Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: November 17, 2008
While many sports fans are busy arguing about what a ridiculous system the Bowl Championship Series is when it comes to crowning a college football champion, basketball enthusiasts have migrated over to the hardwood and are currently enrapt by the opening strains of the NCAA college basketball symphony. In a sport where momentum swings happen in a flash and upsets are not only dreamt of but are expected, the legions of Cameron Crazies and Rock, Chalk Jayhawks are packing into arenas across the country to root their classmates on to the win. For those wishing to relive the experience digitally, this year, your only choice is NCAA Basketball 09; and while the spirit is there, this is one Cinderella who is just a few key players short of making it to the ball.
First off, EA has dropped the March Madness moniker from the series, most likely because its franchise is now the only game in town. In traditional EA fashion, the company has bought up exclusive NCAA basketball rights, leaving perennial competitor 2K Sports high and dry without a roundball game to call its own. What EA could have done here is present a highly polished, sublimely enjoyable game that made us forget all about 2K and not lament the fact that we no longer have a choice, but instead they turned in a respectable, yet not entirely impressive, effort that will tide fans over until next year's edition.
One of the biggest new mechanics in this year's game is the idea of tempo. As basketball fans know, different teams like to play different styles of games; some push hard up the court trying to get a quick shot off before the defense can set, and others hang back and methodically working the ball around, looking for the lapse in defense that grants the wide open shot. EA has chosen to capture the heart of this with a new tempo meter, which visually represents the pace of the current game, as well as what each team would like it to be. Even better, when a team is playing within its tempo, it gets some nice boosts, such as seeing more shots fall or making more defensive stops. Also, since the tempo of the game is constantly in flux, it becomes quite an enjoyable game within a game to watch the needle on the meter go up and down and show you whether you need to be running and gunning or slowing it down and taking it easy.
Further aiding gamers on the court is real-time coach feedback, which brings up the digital likeness of your school's actual coach to give you pointers on how to play a more effective game. Windows will pop up from time to time letting you know if you're playing within your tempo, if you need to bring in some subs or if your defense just isn't quite right to match your opponent's offensive style of play. Overall, the tips are really quite helpful without being intrusive, and there's just something about Coach K clapping his hands and demanding that your team hustle that makes you want to put a little extra spring in your step.
Unfortunately, not all the new additions work so perfectly, as a few game mechanics would have been better left on the drawing board. For example, NCAA Basketball 09 is trying to follow in the footsteps of its NBA brethren by introducing "quick strike ankle breakers," which are basically isolation moves meant to allow you to blow by the defense. The main problem with the system is that it's very inconsistent; some games work too well, while other games are nearly useless. After a while, you may forget you have them entirely, as their spottiness leads them to be a largely useless tool.
Aside from that, there are a few other gameplay issues that seem a bit broken, namely defense and the pick and roll. AI defensive help is often nonexistent, and teammates are more likely to watch a player who is not their assigned man blow by for an easy dunk than step over and take a charge or try and get a hand in his face. The obvious solution is to switch to a zone defense, but with this setup, weakside defenders easily get caught out of position, giving up way too many easy three-point shots. On the offensive side of things, we see the other side of the coin, with the always-overpowered pick and roll rearing its head once more. This move has always been an Achilles heel for the EA franchise, consistently allowing too many easy offensive buckets because of the defense's inability to react and adjust to the move. While it's an effective tool for running up the score, it's also incredibly cheap.
The other major potential turnoff for gamers is lack of available online or offline modes. Single-player is devoted nearly exclusively to Dynasty mode, wherein you take the reins of a program over a set period of years and try to mold them into the greatest school to ever play the game. In addition to normal game day responsibilities, you are also required to recruit new players (in a manner that has basically been recycled from last year's game), set the game plan for upcoming matchups, and manage school spirit by upgrading facilities. It's a very deep mode to be sure, but it's also not that appealing to those who don't like to micromanage. You can't let AI assistants handle the minutiae of recruiting and upgrading, so you're forced to spend more time remodeling the gym and figuring out which high school prospects to target than you are actually playing the game. For those who love the general manager sims of the pro games, this is right up your alley, but for those just looking to play ball, there's a whole lot of other clutter to sort through.
Perhaps the biggest sin NCAA Basketball 09 commits when it comes to options is a sin of omission. Unlike every sports game on the market, there is no "Be a Superstar" mode. At no point can you choose to create a high school athlete and then guide that player through a college program and into the NBA Draft. NCAA Football has been doing this for years with its Campus Legend mode and transferring draft classes into Madden, so why the basketball version has chosen to forgo this opportunity is simply incomprehensible.
Online play is paltry too, allowing only one-on-one games with full squadrons. Unlike NBA Live, which allows 10 different players to join in for true five-on-five matchups, NCAA Basketball 09 only lets two people in on the action, severely limiting the fun. Once again, another game from the same publisher has a more robust online option, so what's keeping it from appearing in this title?
On the presentation side, NCAA Basketball 09 has gotten a big boost thanks to its switch to the NBA Live engine. Players and their animations look great, and the arenas and fans are positively amazing. On top of all that, EA has done a great job capturing the emotion of college hoops, with fans breaking into school-specific chants and big points in the game or going deathly silent when the visitors hit a big three-pointer in clutch time. The spirit of the game is well-represented, and you'll likely find yourself roaring and bouncing along with all the crazed fans and hyped-up players.
While the engine is great, there are a few hiccups that hurt the experience fairly significantly. For one thing, there is often a delay between a button input and a player's action, often leading to poor shots and ill-advised passes. Players seem to be forced through entire animations, so as your big center turns to take a jump shot or your guard flashes open, the amount of time it takes for you to get the ball where it needs to be and put up the shot often means that the defense has already closed and what was once a wide-open jumper is now a tightly contested attempt. While I can appreciate the eye toward realism, it would serve the game well for future iterations to focus more on quick movements and the ability to react to situations with speed and urgency.
The other big issue is with passing, as it seems to be a bit of a mess on both ends of the court. When on an offensive fast break, players seem to continuously and inexplicably throw the ball behind their teammate, forcing you to break stride and catch the ball, often allowing a trailing defense to catch up. Also, you had better get used to the icon passing feature, because if you try to simply point the control stick where you want to go and press A, you're going to end up throwing the ball to the wrong guy a lot. On defense, there seems to be an overabundance of steals, and they're all basically random. Frequently, even if you're playing the passing lanes perfectly and timing your button presses exactly right, the ball will still fly right on by the hands of its intended target. At other moments, defenders will suddenly leap out of nowhere to swat a pass away and set off a mad scramble for the ball. It's strange, but perhaps EA felt that since steals and fast breaks create excitement, then it would be in their best interest to make sure they were available in spades.
In spite of its flaws, though, NCAA Basketball 09 is still a very enjoyable game that will sit very well with fans of the sport. The new tempo-driven gameplay is quite ingenious, and I can't think of a game that does a better job of getting the feel of college basketball just right. Most of my gripes with the game come from a number of small technical flaws which, if fixed, could lead to the creation of a sporting classic. If EA is willing to add some more gameplay modes, tweak the title's engine and throw in a few surprises, then the 2010 squad could easily go to the big dance. As for this year's entry, expect it to bow out in the first or second round.
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