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NCAA Basketball 09

Hitting the collegiate hardwood is as fun as real B-ball
What's It All About:
I hate basketball. Being a hardcore hockey fan, that's natural, but boy do I find basketball to be a boring, pointless affair that really should be shortened to about two minutes per game, since that time-out-filled period at the end of each meet-up is all that seems to matter. And that's after a few rounds of genetic abnormalities trading opportunities to poorly shoot against near-non-existent defense and occasionally use their height to reach up and physically force the ball through the hoop. But hey, I'm not at all bitter that basketball enjoys far more success than my personal favorite sport, despite hockey being infinitely more challenging, and its players being far tougher, talented, athletic and social correct in their behavior.

The last time I played basketball in video-game form for any length of time, it was Team USA Basketball for the Genesis, so it's been a while since I'd given the sport a try. But with my alma mater's season over, I figured, hey, why not try to redeem the Hofstra Pride on my Xbox? Why not? I'd figure that out soon.

NCAA Basketball 2009 picks up from EA Sports' previous March Madness series (which is now a downloadable game focused solely on the NCAA Tournament), and brought over the game engine from the well-respected NBA Live 09, bringing with it an impressive array of animation and a host of new controls (see The Controls for more details on that area.) The game also maintains the series' depth of rosters, representing all of the NCAA's Division I, which should cover the rooting interests of the vast majority of the players out there. As any sports video game veteran would expect, the game covers not only on-court action, but the off-court details as well, while offering up a few additional play modes to extend interest in the game.

When you get started, you begin as a guy in gym clothes on an outdoor campus court, with a couple of basketballs laying around. This is the video-game version of a shoot-around, as you're free to dribble, shoot and dunk to your heart's delight, letting you practice and adjust to the controls (a nice touch to be certain, considering the lack of a practice mode.) Once you're ready, you can get into the game, with a few different modes to choose from, starting with the main Dynasty Mode, where you're the coach, playing through up to 30 seasons, with the changes that come with time, including recruiting classes and new job opportunities. There's a useful group of options to choose from, including the ability to not get job offers and just focus on your team, which requires you to do two main things: build a playbook and recruit well (you can also tackle campus challenges, like satisfying the demands of the alumni, but that's also mercifully optional.)

Once you're set up, you play out your schedule and keep an eye on your potential recruits, but since this is college sports, you have to play the hand you're dealt, so there's no bringing in outside help. It's up to you to get the most out of your nameless line-up (thanks to NCAA rules (though you can choose to autoname the rosters, giving them random names, and can create custom players, complete with a vast number of sneaker options)), by building a solid playbook and taking advantage of the game's tempo-meter feature. If you keep the game pace good for your style of play (decided by your players' strengths and objectives you set) your abilities are enhanced and your shots start hitting better. A lot of what makes a good team is controlling the game by slowing it down and moving the ball well, which doesn't feel quite right in a video game, as it becomes a game of strategy as much as action.

Beyond the standard "play now" mode and dynasty mode, where you'll spend the bulk of your time, there's a few interesting game modes, including the Tournament of Legends, which puts 64 memorable teams in NCAA history into tournament play (a slight change from the classic teams treatment in the previous release.) If you're a big fan of college play, it's great to guide these squads and decide who's the best ever (though the inclusion of recent Cinderella squad George Mason is a questionable one.) If you aren't into these teams though, it helps point out how limiting this game is, because that's all there really is to do. While you can use all the teams in the NCAA Division I, the extra tournament modes, which replicate events like the NCAA Championships, the NIT or Puerto Rico Tip-Off, are basically just repeats of each other, held in different arenas (including the Anaheim Classic, which looks to be played in the gym at my high school.)

If you want to take your game online, the usual healthy EA match-up system is in place to set up one-on-one games, which run smoothly with a good broadband service (reviewed with Optimum Online.) One addition to this system this year that's rather enjoyable is the Online Rivalry. You'll choose your favorite team when you start up your profile, and when you sign in, you'll be alerted to anyone logged into the service who's a fan of one of your team's rivals, allowing you to throw them a quick challenge. While this idea probably works best in college where rivals are a big part of the game, it would be great to have this in, say, NHL 09, so an Islanders fan could call out a Rangers fan. The only issue is the questionable choice of rivals in some cases, as geography seems to be the only reason. For instance, yes, Delaware and Hofstra are rivals, but Manhattan College and Hofstra? Not so much.)

Beyond the gameplay itself, this title offers up an impressive presentation, pumped up by an ESPN license that brings vague announcing from Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews to the game, ESPN Classic branding in the Legends mode, and a selection of (low-quality) ESPN On Demand videos that are regularly updated, along with team profiles featuring analysis from Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. An increased focus on coaching also brings real coaches to the game like Kansas's Bill Self, who provides a good-looking introduction to the game. The injection of coaching into actual play is more superficial than anything though, as it consists of on-screen text giving you advice, but frequently the coaching is either common sense observations, praise or pointless because it doesn't fit the current situation.

The controls, which are updated with the NBA Live engine, aren't the most impressive, and frequently lead to frustration due to lack of response. Three out of every four attempts to block a shot (which is a simple button press) will either result in a late jump or a leap in an opposite direction than intended (an incredibly annoying phenomena, as you'll be running in one direction, only to jump straight up in the air, with no momentum.) While the almost-too-simple pick and roll system is useful, similar issues plague the dribbling techniques, as the ankle-breaker moves don't fire nearly as often as they should. Defense isn't too bad, as good positioning will lead to steals, but the one-button double-team D feels cheap. But it's practically perfect though when you compare it to shooting. I've never played a sports game in which scoring is more random than this one. You can pass the ball like a wizard, open up a shooter and it's a 50-50 chance you'll hit the basket, no matter what you do. There's no skill involved at all. As a result, you'll find yourself driving the lane far too often, as your dunks will succeed far more often. The same goes for the opening tip, which similarly seems to have no apparent technique. Things go better with the simple play-calling set-up, which feels perfectly authentic to the college game, as you slow things down and call out plays, but then substitutions bring the game to a dead stop, as you have to go through a set of menus, and select individual players, instead of just swapping in "lines."

There's no denying the game looks great, but looking back at last year's version, it's not improved or changed much, though the college settings are well-done, with impressively detailed crowds, quality renderings of the better-known buildings and details like team mascots. Playing as a mid-major like Hofstra points out some issues with details, like court graphics that are a few years out of date and a somewhat generic arena design, so it's certainly not perfect. The player animations are nicely varied and are appropriate to the college game, and the players' uniforms, especially for the Legends teams, are excellent.

The audio, a mix of commentary from the ESPN personalities, which is a bit light since they have no player names to call (with Andrews spouting obvious gems about winners being revealed;) in-game audio effects; and some nice crowd noise and pep-band music. Play long enough though and the repetition in the crowd sound becomes clear, but for the most part, the sound is solid and helps build the college atmosphere.

EA Sports threw in 21 achievements to unlock here, worth 1000 gamerpoints in total. They range from the ridiculously easy, like getting 10 points for looking at your stats or checking out the game's credits, to obscene time investments, like the 100 points you'll get for completing a 30-year dynasty. Most of them aren't that easy to achieve, at least in terms of the time you'll need to spend winning tournaments, while one, Show-Off, is deceptively annoying, as you have to sink 20 straight field goals (no dunks) in the Campus Hoops mode. So many times a random shot will click off the rim, and there's not a lot you can do about it.

And in the End...
Perhaps if you're a big fan of having the success of your scoring attempts decided randomly, or you enjoy being able to not really do much to defend against your opponent, then this game will be your cup of tea, as it seems to capture the stultifying world of basketball well, but any fan of true contact sports (football or hockey, for instance) will find themselves bored. Throw in some iffy control elements, a lack of in-depth online play and real players, and game-play modes that lack variety, and this game fails to excite. And now, with a cheaper downloadable version available that should satisfy fans of the big-name teams who make the Big Dance each year, this game's value is a bit lower yet. The next time I feel the need to play video-game basketball, I think I'll just dig out my Genesis again.