May 10, 2007 - The last time we played NCAA Football 08, Brady Quinn was on the cover of the ESPN NFL Draft guide and flirting with Cleveland to be drafted as the third overall pick. Two weeks later, Quinn is throwing wobbly spirals in the Browns rookie mini-camp after falling to the 22nd overall pick. Two weeks ago, that was about how we described NCAA 08 in our first hands-on session: a wobbly spiral.
Dropped balls, missed blocks, fumbles, fumbles and more fumbles. The game was so early it was almost unplayable, even if we were running up the score against cover athlete Jared Zabransky. But we saw promise. After playing the game Wednesday at an EA press event in San Francisco, we came away thinking one thing: two weeks can make one hell of a difference.
While NCAA 08 is far from completion, EA's college footballer is already a step above 07. Visually, the game isn't as sharp -- helmet reflections are gone and player models are slightly fuzzier than last year. But EA had to make some concessions to get the game running at 60 frames per second, and you will immediately appreciate the difference on the gameplay side. It's faster, twitchier, and closer in style to the superb current-gen titles versus the underwhelming next-gen football efforts from EA.
With a new branching animation system in place, players control much more intuitively. It's almost something you don't notice because it feels right. As West Virginia, Heisman hopeful Steve Slaton hits the hole hard and fast. Without even using the highlight stick, you can now hesitate, cut and accelerate to avoid tackles. It's nice -- we're tired of relying on juke animations to do the work for us. With Slaton, we pounded the ball with off-tackle plays and options, noticing quickly the more stringent fatigue settings. Slaton had to take a breather after four consecutive runs, but we don't blame him. He's a horse. But more impressive was how well running and blocking worked together -- you actually need to read and follow blocks. Taking a sweep outside is fun as you look for the right opportunity to cut up field.
We then booted up a quick game with Arkansas to check out all world athlete Darren McFadden, possibly the favorite to win the Heisman next season (and the only 99-rated player in the game this year). Just the day before, EA inserted the Wildcat formation in which McFadden, a tailback by trade, gets under center as quarterback in a shotgun formation. Most of the plays operate on a fly sweep motion as the flanker to the left sprints in motion to the right. McFadden takes the snap just as the receiver reaches him and will either hand off on the sweep or go into play action or run the ball himself. Sadly, the sweep pass was busted and no passing icons flashed on a receiver -- a bug EA says will be ironed out, of course. Still, even getting in the Wildcat formation is a feat in itself and we can't wait to check out some of the playbooks around the nation, starting with wacky Air Force.
The final thing we noticed was the improved AI of defensive backs. Corner routes are no longer money plays -- if you want to connect, you'll need to time the pass in the window against a vulnerable defensive formation like a cover two. If you wait too long, the safety will be in position to make a break on the ball. Switching mid-pass to take control of the safety felt intuitive and we nabbed a few errant passes from our friends over at GameSpy. What currently needs a little work is controlling corners that are covering receivers on streak routes. A few times we switched to take control of a cornerback running along side a receiver and pressed down to turn and face an oncoming pass. But instead of a breaking down and turning sharply, he made a lazy, circular turn and took himself out of position. EA recommends using the hit stick to knock the ball loose, but we always go for the ball first. We'd also like to see more jump balls on fade routes as big receivers try to leap over smaller corners in the endzone. Nothing yet though.
There's still a lot of work to be done, but we'll be there to keep you up to date with more gameplay impressions.