NCAA Football 08 Review
I've had mixed feelings about next-gen sports games so far. The power of the new machines' hardware has given us some gorgeous graphics with realistic players and lifelike stadiums. However, the move to next-gen has also been accompanied by an odd paring down of game modes. The gameplay options of the next-gen sports games simply paled in comparison to those available for the older systems. Well luckily it appears that this was merely a bump on the road on the way to next-gen sports gaming because NCAA Football 07 has come onto the scene with enough game modes to keep college football fans happy throughout the college football season.
Before I get into the modes of play, I want to start with the gameplay itself. It seems that each year the game plays a little differently and this year's version is no exception. On the one hand I felt that the running game has improved this year. It's a lot easier this year to pick out the lane the play was designed to open for you - the lane may not be very wide or collapse quickly on any given play, but at least it's there. Blockers seem to be a bit more intelligent in picking up their blocks during a run play, especially on plays like sweeps where a lineman is required to run for a few yards before picking up the block that supposed to let you turn the corner. On the flipside, the interception percentage has gone through the roof. It's not uncommon to see seven interceptions in the game, with about a third of them returned for touchdowns. DBs who've been beaten on coverage have an amazing ability to go up the ladder and snag a pass right out of the air. The interception issue is so bad that on critical possessions you'll find yourself hesitant to go to the air no matter how many yards you need on your next play. The turnover frequency can be controlled by sliders in the game's setup menu, but even when they are turned down they still happen too often. Perhaps the high number of turnovers was added to help keep the scoring in check, because the games are always high-scoring affairs even with the constant turnovers. I can't even remember playing a game in which I scored under 30 at the Varsity difficulty level. Even the games that start out as low-scoring make up for it in fourth quarter scoring flurries that are such common occurrences that I strongly suspect that they are built into the game. Overall the gameplay isn't bad per se; it's actually pretty enjoyable but its issues detract from that enjoyment. It's a good game that could really be a great game.
One of my biggest disappointments with the game isn't with the gameplay itself, but with the whole atmosphere of the game. Even though the series has made the move to next-gen, it lost a lot of its collegiate feel in the move. The momentum meter is gone and it's taken the frenzied crowds with it. A last minute touchdown just seems more exciting when the crowd goes wild and starts rocking the stadium and a clutch interception on the road is far more satisfying when it leaves the crowd in stunned silence. Cheerleaders are missing from the sidelines and bands are nowhere to be seen in the stands or at halftime, so even though the game includes authentic fight songs and cheers they feel more like background noise than a part of the experience. The main and loading screens in past NCAA games featured shots of your favorite team and their cheerleaders, but these are nowhere to be seen here. The new main screen features a large trophy room complete with a video screen that plays highlights recorded from your games. This is all pretty cool stuff, but there's minimal customization of this screen based on your favorite school selection. In fact, the only thing that I can notice that reflects your favorite school is that there are banners hanging high on the walls representing the other schools in your favorite's conference.
I want to elaborate a little on the video screen on the main menu that shows your highlight plays because it's tied to a pretty cool feature of the game. After you finish a game you can page through the play-by-play for the entire game and select to watch a replay of any of the plays from a number of different camera angles. It's easy to find the biggest plays in the game because NCAA Football 08 scores each one and you can jump to the highest scoring ones to see the biggest plays of the game. After perusing the game highlights you have the option of permanently saving some of them for watching later, showing off to your friends, or even for uploading to Xbox Live to share with other fans of the game. It's also these saved highlights that are displayed on the main menu screen.
The play-by-play approach to the games in NCAA Football 08 is also used for the game's new sim options. You've always had the option to simulate an entire game, but this year you can sim anything from a game down to a play. Don't like defense? Then play the offensive plays and sim the defensive ones. Short on time? Sim the first half and take over in the second. Blowing out your opponent? Sim the rest of the game and move on to a better challenge. You can stop and start the sim at any time, making this a pretty versatile and useful feature.
You can always jump in and play a game with any match up you'd like, but the meat of the game is in its other modes. The appetizer of the play modes comes in the form of a collection of enjoyable mini games. Personally, I rarely play mini games more than once, but these are actually enough fun to bring me back to play them again. Tug of War has you alternating plays with the other team. The ball starts at the 50, the first team runs a play, and then the defense takes over at the new line of scrimmage. The first team to score a touchdown wins. Bowling starts you at the 10 yard line and gives you two plays to score a touchdown. The ten yards are equated to pins in a bowling game and so the total yards gained on the two plays are your score for that frame. Score on the first play and you're given a strike. Option Dash is a timed game in which you run as many option plays as possible within the time limit. Your performance on each play is scored, with positive outcomes such as positive yardage and touchdowns adding to your total and negative outcomes such as losses and turnovers subtracting from it.