Some musings on All-Pro Football 2K8

I’ve been binging on both All-Pro Football 2K8 and NCAA Football 08 for the past couple of weeks, sandwiching review time for Vampire Rain in between. Both games have a lot to offer, but many eyes are on All-Pro, seeing as how it’s the first alternative to the Madden goliath we’ve had in a couple of years. I’m thinking our sports department might want reviews for the games, but in the meantime, I thought I’d empty out some of my thoughts here.

First thing’s first:

All-Pro Football 2K8 — It’s like learning a new language. Before I started writing about games as a job, I’d been weaned mostly on the ‘Madden’ brand of virtual football. The pace and tone of 2K football takes some getting used to if you’re not ready for it. But at the risk of sounding spacey, it’s a more organic football experience, especially when it comes to running the football. You have to really concentrate on reading your blocks, seeing the field and even trying to anticipate what holes and creases are going to be there when you make your cuts. I like how you can actually pick and slide past blockers when you’re running between the tackles, which in real life, is where most teams focus their running attacks. That’s something that I haven’t gotten from EA in a while — the true feeling of smashmouth, pad-popping, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football.

The problems occur with the mulititude of animations that overwhelm the playing experience, especially when you’re trying to air it out. Let me make this clear — if you try to institute the 15-step drop like some people try to do in Madden, you are toast. If you don’t allow a half-second for the QB to set his feet (which means you have to let go of the stick), your throw will be off. You also need to factor in the time it takes from pushing the button to actually throwing the football. I was able to get used to all this, but it felt like I was “steering” the QB as opposed to fully controlling him on more than a few series.

I eventually got used to that, as well as the time it takes for your receivers to run their patterns. They’re a little too slow coming out of their breaks in my opinion, but once you get into a rhythm, playing a little pitch-and-catch can be a visual treat — especially with all the animations the receivers have. I saw diving grabs, kneeling catches, coming back to the ball, the one-handed grabs (an Anthony Carter special), and straight-up solid catching fundamentals. I also like how reiievers blocked in the running game, instead of the run-and-judo-chop method in the EA games of the past.

Visually, the game looks sharper than the last time I saw it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the graphical messiah a lot of 2K fans were hoping for. I still see jaggies all over the place, and there’s still a general lack of polish. There’s also an overall dearth of game modes. I enjoyed the ability to customize my own team and take it online, but I didn’t like only having Season mode available. There’s no franchise or dynasty-type mode (though I’m not sure how you would handle trades), and I really hate not being able to add more “gold” star legends or slots to my team. Let me explain.

When the game starts, it asks you to build your own team by filling 11 spots. The game breaks down its legends into three categories — gold, silver and bronze. Gold is obviously the highest status of player, reserved for guys like Dan Marino or Walter Payton. You could literally spend hours trying to find the perfect 11-man stable to start your team. When you’re done, the game fills out the rest of your team with non-star (scrub) players. You can choose what your scrubs can specialize in (run support, coverage, etc.) to compliment the rest of your lineup.

Instead of number ratings, players have a list of special abilities tailored from how the actual legend played in his day. For instance, Marino is blessed with a “quick release” as well as a “rocket arm.” Rice is known as a “route god,” with “soft hands.” Payton has a multitude of gifts, such as “finesse and power” along with the scissor kick and the “goaline dive.” In a nice touch of detail, Payton even carries the ball with two hands, just like when he ran the rock for the Bears.

What I don’t get is why I can only have, say, two gold star players when some other teams can have three or four. And it appears I have NO way to change that, no matter how well I do in the field. That bothers me — I have no way of improving my team, which is something every wannabe GM likes to do, legends or not.

Something else that bugs me: The scrubs. They’re horrible. The “possession receivers” have great hands, but the speed of someone in quicksand, while the “deep threats” can run like the wind, but catch like Edward Scissorhands. Why does it have to be that way? This madness happens on defense, too — you could have Jack Tatum or Ronnie Lott at safety, but be prepared to watch your corners get the Joan of Arc treatment from the other team’s star receiver.

Here’s the strange thing — the more I play it, the more I like it. Jaggies and lack of game modes be damned, this is certainly one of those experiences that grows on you. Perhaps it’s the football caveman in me that enjoys the ability to bleed the clock dry by shoving Earl Campbell down the throat of an opponent’s front seven. Sure, there’s a lot of animations that can bog down the experience, but nothing quite matches the rush of truly planting someone with a Sweetness stiff arm or spinning past someone with Barry Sanders in the open field.

So, I’m going to take my 2K8 ball (as flawed as it is) and go home. To play, of course. I’ll be back with my thoughts on NCAA 08 upon my return.