Reviews: Rekindled, the football wars have been
Sometimes you're forced to be creative when circumstances get in the way. 3 years ago, EA Sports prematurely eliminated the up-and-coming NFL 2K franchise by cutting an exclusive deal with the NFL itself, making Madden the only NFL game in town for 5 years. Obviously, this outraged many football fans who feared the monopoly on licensed pro football games would lead to poorer products... which became exactly the case with the 2006 and 2007 versions of Madden ? especially the mediocre new-generation versions on 360 and PlayStation 3. With the end of the agreement nearing, 2K Sports and Visual Concepts have decided to get back into the game, in a far different manner than we're used to seeing in this era of total realism. All-Pro Football 2K8 is an unlicensed football game, with phony teams and stadiums... but mixed into all that are over 200 familiar names ? retired NFL stars. Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka... the hit list just goes on. And thus, a different sort of pigskin game is born, one that appeals directly to the burned 2K Sports fan who has spent the last 3 years playing NFL 2K5 and counting down the days until Madden is no longer the only choice for NFL action.
When you boot up APF for the first time, you can't even start a basic exhibition game without first going through the process of creating a team, seeing that everyone is a free agent at this point. Here, you get to choose from that list of 200+ retired football stars, ranging from top of the line Gold stars already mentioned, to mid-level Silver stars like Andre Reed, Dan Hampton, Darryl Johnston, etc, down to the Bronze stars which consist of good, not great players, like Mark Carrier, William Perry, John Taylor, and the like. Your team also consists of generic players to round things out to go along with the 11 stars you're allowed to pick. From there you get to pick a nickname (from a set list), a city (ditto), and get to fiddle around with the uniform generator, which is pretty robust and it's even possible to recreate the real NFL uniforms with a little patience. Once this is all done, the game will always boot up normally and these will be the default teams unless you edit them yourself. If a famous player has been omitted, you can create them too, which is the only way you can get Bo Jackson in the game, seeing that he should be there. Bo Knows Touchdowns.
Admittedly, and definitely, one of the drawbacks of All-Pro 2K8 is that the feature set is very weak. There are exhibition games of course, and a season, and naturally online... but that's about it. Season mode is something straight out of the 16 bit era ? randomly generated schedules, no trading or free agency, and a mere single 16 game season to play in. Sure a Franchise mode might not make sense here given the ?fantasy draft? approach, but... I dunno. When your closest competition offers multi-year franchise/owner mode, a mere season doesn't cut it. Personally I wouldn't mind a franchise mode without the Legends aspect if that's what needs to be done. Online is far more robust though, with online leagues and tournaments over PSN, something that the 2K games have done well since the inception of Xbox Live and Sony's PS2 online initiative. As such one could call APF a game designed more for multiplayer than single player, which does limit its audience. It's great fun to assemble a team of old time players, and maybe it's fun to do it all again with different players, but when you're charging full price for a game, it should be a bit deeper than the last game you put out, which was a whole 20 bucks. On the bright side, the PS3 version actually supports the same achievements the 360 version has, only they're called Trophies, which I guess will tie into Home when that comes to light later in the year.
For better or worse, this is All-Pro Football 2K8 in a nutshell. It's clear that APF wasn't designed to rewrite the book on their franchise, but rather shake off the rust when the time comes to bring the NFL game back. They just went out of their way to sign contracts with retired players to add a hook to the game rather than just release a generic football game. After all, this isn't the NES era anymore, that sort of thing won't really work today. Obviously if you're a huge fan of NFL 2K5, this is not a real flaw, as the game was extremely polished in the gameplay department, but even they might be a bit alarmed at the lack of real progress. On the other hand, this won't appeal to those who disliked 2K5, unless the legendary players are enough to coax $60 out of your wallet. Because of the lack of an NFL license a few things are touched up to add some excitement, like late hits or more brutal tackles, but generally, it plays faithfully to the NFL.
For new players, APF 2K8 is far different from what you'd get out of Madden, which has weirdly gone a bit more arcade-style in recent years, while APF has slowed down from its Dreamcast roots. As a matter of fact, some might even call the pace of the game... glacial. Unless you have a speedy tailback like Barry Sanders, the running game seems slow and disjointed, without much excitement. In my own case, I have Walter Payton as my back, and he's slow and can't cut corners well due to his build. Thus running with him involves a lot of spinning and dragging, which was his trademark in reality ? he was tough. The bright side is that he can break tackles easy, doesn't get hurt often, and can drag guys for a while before going down. It's realistic... but not necessarily exciting. When passing, it's almost insane to go back to the NFL 2K passing system after all these years. In Madden you can throw while running and hit pinpoint passes. In APF... it'll result in throwing the ball way off. But even that is based upon the quarterback you choose. I use Joe Montana, so he isn't skilled at throwing on the run, but if you can keep the feet set and aim right, the passes will be perfect. It's different for an Elway, for instance, but even then some precision is needed.
If you were to look for anything that needs work, it's the new kicking system. In previous games, you get an arrow and a power meter for accurate kicking, but now they're riding the NBA 2K wave with a meter-less, timing based system. Which sucks. The arrow remains, so you can line up where you want the ball to go...that much is fine. Now you have to flick back the right stick to set up the kick, and then push it forward right before the foot meets the ball, as straight and as hard as possible. This took a while to learn... at least a couple times I wouldn't put much force into it and I blew a 25 yard field goal because of it. But the actual impact force seems quite random ? one time you'll hit it perfect and a kickoff will still sputter out at the 20 yard line, but other times it'll be smacked all the way into the back of the end zone. I don't see what the problem is with the way it used to be... so why go into the kind of ?innovations? that aren't that interesting and aren't better than the norm? At the least, if a funky kicking system is the only real fault one can find, it's not that bad.
Against the CPU opponent, the trademark great AI is present. The game is smartly aware of what you're doing and will work to shut down a gameplan if it's too transparent. Running the same rushing play, or simply sticking to the ground game, will result in more blitzes and pressure from the line, and thus a balanced gameplan is needed. It's not as smart when on offense ? when you're down by more than 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter, going for it on the opponent's 20 yard line is dumber than Paris Hilton taking an IQ test. Yet it happens in APF 2K8 more often than necessary. On the other hand, it's pretty smart in its playcalling and tries constantly to trick you with smart movements. Alas there's a quirk to all this ? the computer teams tend to break the rules with legend players. The player is limited to 2 Gold players, 3 Silver, and 6 Bronze. At least 1 time I played a team with 5 Gold players and 6 Silver, tipping the scales in their advantage. This happens more often than not, though I did see a team that had no Gold players, but about 7 Silvers, which is still ahead of what a human player can have.
In typical fashion, APF 2K8 features very polished presentation. Though the PS3 version is a bit disappointing in that it runs at just 30FPS, it still looks good and runs very well, though it's not a huge upgrade from Xbox or PS2, likely again due to the ?refresher course? nature of the game. Because of the lack of a license, the stadiums for the teams can be weird and elaborate ? some may have seen the Assassin's stadium, with a crazy assassin who makes his stabbity motions after a score when the news was sensationalizing the ability to place O.J. Simpson on the team. That's just the tip of the iceberg, really ? the liberties allowed have resulted in some neat looking places. The animations and player models have seen a little upgrade from 2K5 but we're technically still running on the same engine from NFL 2K, which came out in 1999. The faces of the legends are pretty accurate, though also somewhat last-gen in look; some of them look pretty scary. The in-game menus and overlays are as good as ever.
The 2K series was well known for the outstanding commentary team, with the phony Dan Stevens and Peter O'Keefe calling the action thanks to the efforts of voice actors rather than paycheck-minded real announcers. Their return in APF is great and it's nice to have them back. A whole lot of the commentary is recycled from the old games, and even the halftime show uses the same material Chris Berman used last time around, including a vast overuse of ?this one? after every highlight. Regardless, the commentary is the most fluid and enjoyable around, and it's amazing that nobody else has totally scrapped real announcers for actors to create a more honest, realistic presentation. On the field there's up-close taunting and encouragement from the players, and both a loud crowd and in-stadium announcer repeating things to the crowd. There is a soundtrack to the game in the menus, and it plays in the background between plays, but seriously, why are these developers wasting money on licensed music... for menu screens? It seems like a totally useless venture.