NEW YORK CITY--With just two days to go before the NFL makes a whole new crop of former NCAA football stars into pro football stars in the 2007 NFL Draft, EA Sports kicked off NCAA Football 08 with an unveiling at a posh New York City restaurant, full of media, game producers, and potential draftees. Athletes and hangers-on abounded, but our first priority of the evening was getting our grubby paws on a playable build of NCAA 08. We first saw the game a few weeks ago at EA's annual press event in Orlando--home of EA Tiburon, the development studio behind both NCAA and Madden--and were excited to finally try the game out for ourselves.
Our first stop along the way in our 10-minute session with the game was to fire up a match between the Auburn Tigers and the Washington Huskies to see how the much-vaunted new animation system is affecting gameplay. And though the version of the game we played was still early in the development process, the new animations were on fine display in the game. There were the small but noticeable touches such as new catching animations for receivers--for instance, hauling in the ball while falling to the ground--as well as new celebration moves.
The bigger change could be felt in the responsiveness of the players in the game. Players felt more nimble and quick to respond to the slightest change in direction when using the analog stick. Producers are chalking this up to some sophisticated new branching animation technology, which is being built into the core football engine that powers both NCAA 08 and Madden NFL 08. Instead of players being "stuck" to the longer animations of their on-field players, branching animation will let you break out of an animation and into an entirely new set of moves. As one producer explained, "Why should you have to wait for an animation to finish?"
Some of the other cool news for the game revolved around the improved artificial intelligence we noted in our last preview, especially with regard to the wide receivers. While the preview build of the game was suffering from a noticeable "dropsies" bug (which will surely be ironed out by release), there was no denying that the receivers were playing position better than we'd seen in a while. Wideouts routinely squared their shoulders to the defender covering them, getting in front of the ball, and then spinning up field to gain extra yards. AI-controlled running backs were quicker to spin or juke away from trouble.
Late in the first quarter, we drove the ball into the end zone against the Huskies on a gorgeous crossing pass from Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox to the outstretched hands of receiver Rod Smith, a perfect play to experiment with using NCAA 08's new highlight replay feature. After pausing the game, we were taken to a menu that let us choose from any previous play in the game. We chose the touchdown pass by pressing the X button on the Xbox 360 controller and were then allowed to choose from one of four camera angles to view the replay from (broadcast, wire, press box, and sideline, as well as an additional "random" option).
Once you've chosen your camera angle, you'll have the option to save the play to your NCAA 08 "shrine." Your shrine will save up to five video highlights you've recorded, as well as a number of "photos" of your recent games, which are taken automatically during the game. If you have an especially cool replay, you can even save it as a video file and upload it to the Internet to share with your friends.
Another cool feature is a new take on the defensive hit stick, one that is designed to even the score between different-sized players. By pressing down on the right analog stick when tackling a ball carrier, you can cause your defenseman to go low and attempt to take out a bigger opponent's legs--a crucial weapon to have if you're looking to bring down a fullback with a small defensive back, for example. The hurdle button has also returned, allowing you to leap over players with a touch of the Y button. As a counter, your opponent will have be able to use the other new ability with the revamped hit stick--the ability to hit high by pushing up on the right analog stick.
A slightly tweaked interface and menu system presents NCAA 08's playbooks in a slightly different manner, which took some getting used to. One of the other big new features in the game, the motivation levels, was also present in the game, but it wasn't really that evident in our brief time with the game. To check your team's individual motivation levels, you zoom out on the field by pressing the trigger button and then push down with the right analog stick. A small circle surrounds each of your players on the field, color-coded to match his intensity level. We didn't have enough time to send any of our players into the zone, but when asked about the system, producers confirmed to us that while "in the zone" players will give a boost to all players on their team, the individual attribute boosts won't immediately turn the team into the second coming of the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Instead, the boosts will be modest, but noticeable, improvements to whatever your players' base attributes are.
We would have loved to have spent the entire night huddled in the corner, checking out all the nooks and crannies of NCAA Football 08, but it wasn't long before former NCAA stars like JaMarcus Russell and Adrian Peterson came along, looking to try the game out for themselves. And who's going to argue with a guy the size of Russell? Rest assured that we'll be bringing you much more on NCAA 08 in the coming months, including some detailed looks at the game's revamped Campus Legend and dynasty modes.