Name: NCAA Basketball 09
Genre: Sports - College Basketball
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
It’s mid-November, and that means it’s time for the pageantry, tradition and hard-court action of college basketball. Usually, in addition to actual NCAA basketball, there are two games every year to quench hoop-heads’ thirst for virtual basketball action; EA’s NCAA Basketball series (formerly NCAA March Madness), and 2K’s College Hoops series. This year, however, 2K failed to get a game out, leaving EA’s offering uncontested for college b-ball supremacy. Will this extra breathing room cause developer EA Canada to rest on its laurels, or will the extra attention lead to new innovations and improved gameplay?
Like it does every year, NCAA Basketball 09 draws a lot from its big brother, NBA Live 09. Controls are essentially the same, the game looks almost identical, with the exception of college uniforms, and both games feel roughly alike. That said, there are some differences in the gameplay. As it is in real life, NCAA Basketball 09 is just a little slower-paced than the NBA game. Fast break points aren’t nearly as prevalent in the college game, and that is reflected in the game. Likewise, players are less able to burn past defenders using the right analog-mapped Quick Strike moves, meaning you’ll need to pay more attention to what the rest of your team is doing. Trying to run a one man show in NCAA 09 amounts to basketball suicide, as the man-to-man defense is far tougher to contend with than in Live. Fundamental basketball is the order of the day, and utilizing prudent, real-world strategies will usually reward players with positive results.
Also helping to differentiate the game from its pro counterpart are a couple of new features. Each team in the game has an ideal game tempo at which they will perform at their best; half-court (slow), balanced, and fast-break (fast). To help you stick to your team’s ideal pace, a tempo meter appears after most possessions to alert you if you’re not using the shot clock the way your coach likes. The coach himself will occasionally pop in and give feedback as well. These interludes are often surprisingly helpful, as the coach seems to have a good idea what will work best for his team. Playing into the importance of tempo, NCAA 09 also allows you to set goals for your team before each game. These goals are specific to your team’s ideal tempo; slower teams will have the goal of averaging over 25 seconds per possession, while faster teams may seek to avoid foul trouble throughout the contest. These small improvements go a long way toward making the game feel like a college basketball game, and not just a basketball game.
While NCAA 09 may not look quite as fluid as NBA Live 09, it is still a nice looking game. There is certainly a step down in quality for the game’s character models, with a lower poly-count and less impressive texturing, but players still look good, just not as stunning as they do in EA’s pro game. The animation set of each player is also stripped down a bit, but there do seem to be some new animations on the defensive side of the ball, as well as during screens and pick plays. Again, these add to the distinct “team-first” mentality of the game, and overall, players move pretty much the way they should. With over 200 teams from over 30 conferences, there are a ton of stadiums, mascots, crowds and cheerleaders that EA Canada needed to render, and they have done an excellent job. Every stadium looks exactly like its real-world counterpart, mascots are accurate and suitably full of inspirational/annoying energy, and crowds are not only convincing visually, they also react appropriately to different game situations.
As we’ve come to expect from annual team sports titles, NCAA Basketball 09 features an exhibition mode, a dynasty mode, online play, and a tournament mode. Dynasty mode is a fully fleshed out career mode, complete with preseason tournaments, superstars who depart early for the draft, and recruiting violations. Online, players are pretty much at the mercy of their connection to the opponent. If it’s a good connection, expect a fun, fluid college b-ball experience that will keep you coming back over and over again. It it’s not a good connection, be prepared for random drop-outs, freezes, frame rate drops and serious lagginess that will make sure you have no chance of enjoying the game. Tournament mode allows you to create and play through your own NCAA Tournament, as well as preseason tournaments like the NIT Season Tip-Off and the Old Spice Classic Tournament. New for this season is the Tournament of Legends. This mode lets you participate in a tournament comprised of 64 of the best teams to ever compete in the NCAA Tourney. The ability to create dream match-ups like Christian Laettner’s 1992 Duke Blue Devils vs. Lew Alcindor’s 1968 UCLA Bruins makes this mode one of the biggest and best new additions to the franchise.
Overall, NCAA Basketball 09 feels a lot like NBA Live 09 with a few new additions, a coat of college-colored paint, and some slightly toned down visuals. Despite some technical glitches (at one point, I took a time out, and the screen didn’t go back to showing the game until I had already been called for a 5-second in-bound violation), it’s a tight package from top to bottom. Obviously, since there is no other option this year, college hoops fans will have no choice but to pick up NCAA 09. Luckily, this year, that’s not such a bad thing, as EA’s game has taken a huge leap forward from last year. 2K has some catching up to do once it decides to re-enter the college b-ball arena again.