NCAA Football 08 Review
EA and Tiburon have had their problems dealing with the PlayStation 3 hardware, as Madden fans fully understand. This year's pro football installment was definitely inferior to its Xbox 360 counterpart, primarily due to a serious frame rate issue that plagued the gameplay, and we were desperately hoping we wouldn't see the same problem in NCAA Football 08. Well, we do. 30 frames per second just doesn't cut it, EA. On the other hand, we see a few changes - most of which are improvements - and a decent visual presentation that suffers only from a lack of consistency. College football fans are always looking forward to EA's next entry in this long-running franchise, and for the most part, they'll be happy with this year's effort. Unfortunately, it isn't the best version of the game (once again, that would be the 360 version), and PS3 owners are once again shortchanged by the biggest video game publisher in the world.
The graphics are nice, with loads of new animations and a lot of color and detail in the massive stadiums. Player detail is better this time around as well, although we do wonder why too many of the players looked virtually the same from the waist down...what we mean by that isn't X-rated; it simply means even our quarterback had legs like tree trunks. Those animations are pretty slick, though, and at the very least, the 360 version of the game really doesn't look any better (it just plays better). The overall visual presentation works well for the college football atmosphere, too, but what's with all the clipping? We thought that was a last-generation problem we had left behind, but apparently not: players will often reach directly through another player's arm, and we've seen whole torsos go missing in a pile of bodies. Furthermore, there appears to be a bizarre shading issue going on in some of the stadiums, but it's not a crippling issue. The graphics of the game are fine, but hardly worthy of a true football sim on a next-generation platform.
The sound is a little better thanks to professional announcers and color men, crystal clear, bone-crunching hits on the field, and plenty of fan chants, cheers, and jeers. It's all about the fans in college sports, after all, and Tiburon went out of their way to add some very sweet touches to the in-game sound effects. Playing on your home field sounds exactly as it should, and playing away in places like Michigan's home stadium can be appropriately unsettling. The soundtrack is surprisingly lacking, but we attribute that to a larger emphasis on announcer interaction and analysis along with all that outside noise going on during a game. We get the "Big 3" who tackle the college football schedule every week: Corso, Herbstreit and Nessler lend this production a great deal of authenticity and appeal, so EA connected on that one. We just wish there was a bit more consistency throughout all the stadiums; some of them are - of course - quieter than others, but that doesn't mean they should be dead. Even so, the sound is still the best part of NCAA Football 08.
Now, the gameplay. It's the only category really worth talking about when it comes to sports titles, now isn't it? First off, we have bad news for those of you who enjoyed the momentum system from NCAA Football 07: EA has replaced it with the all-new Leadership Control system, which means you'll want to be switching between players on your team on a consistent basis so as to build their "motivation." Essentially, the more you use a particular player on the field, and the more action he sees, the more his motivation will rise. Once they're "in the zone," they have a better chance of stripping the ball, making a key tackle, or dropping the quarterback for a sack in a sea of linemen. Clearly, you'd like to have multiple players, on both offense and defense, "in the zone." And in order for that to happen, you have to approach this particular football sim differently. You can't simply stick to your favorite player throughout an entire game; you'd be sacrificing the "growth" potential of all your other players! It's not a bad idea, really.
Next up is the obvious focus on gang tackling. Just like in real life, most tackles aren't accomplished by only one individual, which means you'll see a lot of multiple defenseman tackles in NCAA Football 08. However, while it's a good addition in theory, the implementation of this concept leaves something to be desired. The problem is, this makes open-field running extraordinarily difficult, as what appear to be openings close up quickly, even if it's only an arm that reaches out from a block to impede your progress. Receivers often get banged up in the secondary after catching a ball, but the good news is that this mechanic forces you to adapt to particularly voracious defenses. The last thing we'd like to mention is that these "gang tackles," for some reason, will sometimes reward the ball carrier, as strange as that may sound. A gang tackle can push you a few yards ahead, and provided you're pointed downfield, your momentum will typically lead to defenders dragging you forward rather than backward. We know this can happen in real life, but it shouldn't happen quite this often.
On defense, the Hit Stick has returned, and it's better than ever. This time, it's dependent on the size of the player you utilize the Hit Stick with; if you're using a linebacker to tackle a wide receiver, for example, you'll probably lay the smackdown on his ass. But if you're a corner on a blitz and you're looking to take down that high-powered running back, using the Hit Stick should result in a dive for his feet. It's far more realistic this way, and it's something you have to take into consideration when choosing your defensive player. Another fantastic change erases one of the biggest flaws of 08's predecessor- the animations limiting a player's ability to move on the field. Those who remember last year's entry will distinctly recall the difficulty they had in making cuts and spins; if the player on the screen hadn't completed a certain animation, the move just wouldn't happen. This time, though, you have full control. You can snap a player out of the slogging stuck-in-mud animation and have them execute a brand new move, which really is a God-send. This doesn't work quite as well in the 30fps PS3 version, but hey, you can't have everything.
Lastly, we'd like to talk briefly about the Lead Blocking controls, which will likely appeal to the hardcore football enthusiast. It's another new feature, and it basically allows you to take control of the lead blocker during a running play in order to clear a path. It's one of those options that we've never seen before, but wonder we haven't...it just seems like such a logical control option to have, doesn't it? Anyway, it works pretty well, and while we can't say it's as much fun as controlling the running back, it still offers a whole new angle of viewing and interaction. So kudos to Tiburon on the Hit Stick upgrade, the added animations that don't hamper our innovation and imagination on the field, and the inclusion of those fresh new Leadership Control and Lead Blocking features; the former mechanic helps to anchor an already deep experience. As for the rest, you can always expect menu selections like Dynasty and Campus Legend, along with the now-requisite online and ESPN functionality. There is plenty to do, and that even includes mini-games like Bowling! No, really. It's not "bowling," but it's...uhh...similar.
If EA had managed to get themselves acquainted with the PS3's hardware by now, this would've been a fantastic sports title. But as is, 30 frames per second is not 60, and that just brings the entire game down. They have a lot of good ideas, here, and while not every idea works flawlessly, this is an effectively robust college football experience, one that should've been a must-half for college gridiron aficionados. Instead, it's merely good, and we unfortunately cannot recommend the PS3 version over the 360 version, because it's fairly obvious that at this point, EA Sports/Tiburon simply has a better grasp of one and doesn't understand enough of the other. But despite the technical shortcomings, NCAA Football 08 is a solid production that delivers several gameplay surprises and innovations. And we give credit where credit's due. Just fix the damn frames per second conundrum, EA!
10/15/2007 Ben Dutka