be put into this mode is the camera angles. As a receiver or defensive player, the camera is best described as a flying sensation, one resembling the wire camera the XFL so proudly bestowed on the world. There comes a point in the game where inevitably you’ll have to run under the camera, and in that moment, all hell breaks loose. The camera will wildly spin trying to pinpoint your location in relation to the ball carrier, and oftentimes you’ll be playing without seeing where you’re going. I once thought I was putting a devastating hit on the quarterback, but when the camera finally found me, I was playing hopscotch with the cheerleaders.
Playing Campus Legend is a great way to really soak in the fantastic look of the game. The fields are stunning and the player models are better still. The details on and off the field shine through, and one must applaud the effort of stadium design put into almost every team in the game. You can see the stitching in the jerseys and the pants have that sheen shine (yeah, that’s right, I said that…). The skin is remarkable, complete with sweat, veins, and pores. The animations are just as impressive and at times are jaw dropping with the new addition of gang tackles, and an improved "hit stick". The punishment of each tackle makes you wonder who they paid to do the motion capture; My bet is a crash test dummy heading for a wall at 90 mph. The only problem in the visuals department is something that I don’t ever see getting fixed, the sideline/crowd mechanic. The players on the sideline look like the players from Tecmo Super Bowl, and no matter how bad you play, they’re always clapping. The crowd looks very alive from a distance but up close they resemble piles of brightly colored…uh, crap. These two things however cannot take away from the fantastic job EA has done with making the game visually believable. In the audio department, there seems to be little work left to do. Each year, Corso, Herbstreit, and Nessler deliver enthusiastic lines, some of which I’m still hearing for the first time, leaving nothing to be desired for the audiophile.
Taking a turn for a more classic style of play is the Dynasty and aptly named "Play Now" modes, both in which are about as standard as it gets. Dynasty mode is almost identical to last years freshman effort only this time with an expanded recruiting feature for the hardcore enthusiast. Both modes are played with the classic camera feel and both feature the new "Super Sim" function. If you’re tired of playing defense, sim to the next possession. If you’re winning 100-23, sim to the end of the game. Don’t like kickoffs? Sim to the next play, a very subtle addition to the ever expanding EA Football lineup. Super Sim will remain an overlooked feature to the hardcore player, but a very welcome one to someone like me who has no gaming stamina (it’s made up for in other areas, Chess especially).
While almost everything has been taken into consideration, I’m still not understanding the lack of features in comparison to past outings. If you’ve created an experience that sells well, you better believe when we purchase again, we’ll be expecting the same things. This is the main reason I’m so upset there’s no "Create a School". I’m really hoping the jump to next gen graphics didn’t hinder a developers ability to add a feature that’s already been around. "Sorry we didn’t put in the 'create a team' feature, we thought you wanted to see the players sweat instead". If I’m going to mention the loss of features, I may as well pose the question as to why sports games are made yearly. There has never been a significant evolution from year to year as sorry as I am to say it. Of course you’ll have your roster updates, some additional polish, and tweaking of game modes, but nothing of revolutionary form presents itself from year to year. Food for thought: If the development process lasted two years instead of one, I think we would see dramatic improvements from title to title, not to mention a much higher replay value. These ‘insert year here’ sports titles lose their value shortly after release since you’ll find the next installment already in production, receiving hype of epic proportions. Sorry, I don’t buy it.
What I do buy however, are easy achievements, the kind that you can find here. The biggest chunk (around 700-800 points) can be gained by just playing a few games while executing simple feats like running for over 30 yards, getting interceptions, and throwing to different receivers. Getting to the more complex achievements is where not only myself, but others have had problems. I’m actually on my third play through of Dynasty since joining a BCS conference isn’t unlocking the achievement, and filling up my "Legend" meter has happened twice without any award either. I’m going to hit hard if the game has glitchy achievements, and believe it or not, it is EA’s job to not only make sure it looks great when a receiver catches the ball, but to also make sure you get the achievement for that very same play. Other than the problems myself and others have experienced, the achievements are pretty easy and well worth your time.
Playing online is another component EA is trying to back, but there’s not much new this year other than the fact that you can save pictures and replays to showcase to your friends (or rivals, whichever you prefer). These moments can be captured online as well as offline and will play in a highlight reel that you see in the main menu. The problem with the pictures is that they are snapped at very random times, rarely making sense when recalling the prior play. Instead of taking a picture of my quarterback diving into the end zone, the camera snaps pictures of my halfback making out with the Astroturf.
All in all, NCAA is far from being a bad game. It’s got everything the college football fan is seeking, whether it’s a deep recruitment feature for your Dynasty team, or it’s solid animations and gameplay for a quick round with a friend. If you like past titles, there’s no reason you won’t like this one. If it ain't broke, don’t fix it, is the old saying that I think EA knows very well. You can best describe NCAA 08 as a new wardrobe. Sure, you look sexy and new on the outside, but on the inside, your still that same damn person. But hey, we like that same damn person, don’t we.
Bone jarring impacts, deafening stadium noise, and enthusiastic commentary add to a melting pot of rich sound design worked into NCAA 08. However, If I have to hear another school fight song, I’m going to go more crazy than Ray Charles with a Where’s Waldo Book.
Things are much deeper and detailed than meets the eye when you take the time to investigate. Running a free camera in the instant replay mode, one can notice jersey stitching, veins, sweat, and incredible reflections on player helmets. The stadium design is remarkably genuine, and the animations are an ideal ’60 frames per second’ smooth. The refined hit stick with increased impact, and the addition of gang tackling makes for a great visual experience. The only exception is when comparing the action on field to that of the sideline where it appears little effort was mustered.
Hitting the field for the first time is a very fresh, fun, and exciting experience, but the more time I spent with NCAA 08, the less intriguing it became. After adjusting to the few added features and tweaked modes, the experience becomes the exact same one that you’ve been playing for years. Many people will be completely content with this, but I however am looking for a revolution in gameplay; a "something to lose" mentality. Without competition, it’s easy for EA to make baby steps and still appeal to a very loyal, and very eager to buy crowd.
While Campus Legend succeeds in presentation, it’s camera and play calling problems are enough to turn some people away. Dynasty Mode has only revamped one aspect, it’s recruiting component, a feature that can be difficult to enjoy unless you love spending as much time off the field reading text as you do on the field playing ball.
The achievements are nearly identical to 07’s but require little effort in obtaining the lot. A large amount can be gained by simply passing, running, sacking, and intercepting, where the more elusive ones require you to complete Campus Legend mode, or play a few years worth of Dynasty. I finally got my 1000 points after having some problems with glitched achievements, and in fact at one point, had to erase all my save files to make a second attempt.
NCAA has always been a good franchise, but it’s a few steps shy of being a great one. The current strategy works, and it’s content can drive sales no matter the how good the product, but for the less hardcore player, these antics age very quickly. I personally challenge EA to rethink their development process, go back to the drawing board, or inquire around the community to find provisions that can be taken to become a true gridiron powerhouse.