It’s just one more digitized testament to our national football jones: Training camps don’t start until August, but our football videogames now come out in July. The big dog, EA’s Madden 08, doesn’t take the field for a few more weeks, but we’ve already got two solid options to toss around.
Live in the Michael Vick present or the Joe Montana past with NCAA 08 Football and All Star Football 2K8, two new, very different offerings.
Three years ago, 2K Sports was making a serious gridiron grab for EA’s dynastic dominance with its own bargain-priced football series. Then the NFL inked an exclusive licensing deal with EA, banishing 2K to football obscurity. They’re still cut off from active pros, so the 2K coaching staff opted for a trick-play end-around, resurrecting the Canton canon of retired NFL stars instead.
The roster of stars you can recruit includes players you’d expect (Joe Montana, Barry Sanders), players that leave you scratching your head (Brian Bosworth, Mike Golic) and a player you’d really rather hadn’t made the cut ( O.J. Simpson). You can drop 11 of ’em on your roster—two gold-, three silver- and six bronze-level players. The remaining stars get dispersed randomly throughout your DIY league, leading to bizarre-ass matchups where the defense you sadly neglected has to stop a team featuring Jerry Rice and Warren Moon. Gulp.
Aside from minor complaints (the kicking game is an absolute mess, especially on field goals), the game is as solid and entertaining as it was in 2005. Unfortunately, it’s also stuck where every next-gen sports title was at this point last year, offering great graphics and far too few play modes—single-season is the only choice for folks who aren’t planning to spend all their time playing no-salary cap smashmouth on Xbox Live. Next year will be better. And hey, the way things are going, the cover can feature soon-to-be ex-Falcon Michael Vick.
EA’s NCAA 08 Football, meanwhile, is like the freshman quarterback who struggled to find the open man last year but suddenly looks like the second coming of Matt Leinart. The paltry game modes of 07 have been beefed up to prime-time levels. Campus Legend mode is the new BMOC, starting you off as a player looking to impress college scouts in a high school championship bracket and forcing you to fight through a college depth chart.
Elsewhere, the erratic team momentum meter of last year has been scrapped in favor of something called "motivation," a riff on the player-focused feature in EA’s NCAA hoops game that gives key players stat boosts when they’re kickin’ it with big plays. The Super Sim feature, which lets you fast forward the action through blowouts (or, better still, choose to play only offense or defense) is bloody brilliant, and a great way to blaze through dynasty mode when you don’t have time—and who does?—to play every down of every game.
The pervasive advertising is still annoying as hell—even the achievements smell like Old Spice—but for a game this good, I’m willing to put up with it.