New Season… Same Record…
Singular license agreements like EA Sports’ exclusive NFL license are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the annual output of a title like Madden ensures that football fans and gamers alike will have something to kick around every single season.
On the other, it has long been my theory that these agreements (or other unwritten relationships where one company dominates a license) hurt gamers by weakening the market and making gamers settle every year for what is essentially the same pre-packaged game experience usually running on an old engine. As a gamer and critic, I feel that this cheats consumers and allows developers to maximize profits and minimize the actual time they spend developing.
And so it is with this year’s EA Sports College Basketball entry, NCAA Basketball 09. First a disclaimer: this is by no means the worst basketball game you will ever play. In fact, in some ways it’s better than some predecessors and even its more popular NBA cousin, the NBA Live series. Animations are crisp and fluid, A.I. seems a bit sharper, and a few new wrinkles to the in-game strategy (team tempo, pregame coaching, etc.) seem to significantly affect the game experience. Real NCAA basketball fans (excluding fair-weather fans and tournament gawkers like myself) will geek out at the prospect of the all new Tournament of Legends mode, which allows players to pit 64 of the greatest teams in the history of college basketball against each other. Finally, presentation shines as one aspect of this entry that will keep gamers entertained; like any ESPN fan, I almost never get tired of hearing Dick Vitale’s voice.
Still, despite its high-points, or maybe because of them, EA manages to deliver an experience that is mostly familiar and shows a lack of desire to innovate or alter the game in any truly significant ways. Once again, the sports sim powerhouse seems to have stuck to its ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ underachieving philosophy, which manages to keep NCAA 09 from achieving any real new success. Fans of the series will buy it; newcomers can buy any title in the next-gen series and get roughly the same value (or better yet, get NBA Live which is likely the game your friends are playing).
EA has gone far out of its way to present a pretty package and that is what we get. NCAA 09 is likely the first next-gen version many gamers will play (let’s face it; 07 and 08 EA games were not the best next-gen efforts) and visually, graphically, and animation-wise, it will not disappoint.
Everything from dunks to crossovers and steals seems to have “new” animations. This game runs on the NBA Live engine (a first for the former March Madness series), and the truly observant will note some borrowed animations, but it is an upgrade from older NCAA titles.
Most teams allow players to select several vintage and contemporary jerseys (legendary teams even sport the short shorts), crowds look and feel a bit less like faceless cardboard cutouts, and games in the Tournament of Legends are even broadcast by ESPN Classic and played on hardwood so shiny you can literally see the players reflections.
From the moment the game comes on and throughout every load screen, players will be treated to a fully responsive “practice mini-game,” which features a college player (presumably NCAA 09 cover-boy Kevin Love) shooting hoops on an empty college outdoor court. Admittedly, this is inconsequential to gameplay, but as an EA sports gamer for the last decade, I have to say it is an enjoyable way to pass those agonizing seconds between load screens.
For my taste, the camera is a bit wide (in every mode zoomed in at maximum) but I’m not sure how close you need to be considering none of the players have names. Even so, this is definitely a game meant for the big screen, especially if you want to read states or coaching tips.
Voice talent also does a lot of the heavy lifting, as Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler follow the action and Erin Andrews provides sideline summaries and half time reports.
Although this game runs on the NBA Live engine, it is interesting to note that there is a very observable difference between the two games. In keeping with its new emphasis on presentation, NCAA 09 is probably one of the more authentic basketball games around. Leaving behind the aggravating one-man full-court presses, unstoppable cherry picking, and star invulnerability of NBA Live, EA has managed to craft a steadier, more realistic gameplay mechanic driven by post play and, of course, the pick and roll.
Players will find that A.I., particularly defensive A.I., is much smarter in this game, sometimes to its detriment. Unlike Live, defenders won’t fall for every pump fake and stutter step you throw their way. Even for “up-tempo teams,” gamers will have to rely on setting up screens and looking for open shots if they want to make it to the Final Four.
Those expecting point guards to cross everything with an opposing jersey will quickly find themselves behind. This new A.I. manages to provide for much more balanced and realistic games (think low scoring, fewer shots from three-point land, etc.) but it, at times, feels a bit too charged. It is not uncommon for CPU opponents to walk away with steals especially if your passes are wild. It can feel a little cheap, especially considering the fact that your teammates tends to hand out wide open three-pointers and baseline lay-ups like holiday fruitcake, while opponents are double-teaming and jumping passing lanes.
For NCAA 09, EA has taken an increased interest in coaching. Every team has been given a particular play style (of the three, up tempo, balanced, and half-court), which corresponds to their team strengths and weaknesses. Half-court teams for instance are constantly looking for short range shots and high percentage scoring, while up-tempo teams are more aggressive and look for fast-break opportunities. Gamers receive attribute boosts to their players for following their team’s tempo strategy, including one of three pregame coaching options selected before games and at the half. A tempo meter (which will take you a moment to decipher if you don’t watch the tutorial videos) sits above the score display and flashes on at various times during the game. Supposedly, this gives you a boost, but I found that I won games just as easily following these as well as ignoring them, though CPU teammates will respond differently if you coach them to box out on all offensive boards during pregame, for instance. For the most part, teams are faithful to their tempo styles, and winning comes down to doing what you can to best control the overall speed of the game.
Controls are responsive, tight, and familiar to anyone who has played earlier NCAA or NBA Live games by EA. For newcomers there is a learning curve, but it’s not terribly steep. This may still hamper their abilities to win considering most games will come down to who can manage the offensive and defensive schemes better.
Online play is restricted in terms of new and interesting modes, one of which (Rival Challenge) amounts to little more than a glorified waiting game, as you search your connection for opponents. Disappointingly, there is only two-player online play (though local play is inexplicably four). EA has apparently not gone out of its way to provide players a real reason to go online.
Though NCAA 09 is probably the first significant NCAA basketball title for next-gen systems, gamers may be just as well served to pick up Live 09 or any other similar title. As it stands, outside of its presentation, there isn’t much to write home about. For the newly enrolled, it’s a solid entry in a familiar and seldom changing formula, for veterans, you may as well skip this class.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
High-def short shorts on unidentifiable college all stars… sweet. 4.0 Control
Tight, but there is a learning curve. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Dicky V is awesome as always, but the music is unnoticeable. Sound FX are insignificant. 3.0 Play Value
The faithful will buy it, everyone else will stick with Live. There’s just not much here besides new rosters and a new game mechanic. 3.5 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.