IGN Review of NCAA Basketball 09
When people think about mid-November sports, college basketball is likely far from their minds. After all, the collegiate season really doesn't heat up until next year when March gets a bit closer. Still, that never stops EA Sports from putting out their perennial collegiate basketball game to coincide with the beginning of the college schedule. This is the first time in more than ten years that the title of the game doesn't include "March Madness" but that doesn't stop the game from feeling very familiar.
Part of that is because NCAA Basketball 09 is built on the same game engine as NBA Live; a first for the series. It's a good thing too as that helped the game to quicken its pace from the slow and prodding speed of March Madness 08. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty to improve about NCAA Basketball 09, but the series is finally beginning to hit its stride in some of the core areas of the sport.
The first, and most evident for me, improvement is the fast break. Players do a much better job of recognizing when their momentum needs to carry through a catch animation and no longer break stride as has been the case in the past. There's also better range when using the lay-up button close to the basket. You'll now see a wider variety of shot animations, most of which were clearly pulled straight from NBA Live 09. The gameplay incorporates other NBA Live nuances (like the overly dominant pick-and-roll control) but also tries its best to not forget its college roots.
It's just a shame that the features focused around the authenticity of the college game don't exactly hit their mark. There are two that impact gameplay: tempo and coach interaction. There are three types of tempo that are applied to every team in the game: up-tempo, balanced and half-court. If you successfully keep the tempo of the game within your desired range then your players get an attribute boost. Their shots start to fall a bit easier, passes are crisper, and other aspects of the game fall into place if you play your game. Tempo is displayed through a meter that pops up on the screen, so you're constantly reminded of how to adjust your game.
I found that the up-tempo play style was the most conducive to my skills. The tempo meter did a decent job of making its adjustments slight enough so one slow possession wouldn't kill my bonus entirely. There are also coaching tips that are displayed in a picture-in-picture box at the start of nearly every possession. Between that and the meter, there's never a question of how you adjust your speed of play. It can be frustrating to watch your attribute bonus fade at the end of the game, when the pace of the game is inherently slower. These frustrations were exacerbated when grappling for a lead during the last few minutes of a game. Of course it's going to be slower, yet my coach was still yelling at me to push the ball even when it didn't make sense to do so. Likewise, when playing with a huge lead your coach won't stop yelling to adjust your pace.
The coaching options go a bit deeper and now give players the ability to designate three points of focus for a game. There are no bonuses tied to following the guidelines, but more often than not if you follow through on your goals, you'll get the win.
You'd be hard-pressed to find any other additions to the standard gameplay formula. Crowds look better and deliver a more authentic feel, but by the time you hear them chant "warm up the buses" for the last two minutes of a game for the hundredth time, it starts to wear thin. There's nothing resembling NBA Live's DNA system, nor is there five-on-five online play. Heck, you can't even easily make substitution changes. Typically there are packages like "starters" or "three-point shooters" that you can select during a timeout, but NCAA Basketball 09 has none of it. Instead you have to swap out players individually without knowing who your starters are. You can pause the game and find starters the long way, but where's the fun in that?
The dynasty mode is still where players will spend most of their time, but NCAA Basketball 09 does feature a cool Tournament of Legends that pits 64 classic teams against one another in a quest for dominance. It's not a long endeavor, but it is fun to see Michael Jordan running around in those short shorts circa 1982.
Dynasty mode, as you probably expect, isn't all that dissimilar to what was seen last year. You can now create a coach but the creation mechanic isn't nearly as deep as what is in other EA Sports games. You pick from a set of models and outfits instead of sculpting brows and lip sizes. Recruiting is the same as you remember, school customizations are identical to last year, as is the ESPNU presentation. It's disappointing to find what is essentially an identical mode from last year, especially when it's expected to be the most entertaining the game has to offer.
Thankfully the aforementioned gameplay additions that came over from NBA Live make NCAA 09 feel fresh, especially if the only basketball game you played last season was March Madness 08. Controls are tighter with fewer "on rails" animations and the defensive side of the ball feels a bit more natural with the elimination of the lockdown stick from last year. I would have liked to see them push beyond what NBA Live 09 brought to the table rather than falling short, but with much of this year's development cycle likely spent on porting engine, we'll just have to wait until next year to see more impressive expansion. One thing that absolutely, positively needs to be removed from NCAA is the shooting mechanic which isn't tied to the timing of your button press at all. A three year old can walk and hold the shoot button and have the same chance of making it as me. Is that really fair or skill-based in any way?
Graphically NCAA 09 appears to have seen little improvements from last year. Player models look relatively the same and are frail as ever and there aren't a lot of differences in presentation aside from the new tempo meter and coach picture-in-picture. What you will notice is a much better looking crowd that mixes up character models and animations to a greater degree than in last year's outing. The speed of the game has also been taken up a notch and feels much better and more authentic to the college brand of ball.
Of course the audio is driven by Dick Vitale, Brad Nessler and Erin Andrews (who really needs to have her own player model) who spout off insightful quips whenever possible. They're forced to be fairly nondescript thanks to the lack of player names, but they do the best they can given the limitations. Crowd noise pumps along with the action and you'll hear chants and cheers throughout. "Warm up the buses" gets extremely annoying after awhile but all in all the audio in NCAA 09 serves the sport well.
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