In addition to NFL exclusivity, it seems that EA Sports has now cornered the market on college basketball games. This time, though, it has nothing to do with shady deals that cut other publishers out of the picture. Instead, EA has gained its college hoops monopoly by attrition. Last year, 2K Sports opted not to produce a college basketball game, and despite rumors to the contrary, the same holds true for this year. With the College Hoops series out of the way, EA is the only player left on the court. While this is made evident by NCAA Basketball 10’s lack of innovation, EA has still crafted a mostly enjoyable, if flawed, college basketball experience.
Ostensibly, NCAA Basketball 10 isn’t much different than last year’s model. With a few exceptions, the control scheme hasn‘t changed much from 09. The new controls include a freestyle passing mechanic that allows players to pass one way while moving another by holding the left trigger and flicking the right analog stick. It’s a little tough to master, but skilled players will be able to utilize it for some dazzling assists that can seriously demoralize opponents. The game also provides more opportunities to control players off the ball, including off-ball switches and the ability to control pass recipients before they receive a pass. Minor changes to the dribbling system have been made, making it easier to perform go moves, crossovers and stepbacks, and a “Size-up” move has been added. This is accomplished by holding the right trigger while facing up an opponent on the outside, and is supposed to make players’ dribble moves more effective. In all the times I’ve used the move, however, it has never helped me to penetrate the defense or gain separation from my defender, and only served to kill clock. Perhaps the biggest change to the game’s mechanics is the new focus on momentum. Players now do a much better job of maintaining momentum when receiving passes, leading to a more fluid experience and more realistic full-court offenses.
Other than these few new additions, the core basketball experience is very similar to last year, and therefore, very similar to NBA Live. Sadly, many of last year’s flaws are still present, and, in some cases, even more prevalent. Last year, the issue of players stepping out of bounds with the ball was a minor one that only popped up occasionally. This year, players will frequently run out for no good reason, or even stand out of bounds as they receive passes. The same holds true for backcourt violations, which occur far too frequently. Other AI problems are more in line with what we’ve grown used to from the series; ball-handlers ignoring defenders as they steal balls, wide-open, streaking offensive players refusing to continue towards the basket on breakaways, and incessant late-game fouling in situations where the team isn’t helped by them. The latter problem is just as annoying as it ever was, and the fact that EA still hasn’t fixed this problem is ridiculous. Many players complain about the responsiveness of EA’s basketball games, and this game will do nothing to convince the critics otherwise. Especially in the low post, players feel sluggish and unresponsive, and don’t move as fluidly or quickly as they should with the ball. Most infuriatingly, low post players will occasionally simply ignore commands completely, because the computer AI has decided that they are in a preset animation. There are also some instances where players will lose control of the ball for seemingly no reason, again, usually in the low-post. In general, play under the basket is disappointing and less realistic than the guard play.
NCAA Basketball 10 offers a new strategic element that is distinct to college basketball, the motion offense. In addition to an ideal team tempo, each team has a default motion offense. A quick tap of the left bumper will set your teammates in motion to free up shooters and create space on the court. Holding down the bumper will bring up a menu of different offenses that can be run. Learning your team’s offense and how to execute it is vital to success in the game, but the only tutorial for these offenses comes in the form of a video presentation buy Villanova coach Jay Wright. The video does a poor job of explaining the offenses, and non-basketball experts will likely have to practice them quite a bit to get them down, or research them on the internet to learn their intricacies. The game really should have done a better job of teaching players to run the motion offense, and its failure to do so hurts its accessibility.
NCAA Basketball 10 represents only an incremental improvement in graphics over its predecessor, but its overall visual presentation is boosted by the dual broadcast integration. For the first time, in-game versions of two different television networks are responsible for presenting games. On-screen graphics from both CBS and ESPN will show up, and each network’s music and broadcast format are recreated perfectly. Likewise, the game features two sets of announcers; CBS’ Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, and ESPN’s Brad Nessler an Dick Vitale. While the visual presentation is excellent, potentially convincing casual observers that they are watching a real game, the announcers are extremely repetitive. It almost seems like EA used the same amount of phrases from last year’s game, but split them between two broadcast teams, resulting in a significantly less robust array of phrases for each. It’s a real shame that such excellent broadcast graphics are somewhat negated by constant recurring lines of play-by-play dialogue. On the court, the action looks a whole lot like last year’s. There are a few new animations, like shooters tumbling to the ground after certain lay-ups in heavy traffic, and the new momentum system looks good in motion, but for the most part, it’s not much of a change. At least the crowd looks nice.
Where NCAA Basketball 10 feels thinnest is in its game modes. There’s “Play Now,” which lets you play now, a dynasty mode of up to 10 years, and a Tournament mode. Dynasty mode presents a full-featured college program, complete with high school recruiting, injuries, and underclassmen leaving for the NBA. In Tournament mode, up to 64 players can take the team of their choice through the NCAA Tournament or any of five different preseason tournaments. This is probably the most fun to play, just as March Madness is far more fun to watch than the regular season. Inexplicably, the mode has no online functionality, meaning that you’ll need to play with those 63 friends on your couch, which could get crowded depending on the size of your couch…and your friends. Online, the options are even fewer. There’s the self-explanatory Quick Play, custom ranked and unranked matches, and Rival Challenge, which will automatically set players up against a player using a rival team. That’s it. The lack of any sort of online league, pretty much a standard for sports games at this point, seriously hurts the game’s value. All of the modes are supported by the game’s Dynamic Updates, which keep player and team stats accurate throughout the season. As of the writing of this review (lauch day), the Dynamic Updates are not yet working, but if they're are anything like the system that NBA Live 09 used, though, it should be a great benefit to the game. Players who use high-level teams like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Duke will notice that their crowds become extremely vocal, often shaking the arena and the screen. This is part of NCAA Basketball 10’s “Top 25 Toughest Places to Play” system, which makes certain home courts more hostile to opponents than others. The system helps give games that “college” feel, but doesn’t impact gameplay too much.
NCAA Basketball 10 is a satisfactory college basketball game, but its AI and gameplay issues keep it from being a standout, the lack of game modes keep it from being a great value for the money, and the absence of any “hook” to catch fans’ attention may make it a financial failure. There are some new features in that may convince hardcore hoops fans to pick it up, but for casual players, it’s just not different enough from last year’s offering. Like in any sports game, the presence of competition in the genre helps make games better. Without it, publishers are more content to rest on their laurels and offer incremental updates that don’t innovate or improve the games enough. This is only the second year that EA has run unopposed in the genre, so the game is still decent, but it’s already starting to slip, and if no one steps up to compete with EA, I fear for next year’s college hoops game.