Happy Holidays: Impressions on
the NCAA Football 08 Demo
When the marketing wizards at gaming giant EA Sports coined the term Maddenoliday to represent that special Tuesday in August when the latest version of Madden hit, it instantly became the Christmas Day of sports gaming. Madden comes with all of the tradition, pageantry and, frankly, the commercial exposure that weíve become so use to during the real Christmas season.
So with Maddenoliday being officially marked Christmas, itís only fair to call the release of NCAA Football, EA Sports other football juggernaut, Thanksgiving. The similarities are pretty startling. Itís a month before Christmas. You wait for it with great anticipation. You fill yourself with goodness. Then you plop your butt down in front of the TV for four days never to see the light of day till Monday. Sounds like NCAA to me!
With our metaphor firmly intact, we celebrated one of the great unknown holidays and traditions this morning at 5:00a EST. When the NCAA Football 08 official demo hit the Xbox Live Marketplace, I couldnít help but deem it the ďnight before Thanksgiving.Ē If youíre not familiar with the night before Thanksgiving as a holiday, itís largely considered, yet often debated, the biggest bar night of the year. With pretty much every person in the free world off work on Thanksgiving Day, save those poor souls at the Butterball hotline, that Wednesday night is spent by millions of people giving thanks to hops and barley at their favorite watering hole.
After a shockingly quick download this morning, I bellied up to the bar for my first sip of the NCAA demo. Needless to say, I was already smiling when I saw that they had my favorite libation on tap in the form of my beloved Michigan Wolverines. Instead of going with a fierce rivalry like last yearís demo (Florida/Florida State for those with a short memory), EA decided instead to go with a preview of this upcoming yearís National Championship game Ė or the replay of a blowout of a bowl game from last season depending on how you choose to look at it. Needless to say, I chose the former.
The game takes place in lovely Southern California and is limited to just two minute quarters on a skill level that I am guessing would is Varsity. Brad, Herbie and The Coach have been given the day off, leaving you with no play-by-play, intro or really much atmosphere outside of the basic sounds of the game and the roar of the crowd. Itís a pure gameplay demo and I for one couldnít ask for more.
After just under five full eight minute games on the controller, I decided to share with you my take on this sampling of NCAA 08. Before I get into what worked and what didnít work for me, I ask you to keep in mind a few important things. First and foremost, this isnít a review. For me to review this game based on what I was able to play so far would be like Roger Ebert throwing out that directional thumb after watching a movie trailer. We donít know when this demo was pulled from or how itís going to compare to the final retail version that weíll all be sucking down next week.
And, perhaps more importantly, this is, and only can be, based on my experience. Your experience with the demo could have been very different. Heck, my experience the next time I fire it up may be different. If I didnít see something in my first five games, it doesnít mean itís not there. It means I didnít see it.
If weíre all on the same page with that, then away we go.
Frame rate Ė Anyone who doesnít believe that the jump from 30fps (frames per second) to 60 fps will make a huge difference, hasnít seen this game yet. It moves and feels like a completely different game. I defy anyone to throw in last yearís game, play for two minutes and then switch to the demo and tell me there isnít a difference.
Animations Ė Although I saw the same celebratory animation about 100 times in five games, the animations themselves are so clean and crisp in this yearís game it blurs the line between gaming and reality. I saw a heaping handful of new animations throughout my run this morning and was blown away by the fluidity from one to the next. Where I think I found myself beaming the most during my session was when I picked off successive passes in the endzone, both of which I returned for 100 yard TDs. Now, donít get me wrong, the fact that it happened falls into my ďBADĒ section (see below), but itís what I saw that made me smile. On the first play, Shawn Crable (LB #2) picked off John David Booty on the goal line and rumbled up the left sideline for the TD. The key to this statement is rumbled. Crable, who is 6í5Ē and 250 pounds, didnít sprint up the sideline in a smooth runners stride. He ran like a linebacker, almost awkward in appearance, before being caught on the three yard line by a speedy wide receiver that he dragged into the endzone. A pass interference call negated that play, but on the next snap, Stevie Brown (SS #3) made nearly the same exact play, but instead of rolling down the field like a freight train, the 6í0Ē and 195 pound Brown, ran with a much smoother gate and actually pulled away from the USC squad that was giving chase. Nice touch!
Graphics Ė The best way I can describe the difference between NCAA Football 07 and what I saw on the demo is like watching standard definition and then making the switch to HD. I thought last yearís game looked good, but it is apples and oranges to what Iíve seen already. This game just looks pretty. Itís crisp and bright and looks like a football game. Beautiful.
QB Pocket AI Ė While I donít make it a habit to attempt to bug test games or seek out exploits, I donít think you can play a football game and not at least see how the AI reacts to the two Granddaddies of EA exploits Ė the 20 yard dropback and the rollout/crossing pattern. Anytime I tried to take Chad Henne (QB #7) significantly deeper than his three to five step drop, there was a defensive end burying him into the turf. In the past, it almost looked like the Endís programming was to initiate contact with the Tackle at the snap, then attempt to get to the QB. What I saw this morning was the DE with one priority, get directly to the QB. If I dropped back ten yards directly on the snap, which allowed the End to take a direct route to me without ever engaging with the tackle. A huge step forward as far as Iím concerned.
In terms of the dreaded rollout and crossing pattern, Iíd be lying if I said I couldnít still hit it on occasion (which is realistic), but I saw two significant changes. First, the QB canít get outside the tackle box as quickly as he could in yearís past. Now, granted, Iím using Henne and Booty, guys not known to tear up the track. And second, I saw a lot more bad throws when either trying to throw on the run or simply trying to throw when the QB was not set-up properly. I overthrew, I threw them in the dirt, I was all over the road. And when I did get a crisp pass off, the coverage AI did a much better job of defending the crossing receiver than we saw in 07.
Gang Tackling AI Ė I know gang tackling is, and has been, one of the number one priorities for NCAA gamers over the past few years. Let me start out by saying that itís definitely in the game. Furthermore, itís downright bone-jarring at times. It could have very easily landed on the ďGOODĒ list, but I have one pretty significant issue that stood out to me through my first five games. EAís take on gang tackling is more about guys finishing tackles or even cleaning up tackles than anything else. When the user is on offense, you see the AI initiate and finish tackles with a very logical, fluid and even vicious feel. However, when the user is on defense, I noticed, in my experience, a small hole in the AI. When an AI defender initiates a tackle, itís very easy for me to come in with a user controlled player and clean it up. Works perfectly. Unfortunately, in my experience, when the roles are reversed, and I initiate a tackle with my user controlled player, the AI stands around and watches the tackle attempt and only makes an attempt on the ball carrier if he breaks free.
Injuries Ė Might be just this build. Might be the skill level. In all five games I played I saw at least three significant injuries. In fact, on the very first snap of my first game, Mike Hart was sidelined for nine weeks with broken ribs.
Endzone Passing AI Ė I wasnít sure exactly what to call this because I donít know what causes it. My best guess is that it has something to do with the endzone being the end of the field. AI Quarterbacks still, they did it last year too, under throw a huge percentage of passes to the endzone. In five games, I picked off six passes in the endzone on under thrown balls to open receivers. At least four more passes could have been picked but were dropped by the corner. Itís like the AI QBís do not have the ability to properly use the back of the endzone.
Sideline Goons Ė I donít exactly know what is happening on the sidelines, but the players standing over there are almost creepy looking. They almost look like 20ís and 30ís style football players with the tight leather helmets. Iím not a guy who needs an ultra-realistic sideline, but those dudes are ugly.
There are still a lot of unknowns with the demo. We didnít get a full taste of the atmosphere with the absence of the play-by-play team. I did notice a Pontiac Game Changing Performance replay at the end of the game. Iím assuming that that is going to be a ďPlay of the GameĒ feature which is a nice addition. With the limited demo, you could not go in and access replays or the in-game photos that were taken. I was happy to see that the auto-photo option does seem to flow pretty nicely with the game and is not a distraction at all. Right now my photo album would be backed with a lot of pictures of my punter.
When all is said and done, the NCAA Football 08 demo is probably less of an event or holiday in itself, and more of an hors d'oeuvre. As much as I love a good bar night like the night before Thanksgiving, maybe itís more like the veggie tray or the deviled egg before Grandma puts the Thanksgiving bird on the table. Just enough tasty vittles to wet your appetite and leave you wanting more. Whatever it is, itís got my stomach growling and ready to dig into the main course.
Pass the cranberry sauce.
Happy Holidays: Impressions on
the NCAA Football 08 Demo