NCAA Basketball Hands-On Preview

We set the tempo with our latest look at EA's latest college basketball game.

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While March Madness office pools may still epitomize guesswork and a multitude of options, the nature of college basketball gaming is relatively simple. With 2K's withdrawal from the market, EA's NCAA Basketball 09 represents the only college basketball game hitting the shelves this holiday season. We had a chance to get some hands-on time with the game to see what we can expect from the game this year.

Expect to see lots of aggressive defense, especially from up-tempo teams.
Expect to see lots of aggressive defense, especially from up-tempo teams.

For the first time, EA's college basketball game uses the same gameplay engine as the one used in the NBA Live series. New features in NBA Live 09, such as advanced pick-and-roll control and quick-strike ankle breakers, will make their debut in the college game along with more than 1,000 new animations. Some animations, specifically those related to trapping and full-court pressure, weren't even included in NBA Live. Others have since been tweaked based on user feedback to improve responsiveness and provide smoother transitions.

Use of the Live engine has also allowed EA's NCAA team to focus its efforts on features that are specific to the college game. This includes more than 400 actual fan chants, 200 of which are team-specific, and the game includes the actual arenas of each of the 328 Division I schools. The in-game commentary crew of Brad Nessler, Dick Vitale, and Erin Andrews does a solid job of providing team and situation-specific insight. Even the crowd's reaction to the action on the court contributes to creating an atmosphere that is unique to the college game.

The most significant addition to NCAA Basketball 09, though, is the introduction of team tempo. Each team in NCAA Basketball 09 has one of three tempos at which it excels: half-court, balanced, and up-tempo. Half-court teams, such as Kentucky, excel in their half-court offense by utilizing the shot clock on their possessions, while up-tempo teams, such as North Carolina, prefer to trap aggressively and get out in transition. In addition to CPU-controlled teams playing more like their real-life counterparts, NCAA Basketball adds another twist to ensure users play in a way that is consistent with their team's style. Based on the disparity between your team's ideal tempo and the actual pace of the game, your team may shoot a lower percentage, commit more turnovers, or fatigue faster. While these factors aren't impossible to overcome, they are noticeable enough that playing at your ideal tempo (and forcing your opponent to do the same) is a primary focus.

Prior to the start of every game, you will be able to select three focal points related to your team's ideal tempo and vital to your team's success. For instance, one such focal point for an up-tempo team is keeping average possession time low. The focal points you choose will be tracked throughout the game, and the game will provide updates on how well both teams have followed their respective tenets.

In addition to focal points, NCAA Basketball 09 introduces coach feedback to keep you appraised of your team's performance and the changes you need to be make. Thanks to a partnership with the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), the game includes most of the actual coaches providing various in-game tips, such as "We need to get out in transition" or "That was a quality look; those shots will fall." While experienced players may think that many of the tips are obvious, coach feedback provides helpful reminders (such as when to substitute players) that keep newcomers on track.

Another new feature in NCAA Basketball 09 (now made possible via the NCAA license) is the inclusion of 64 of the greatest teams in college basketball history. These teams are available for quickplay, online, and March Madness-esque tournaments to see which team really was the greatest of all time. The teams even include their authentic throw-back jerseys, short shorts and all.

Coach, I hear what you’re sayin’, but I gots to get mine.
Coach, I hear what you’re sayin’, but I gots to get mine.

Other new features include an expanded Dynasty mode, where recruiting is similar to the recruiting in NCAA Football 09 with options to develop program pipelines, manage recruits, and compare future classes. The implementation of EA Locker 3.0 also allows you to share files and create players online with others. There's even a new rivalry feature where you are notified whenever a rival team signs in online (if you select North Carolina as your favorite team, you will be notified when a Duke player logs on), and you are allowed to challenge your rival to a quick game.

While EA's decision to utilize the same gameplay engine across both of its basketball franchises seems like a logical step to reduce redundant development, it may also detract gamers who prefer NBA 2K9's gameplay. Despite unique animations and the introduction of tempo, NCAA Basketball 09 still includes a few arcade-style elements (such as ease of inside scoring), as well as frustrating issues (such as getting pulled into animations) that have plagued the NBA Live franchise for years. The Xbox 360 and PS3 demo for NCAA Basketball 09 was released this week ahead of the game's retail release on November 17. Stay tuned for GameSpot's full review of the game after its release.

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