NCAA Basketball 10 Review (Xbox 360)
No franchise was more in need of a makeover last fall than EA's (formerly known as) March Madness series. The crescendo of the franchise's downfall came with March Madness 08, which turned out to be the equivalent of a number 16 seed after the first day of the NCAA Tournament -- routed by a vastly superior opponent and lucky to even have been invited to the big dance. Thankfully, EA listened to the criticism leveled at the March Madness series and decided to start from scratch. The result was NCAA Basketball 09.
NCAA Basketball 09 corrected many of the nagging issues from the March Madness series and implemented a core experience that could be built upon in future iterations of the series. While the game was ultimately crippled by some annoying bugs (for example, playing zone against the CPU would force an ungodly amount of turnovers) and a lackluster dynasty mode, the overall game was a very solid Freshman effort by EA. 2008 marked the year that the developers at EA once again made their college basketball offering relevant.
And now with the first week of college basketball upon us, it is only natural that EA has released NCAA Basketball 10. Touting revolutionary television presentation, an all-new motion offense mechanic and yearly team and player "dynamic" updates, NCAA Basketball 10 is ready to up the tempo and try to run all other 2009 hoops competition out of the gym.
So is the game ready to ascend to the level of a UNC, UCLA and Michigan State, or is NCAA 10's bubble going to burst well before March?
The player models need some work.
I'm happy to report that the new broadcast presentation elements in NCAA 10 are as good as billed. I would even say that the dual-network presentation should become the norm for all sports games moving forward. Both the CBS and ESPN graphical overlays look great and accurately depict season statistics, standings and other pertinent information during the course of a game. What makes these overlays even better is just how well they are integrated into the game -- flashing in and out of gameplay seamlessly, with no resulting slowdown or frame-rate issues that other games suffer from during a stat banner appearance.
In addition to the overlays, the NCAA Basketball team has managed to integrate some extremely slick cutaways during stoppages in play. Sometimes the game will "cut to commercial" cuing up either CBS or ESPN's theme music while top highlights are shown. Other times you will be treated to highlights of an outstanding individual or team performance. The game features the best use of licensed presentation I have ever seen, and I found myself calling timeouts multiple times during games just so I could be treated to some highlights.
It is also worth noting that there is a very basic selection show hosted by Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery of CBS. The show itself is not spectacular, but you do get a good overview of which teams are dancing, which teams are staying home, and even some interesting predictions as to which teams will be successful in the coming weeks.
But all is not well in presentation land. For as good as the EA developers managed to integrate slick looking stat overlays and highlight packages, they completely dropped the ball when it came to recording the in-game commentary. Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson do an admirable first-year job in the booth, but both ultimately become repetitive within the course of two or three games.
Sadly, the CBS team is the high point of NCAA Basketball 10's commentary. I say that because the commentary work done by Vitale and Nessler this year is quite possibly the worst announcing I have ever heard in a modern video game. It seems like EA was forced to limit the scripts of the usually solid ESPN duo to enough commentary for just one game of NCAA 10. Both Nessler and Vitale will repeat themselves within minutes of each other, and you are better suited turning the sound off if you end up playing an ESPN-presented game. The sad thing is that the commentary really takes away from the overall feel of the game.
NCAA 10 sure looks like an authentic television broadcast, but it certainly does not sound like one. After playing other 2010 sports titles, NCAA 10's announcing definitely throws up an air ball.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. The authentic arenas and lighting look spectacular, and even the crowd is well done -- assuming you take into account the fact that this is a collegiate game that includes so many teams.
However, player models are a completely different story. NCAA 10's players just don't look like the lanky college kids I watch on a nightly basis from November through March. Instead, they look more their professional counterparts in NBA Live 10.
Another area that I was not especially impressed with was the differentiation in player sizes. It seems like EA decided to pay homage to Nintendo's Ice Hockey by implementing only three distinct player models in the game: little guy, medium guy and big guy. The result is that every team looks almost identical from the default camera angle, and it is extremely difficult to identify a specific big man or guard when running an offense. Player faces are also as generic as they get, so don't be surprised to see more than a couple clones on the court during any given game.
Lastly, player jerseys and accessories look good, with new cloth physics giving realistic movement to the game's ultra-baggy shorts.
Unfortunately, this is not a rarity.
On the Court
I am disappointed by the on-court gameplay in NCAA Basketball 10. Playing on the Xbox 360, I have noticed a slight frame rate drop whenever my player takes the ball up the court -- the frame rate seems to dip even more when holding the turbo button as I cross mid-court. This is not necessarily a devastating issue, though, it does become quite annoying over the course of multiple games.
What could be considered a devastating issue is the amount of clipping, collision detection, and animation issues that rear their ugly head over the course of a game. I ran into several instances where players completely clipped through their defenders when driving to the hoop. On other occasions, I have had the ball clip through the backboard, which led to turnovers or air balls. Now, I understand clipping is going to happen in a basketball game, but the frequency and severity of such occurrences in NCAA Basketball 10 has left me scratching my head. The on-court experience does not feel as polished as it should be, especially for a game engine in its second year.
Another major issue on the floor is the aforementioned collision detection. For some strange reason, offensive players fall to the court way too often in this game -- you would think they were playing soccer. My problem with this is that many times the player falls for no reason. You will see players go down after dribble drives or they are met by a defender in the paint -- makes sense. You will also see players falling to the floor regularly after shooting a jumper, with the closest defender being three feet away -- does not make sense. And not only are these phantom falls visually annoying, they also prevent one of your would-be defenders from getting to play transition defense. So expect to vent plenty of frustration as you hastily jam on the turbo button to get your fallen player back on defense.
One of my biggest collision-detection gripes is the fact that the CPU players will magnetically pull your offensive player towards them as you try to run your motion offense (more on that later). There is nothing more frustrating than gaining separation on a dribble drive or a curl, only to have the CPU players rubber band you back into their clutches. What makes absolutely no sense to me is that when you are defending the CPU, it is near impossible to reverse roles and get a body on an offensive player, especially in the post. How am I supposed to play solid post defense when I can't even initiate defensive body contact?
But my biggest gripe with the gameplay deals with animation variety and execution. Every guard seems to have the same dribble animations, all big men have the same post animations and shot animations are extremely generic. Many transitional animations also appear to be missing, leading to some extremely awkward and robotic looking dribble moves, post shots, passes and loose-ball opportunities.
Then there is the issue of dealing with a player's momentum animations -- an aspect of the game that had me screaming at my TV and waking my wife up during the wee hours of the night. Too often initiating a freestyle dribble, or even pressing turbo, will result in a player going out of bounds due to his momentum. There were literally points in my game where an animation would start up and take me out of bounds without me being able to interrupt it.
Precision player movement is also iffy. A perfect example of the hindrance of precision movement can be seen in the inside-out game. Because of less than steller AI, perimeter players sometimes set up a good three feet beyond the 3-point arc. When you attempt to penetrate and kick out to a teammate, you have to attempt to move the perimeter player closer to the 3-point line if you want to have any chance of hitting the wide open shot. It sounds easy enough -- if only it was actually that easy. Moving your perimeter player closer to the 3-point line results in him grossly overshooting the mark time and time again.
Thankfully, player momentum does not interfere with NCAA 10's post game because there is no post game in this year's version of the game. The CPU seems to be able to function down low because it is extremely difficult to play post defense against it, but attempting to set up a successful post offense against the CPU is a chore, especially on higher difficultly levels. Offensive success typically comes from running plays to establish a solid mid-range game, which leads me to the game's new motion-offense feature.
If the gameplay has one redeeming quality, it is the addition of the motion offense button. By tapping the left bumper (L2 on PS3), you are able to initiate your team's individual motion offense with any player, anywhere on the floor. Players make crisp and clean cuts, and it can be quite fun to execute these plays on an unsuspecting opponent.
The dynasty mode was by far the weakest aspect of NCAA Basketball 09. It had bland presentation, terrible RPI ratings and mysterious tournament-selection logic. Regarding NCAA 10's dynasty mode, I have both good and bad news. The good news is that the ratings logic issues have been fixed. The bad news is that everything else about dynasty mode is exactly the same as in NCAA 09.
In terms of the logic behind the rankings, NCAA 10 does one of the better jobs I have seen in a college basketball video game. In the three seasons of dynasty I have played through, RPI logic seems to be spot on, the top 25 teams made sense throughout the year and the tournament selections and results were realistic. The only shocker I saw was a 30-0 Butler team that only garnered a number-five seed in this season's tournament.
The ridiculous tournament upsets that plagued NCAA 09 are also gone, and all the one seeds advanced to the Final Four during two of the three years I played -- a four seed weaseled into the Final Four in my third year. For those looking for a glimpse into the crystal ball, one seeds won all three years (Kentucky in 2010, Michigan State in 2011 and Alabama in 2012).
For those unfamiliar with NCAA 09's dynasty mode, it was nothing out of the ordinary. The NCAA 10 dynasty mode is really no different. Players must navigate through a myriad confusing menus in order to find out how to do the simplest tasks (for example, recruiting). Players are relegated to a bland ESPN hub. The hub displays some text-driven top stories and features a quick link to your schedule, but you still must fiddle around with the confusing "start" button menu to accomplish everything else. The ESPN hub, menu design and all of the dynasty features, especially recruiting, feel like relics from a past generation. There is just not enough exciting content in dynasty mode to keep a hardcore college basketball gamer busy.
Dynasty mode does include the ESPN Gamecast simulation system, allowing users to simulate a game at various speeds. (You can also intervene if the results get out of control.) This Gamecast feature, coupled with the outstanding RPI and tournament logic, make this a poor man's text sim. I could definitely see some NFL Head Coach fans having a lot of fun with this aspect of dynasty mode.
It is also worth noting that team scheduling in dynasty mode is randomly generated. This is a giant leap backwards when compared to the authentic dynasty schedules found in last season's game. There is a chance that authentic schedules could find their way back into the game via a patch, but nothing has been confirmed by EA at the time this review was written.
This really isn't supposed to happen.
It's a bummer online dynasty did not make it into this year's title. But the online addition that EA did make to this year's title looks like a surefire winner in my book. Piggybacking off the success of NBA Live's dynamic DNA feature, NCAA 10 includes Dynamic Updates, updating yearly rankings, RPI and player ratings as the real college hoops season progresses. So if you are a fan of a team outside the top 25 that goes on a run in real life and cracks the top 10, this will be reflected in the game's "play now" and online modes. Unfortunately, as of the time of this review, the feature has not yet received its first update, so I am unable to get the full in-game effect of these dynamic updates. It will be interesting to see just how well the feature works as the year progresses -- check back with Operation Sports for a more detailed analysis at that time.
The EA Locker makes its return once again, so count on named roster files hitting the EA servers within a couple weeks. Just like in last year's game, you do not need to be friends with a user in order to download his/her roster files. All uploaded files are arranged concisely and can be accessed and rated with the simple push of a button.
The last online feature to touch on is the online versus games. Basically, I did not notice any lag or game-shattering issues. It is also important to note that gameplay against a human opponent is much more enjoyable than dealing with the suspect AI. Most of the gameplay issues mentioned above still exist online, but they are much easier to overlook during an online match.
NCAA Basketball 10 was one of the toughest review assignments for me here at Operation Sports. I was a big fan of NCAA Basketball 09 and was extremely excited to get my hands on this year's game. While I have enjoyed my time with NCAA 10 for the most part, I ultimately was expecting a larger step up from last year's game. As a college basketball super fan, I found it difficult to accept the animation issues, lack of post game and overall generic feel to each and every game I played.
I definitely had a blast during my first few hours with the game (mostly because of the presentation). However, as I spent more time with the game, I began to realize the game's core issues were outweighing the fun I was having with it.
If you are a casual college basketball fan looking for a fix this season, go out and buy NCAA 10. If you are a hardcore college basketball junkie expecting a deep dynasty mode and gameplay experience that will keep you busy until April, look elsewhere. There is no denying that the game plays a fun game of hoops, it just does not have enough gameplay depth or polish to warrant being called a must-buy title.
On the Court: Animation issues, clipping and slight frame rate drops may sour your experience. But there is still some fun to be had on the court.
Graphics: Arenas and lighting look great, but player models and faces are last generation.
Sound Design: Nessler and Vitale will have you reaching for the mute button. Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery have a decent premiere.
Entertainment Value: Casual collegiate hoopsters will eat this up. Hardcore dynasty-based users will be throwing this up on the shelf in a matter of weeks.
Learning Curve: If you have ever played a basketball game in your life, you will have no issue succeeding in this game.
Online: The lack of online dynasty is a major downer, but the Dynamic Update feature could keep exhibition games fresh.
Score: 6.0 (Fair)