As the year's last title in North America's major team sports, NCAA Basketball 10 faces why-buy questions that NCAA Football and NBA Live just don't. This year EA Canada seeks to answer them with two networks broadcasting from your living room.
CBS' iconic Road to the Final Four and March Madness presentation is paired with ESPN's signature college basketball, and both announcing teams will call an offense of back cuts and ball reversals familiar to fired-up gyms in the dead of winter. But can NCAA Basketball 10 deliver a game just as compelling as the sport's annual Cinderella stories?
Men in Motion: This year's big gameplay innovation involves implementing the motion offense, which is to college basketball what the option is to college football - versatile, team-oriented and not really used in the professional league. NCAA Basketball 10 offers what appears to be a head-spinning variety of motion sets, but it's easy enough to implement them. You'll bring the ball up in a base motion offense and then by touching the left bumper (or L1) initiate the play. Your teammates then start cutting across the half court, with passing indicators either grayed or lit depending on whether they're open for the pass. Timing is a big key, and it takes a few games to learn how to hit your man right as his icon becomes lit; just waiting for a full color indicator results in a lot of standing around. The responsiveness can be frustrating at times - direct pass control can often zip passes completely across the half-court no problem, while a skip pass inside in the motion offense suddenly becomes a turnover because the indicator goes gray when you don't expect it. Still, getting the hang of the motion does deliver satisfying thrills unique to this style of game. Seeing your man curl off a screen to the top of the key, hitting him in stride and dropping the dagger three exemplifies the character of the college game, and indeed sets NCAA 10 apart from its pro sibling NBA Live.
Prime-Time Performer: Much has been made of this game's use of both ESPN and CBS's broadcast packages, and with slight quibbles they live up to the hype. The CBS "heartbeat" graphic opens that package over a black screen, followed by a cut to the network's title graphics, iconic theme song, and Gus Johnson introducing the arena and the competitors. ESPN's Brad Nessler, Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews return as voice talents but are accompanied by that network's graphics and theme music too. It instantly took me to a sports bar on a Wednesday night in January. Nessler and Vitale, as veterans, have a deeper script and provide the truest broadcast. I straight up enjoy anything Nessler does and Vitale is tolerable because, frankly, he's in a recording studio and doesn't have a specific coach (or two) with an ass for him to kiss all game long, the worst aspect of his schtick. Johnson does a great job delivering his inflections and his excitement in the situations you'd expect to hear it. Unfortunately, he and Bill Raftery are rookies and as such, go into repetition earlier than Vitale and Nessler. The wipes and graphics are true to life for both networks, although they sometimes hang before going back to the action. Shooters go to the free-throw line with a biography box, complete with a major, again, just like on television. I love it that the announcers talk about going to a commercial, over highlight footage or a sideline cinematic, when you call a timeout. The CBS Selection Sunday show is minimal but an utterly necessary touch, and it's always fun seeing another bracket and rating other teams' shot at the Final Four in addition to your own. In all, these features deliver a verisimilitude that will definitely fire you up at least the first few times you see it, and is always enjoyable.
That's All Folks?: The motion offense and the broadcast presentation, though both are substantial, are it, unfortunately, as far as gameplay and experience changes from NCAA Basketball 09. The dynasty mode is basically a carbon copy from the previous year and, disappointingly, its schedules out of the box are not authentic, and must wait for a patch on Tuesday to fix these. That will be when EA Sports rolls out the game's first Dynamic Update, new to this year. It is similar in basis to NBA Live's Dynamic DNA, in that it will provide the updated, current state of college basketball as a context for your singleplayer dynasty, with a real world Top 25 and RPI and announcer commentary responding to those numbers. There's no superstar career mode, although I know how much effort this would take to create as it has no analogue in NBA Live. Online play has one head-to-head mode and no online dynasty, which is now integrated into every other major sports title. If anything needed at least an online tournament mode, it would have to be NCAA Basketball, but its multiplayer capabilities remain previous-gen.
AI Doesn't Play Smart: NCAA 10 is still fundamentally the NBA Live engine, right down to the harebrained AI your players and the computer's will exhibit. Too many passes go to a man standing with a foot out of bounds to be acceptable. The opposing offense will inexplicably dribble down its clock and get locked into passing back-and-forth rather than attacking the basket. I've seen both on display in NBA 10. There also isn't much of a post-up offense to speak of, looking like a NBA Live 10 with its post mechanics stripped out before they were patched back in. In truth I didn't notice it that much because I was lobbing into the high post mostly to distribute the ball to a cutter, occasionally going one-on-one with a baby hook. You'll definitely want to bias the sliders toward more fouls at lower difficulties or shorter time lengths, as not enough are committed and when the CPU starts using them for clock management, it'll often have five or more to give before you go to the line. I also had issues with the point guard coming back to take the inbounds pass after a made basket, sometimes taking off for the wing immediately but looking back, I could have had some bizarre three-guard offense put in at the time.
Mild Manners: For a game with such polish in its presentation, what it's "broadcasting" comes off somewhat bland. There are too many generic looking players, and too many generic arenas for its mid-major teams and in tournament play. Over the course of a long season, the broadcast novelty will wear off and the games will start seeming to blur into one. For players, there are some 800 faces to choose from in create-a-player mode but the body types seem restricted to just a few templates. Until you build a familiarity with your roster it's hard to pick out key players because height in the college game, with 6-9 centers and 6-4 forwards, is not as matched to a position as it is in the pros. While all schools in the major conferences have their home arenas represented, tournament sites are generic until you reach the Final Four, and even then, the dimensions seem a lot more cramped than what you're used to seeing on the television. Also, I'm disappointed that the crowd and the commentary in tournament play seems to favor the designated home team as if it were a regular season game. College basketball has a rich tradition of tournament crowds kicking in for the underdog if they're close, or leading, late in a game. And overall, rather than the sustained jet-engine intensity peculiar to college arenas, the crowd's emotion rises and falls in waves, and cuts in inconsistently.
NCAA Basketball 10 is an odd duck to recommend. For a casual basketball fan with a lot of school pride, it's very entertaining, very accessible, and even educational in how it teaches you the basic college offenses. It's also a less complicated game to master than NCAA Football, so someone nostalgic for his campus days will be winning bragging rights faster here. Hardcore hoops junkies will at least want to see the motion offense and the CBS and ESPN packages, and will need more than a rental period to cut down the nets.
It's for the sports gamer or the basketball fan in the middle - not wed to a particular school or team, nor that fixated on offensive strategy - where NCAA 10 might fail to hold someone's attention. Of course, you don't have to run your offense through half-court motion sets. You can use a straight-up pick and roll, or drive and kick all by yourself. For those who prefer to play this way, it will feel very much like a reskinned NBA Live 10. And if there's anything bemoaned in the college game, it's the one-season mercenary who's already thinking of the pro game. NCAA Basketball 10 is likewise a fine performer that uses up its eligibility too soon.
NCAA Basketball 10 was developed by EA Sports Vancouver and published by Electronic Arts for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on Nov. 17. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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