Complete with a name, and engine change, EA sports NCAA Basketball 2009 arrives on store shelves as the only option for college b-ball fans looking for their fix. Being unchallenged by the College Hoops series this year hasn’t deterred EA from making some big changes to the gameplay in NCAA 2009, however, as for the first time the game shares an engine with NBA Live. This swap provides some great enhancements to the gameplay, but disappointingly, that evolution did not apply to all areas of the game.
First things first, NCAA has all the trappings you’ve come to expect from the series, including participation from all the Division 1 teams. EA really does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the college game, right down to the addition this year of real college coaches, from Patino to Coach K they’ll march the sidelines and bark orders like their real life counterparts. There is no doubt that little touches like these, as well as actual arenas and rowdy fans, really add a great deal of realism to the visual side of the game.
Detracting from this realism, however, are the disappointing graphics that (while continually improving) leave the game a step behind its big brother NBA Live. The player models feature pretty decent facial motion and modeling, but the body models are very lackluster and make most players look like they just came off a forty day hunger strike. EA has added a ton of new animations to this years game, and while most of them function great, a few of them need some tweaking. Several times during my play time with the game, I experienced times when being stuck in an animation caused me to lose control of my player, or miss a scoring opportunity. This isn’t a constant problem, but it is persistent enough to become an annoyance.
The game features the full gamut of traditional single player modes. Dynasty mode allows you to create a coach and get to work recruiting, planning, and coaching your way to championship glory. Unfortunately, the options available in the create-a-coach are very lackluster, and overall Dynasty mode is largely unchanged from last years version. That doesn’t stop it from being a blast to play, however, and it’s easily the most consuming of the options available to you. Also, EA has added a new Tournament of Legends mode which allows you to play a 64 team tournament made up of some of the greatest teams to ever play the game. This mode is a great addition, and adds a lot of fun for true fans of the sport.
The gameplay in this years version feels like a significant step up from last years somewhat sluggish offering. The engine switch has added a much more realistic pace to the game, and made it possible to more realistically control the flow of the game. This point can’t be overemphasized, due to the new focus on tempo.
Controlling the tempo of the game is a huge new addition to the gameplay of NCAA 2009. Each team has its own ideal tempo, whether it’s the deliberate Half-Court style, the run and gun Up-Tempo style or the “couldn’t be more aptly named” Balanced style. Playing to your teams strength will result in attribute bonuses to your team, conversely if you let your opponent control the pace you’ll quickly notice how much more difficult it is to score. This is an interesting twist on the momentum factor of past games, and it works surprisingly well thanks to the aforementioned NBA Live engine.
Also new this year is a revamped play calling system. The game does a great job of recreating the sport of college basketball, which means you won’t just be able to fast break to the hole every time or hang out and drain three’s uncontested. You really have to work the ball to get open shots, which makes the accuracy of the play calling system very important. On the higher difficulty levels especially, you’ll spend a lot of time on the short end of the scoreboard if you don’t make calling plays a priority. This system works into the tempo balancing as well, as what the deliberate Half-Court style lacks in flash and overwhelming speed, it makes up for in increased time to set up your offensive plays and take more productive shots.
Adding in to the notion that open shots to not come easy in D1 basketball, you’ll also have a new Pick and Roll control that allows you to basically control two players at once. Holding the L button on offense will call for a pick, the other player will set the pick, and then roll to the basket when L is released. This play, if correctly executed, will set up either a nice position under the basket or an open shot on the perimeter. This mechanic is implemented fairly well, although I did have some issues with players not setting picks in the correct position to intercept my defender.
Unfortunately, not all is sunny on the gameplay front in NCAA 2009. Unfortunately, some issues with the directional passing cause frustrating turnovers. Often you’ll press the stick in the direction of the player you want to pass to, only to have the ball go to a completely different player. The frustration level is amplified when the pass goes to a player that’s double teamed, and the ball is stolen. There is a direct pass option, which alleviates these problems considerably, but the system makes ball movement feel more clunky than smooth and focused. I also experienced some frustrating instances where my opponent would pass the ball directly through my defender, with the ball not being intercepted or even stopped on its trajectory through my player (who apparently has the consistency of a character from Ghost).
Shooting consistency often feels accurate, and you’ll have considerably fewer “cheap” misses than in the past. However, on a personal note, I was disappointed that the system that required you to press the shoot button and hold it till the top of your jump for maximum accuracy is absent from this years version. It’s been replaced by a simple button press, which may be a blessing for some, but for veterans it takes a considerable amount of the skill out of the perimeter game. The free throw mechanic is based around holding the shoot button until a decreasing meter of red reaches the green area. It’s solid and mostly accurate, but I prefer the “hold the button till the top of the release” mechanic for free throws as well.
As is typical with EA Sports games, the sound quality is top notch. The commentary (complete with input from sideline reporter Erin Andrews) is top notch, and keeps up with the pace of the game very well. The crowd noise is spot on as well, although some of the chants are overused.
The game features some great multiplayer content, including all the modes you would expect from a modern sports title. The best addition, however, is the rivalry mode. When you first start the game, you’ll be asked to create a profile. While creating the profile, you’ll select your favorite team. You’ll then, at any time during the menu screens of the game, be able to click the R stick to see what gamers are online that have a rival team as their favorite. You’ll instantly be able to challenge them to a showdown to prove your team’s superiority. This mode is really fun, and adds another wrinkle to your motivation to win the game.
Overall, while the game is a significant improvement over last years version, it’s disappointing that many of the problems with the game weren’t ironed out. The game does so many things great, from the tempo control to the incredibly deep dynasty mode. If EA can get some of the nagging gameplay issues under control, they’ve laid the groundwork for a very good next season.