Review: The only chance YOU have at being big man on campus...loser!
Last year's NCAA Football was a good, but not great debut on the Xbox 360 ? it had decent enough gameplay and the usual solid Dynasty setup, but it didn't exactly do anything that couldn't be done on PS2/Xbox, which had a deeper version of the game with more features to waste time with ? typical for EA's next-gen efforts at the time. And thus because of this disparity between the last generation and the new, it was difficult to recommend the game to 360 owners when the better game was out on older platforms...for less money to boot. This year, clearly EA is getting back on their game, as NCAA Football 08 is a deeper and improved game of college football, offering enough quality play and features to keep fans of the series busy for a while, and offering up new twists on old standbys for a fresh take on the now familiar Dynasty/Campus Legend setup. It's still not up to the same level as those classic NCAA Football 2003/2004 editions, but at least this year it won't seem like you've wasted 60 bucks on a half-baked new-generation title.
This season EA has dedicated a lot of time to adding in fancy trick plays, hot off the heels of the ridiculous ending to the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma. This is easily noticed by the choice of Boise quarterback Jared Zabransky, but for those unknowing of that epic game, EA promises a newfound emphasis on crazy plays that you see more in college ball than the NFL. And well, they kinda do, and kinda don't. Rarely will you see Statue of Liberty or Hook & Ladder plays (if at all), but the AI has a tendency to frequently go for trick plays on 4th down, which sometimes work and sometimes don't, but the fact that they do run them is reason enough to tackle many punt and field goal situations with a lot of care because you never know. Most playbooks lack anything other than traditional plays anyway, so in many ways this so-called emphasis on tricky stuff is pretty weak in implementation and thus the game still feels more like an NFL game in college uniforms, a problem from last year's game as well. But hey, at least they tried.
Otherwise, this year's game plays like last year's, which isn't a total surprise. Last year had a lot of problems though, like mediocre AI, dumb defenses, and easy-to-manipulate offenses. This year, the AI has been beefed up to add challenge ? no more can a cupcake wander into a 6 star team's stadium and beat them without a ton of effort, unless you adjust the sliders to the point where everyone sucks. The defenses are a lot smarter, especially secondaries, with safeties who actually will break from their pre-set movements to tip or intercept a ball if you make a bad throw into their area. It's not as robust as dealing with the Weapons in Madden, but it's a nice upgrade. Alas it does come with the caveat that AI linebackers and linemen can also make impossible leaps and steal balls ? it works both ways for CPU and human players, but it makes interceptions far too frequent unless you are very conservative in playcalling. Running the ball can be tough unless all the special tricks are used; a nice change from last year where I could just slam into the line, hold turbo, and average 7 yards a carry. Handling opponent tailbacks can be a nightmare, especially Impact Players, who can break tackles and juke like crazy to evade defenses. NCAA's only downer is Madden 08, which uses that Weapons designation to change how the game can be played.
NCAA 08's single player components are polar opposites in direction ? one is dynamic and huge, the other is linear and restrictive. Dynasty is of course the huge side, a monstrous time sink that EA has managed to make even more demanding. It's going to be familiar to NCAA veterans, as it contains the same core concept of going through a season, picking up awards, and winning bowl games. What got the overhaul this year is the insanely in-depth recruiting system. Before a season starts you pick up to 35 incoming freshmen, and over the course of the entire season, you spend time trying to win them over. This is done through a complex contact system, calling recruits and quizzing their interest on a wide variety of topics, such as their importance of playing early, the academic qualities of their school, even the quality of the university's training facilities. Ask them too many questions and they get annoyed and hang up, and this might affect their school choice. If a player becomes interested enough, they'll request a visit to the school itself, taking in a game and checking out up to 3 specific aspects of the school, tied into what you learned about that player over the telephone.
Recruiting thus becomes a full season of flirtation and haggling, and while sometimes you can get a recruit to commit during the season, the process continues into the offseason. Actually it plays out like the old system of recruiting, with a month worth of visits and pestering. Over a 5 week span, you'll visit the players in their home and again use the pitches tied to the player's interest. Generally if you really are high on their list, they'll sign. Sometimes you have to make a promise. Promises are new to recruiting, and also risky. These are exactly what they sound like ? a sort of guarantee to woo them in. It can be simple, like assuring the recruit that they won't get redshirted their freshman year, or very complex, like totally guaranteeing that the team will win a national championship. Fail in any of these promises and it hurts your coach integrity and recruits won't believe you as much, if they want to play for your school at all. Thus this is the sort of thing reserved for hot commodities, and should only be used if you know that it can be fulfilled. But it adds a weird layer of depth to an already insanely deep Dynasty.
Campus Legend is the other half, making it's debut on this generation of consoles. It's loosely based on Madden 07's Superstar mode, most specifically the way it restricts you into playing just one position, though NCAA 08 doesn't use that horrendous camera Madden used last year. Campus Legend starts out totally awesome ? you create your player, pick a state and high school, and your player stats & school interest are generated based upon how well you do in the state tournament. Play well and the major schools will be after you, play poorly and you might get to play for some mediocre Sun Belt team. But once you get into the college spirit it sort of goes downhill. Most of the time, you're practicing with teammates, using the same minuscule playbook, and then doing random night time events that affect your stats, many times randomly ? for instance, frequently you're invited to play basketball, and sometimes this is good and increases stats; other times you turn an ankle or something and skills decrease.
As you can only play as your chosen position (though you can't be a kicker or punter), you have to rely on computer AI to handle things. This is where Campus Legend fails. Like 99% of people who will play this, I picked a QB since it gives me the most possible involvement. But you're at the mercy of stupid AI. Which starts right with the head coach who chooses the play you call. Nothing like having 1st and goal at the 3 yard line and getting 3 straight long passing plays, and then going for it on 4th and goal instead of taking the 3 points. And this happens far more often than it should. Even worse, try running the football sometimes. Generally it's possible to get a good ground game, but it could be even better if the AI didn't run their scripted routes without checking for holes. More than once I've seen a running play where a huge hole is opened...but the AI tailback just runs right into defenders. Or they'll get an open hole, and rather than just run like hell, they juke and hurdle like idiots and get far less yardage than they could have. After a while, the whole thing gets frustrating and unfun. Since you can import your Legend into Madden this year I've stuck at it, but my hopes of winning a national championship are nil due to the total lack of team control. Campus Legend does
demonstrate EA's new Super Sim feature very well though ? you can simulate in 3 ways, by either going 1 play at a time, select to watch the current play on the field, or simply accelerate to your next possession. It's actually pretty neat.
NCAA 08 looks good, but all the same doesn't look a lot different than last year's game. It's great to see all the stadiums recreated, but even they lack some touches from the older games, such as the varied crowds which was a great barometer of how well you are playing during the season. Weather effects, well. Rain is fine, and it's cool when you use the real time weather from Weather Channel to mix things up, and how the game slowly changes the sky as a game progresses, but the snow, geez. It's fine coming down and hitting the field, but there's no footprints of players, no slow buildup, nothing. It looks like you're playing on white turf. In other words, it's pretty lame. The bump to 60 frames per second makes the game a ton smoother though, though at the expense of detail, apparently. Hopefully next year they'll fix that and make the vast improvements in the visual department that the game needs ? it worked for Madden this year.
In the same way the graphics seem recycled, a lot of the audio suffers from the same problem. Hell one could probably read the audio comments from last year's review and copy the text over. No EA Trax again, thankfully, but all the same fight songs (that have been used since probably the PS1 days) loop over and over and over and over again, which can get tiring when spending time trying to finish off-season stuff. There's plenty of sound effects on the field, especially hard hits and the like, though the crowds just aren't as lively as the past. The commentary from the familiar team of Nessler, Corso, and Herbstreit is fine, but really...every year they record less and less new stuff. There are lines in NCAA 08 that I can remember in NCAA 02...on PS2. And believe me I booted that game up to be sure. There's a few new lines here and there (and to EA's credit, this year I heard a few things I hadn't before a few years into a Dynasty, which is probably the result of having all these lines recycled over the past 6 years), but long-time fans will feel a lot of deja vu the first time you play a game with the announcing team.