All-Pro Football 2K8 Review (Xbox 360)
Never have I been so conflicted about a game before. Let me get that out of the way up front. All-Pro Football 2K8 has some seriously impressive things going on under the hood. However, much like NFL 2K5 before it, it also has some seriously eyebrow-raising curiosities as well. There are moments while playing APF2K8 where I would replay a particular play over and over, marveling in the realism and how authentic all of the interactions appeared. Then, a few plays later, I'd watch a strange animation completely take a defender out of a play, resulting in something that felt very canned and inorganic. Such is the nature of APF2K8. One part beauty, one part beast, but still worth a look if you like football.
The most curious (and equally brilliant in a strange way) decision of the design team at Visual Concepts has to be the way you build your squad in APF2K8. From the moment you boot up the game, you're given a screen that's not terribly intuitive, but simple: two gold slots, three silver slots, and six bronze slots to "draft" legendary and well-known players from NFL history. Those familiar with the game already knew what to expect the first time they put the disc in the drive, but I'm wondering how much Visual Concepts decided to really cater to that hardcore fanbase and not really the casual football fan who might pick the game up because they see Jerry Rice, John Elway, and Barry Sanders on the cover. As you begin to choose players, you'll notice something right off the bat that differs from any football experience you've had previously: not a single rating in sight as you browse players. Instead, you have one of over 70 special abilities applied to each player to represent the type of athlete they were in their prime. While a compilation of talent like this in any other football game would represent 99's across the board in various rating categories, this new method of applying specialty abilities hinges on whether those abilities make a difference. Thankfully, they do.
The way you build your team in APF2K8 really determines how you'll play the game. I've drafted up teams that have been stacked on offense, with very little defensive talent, and been involved in shootout after shootout. I've drafted defensive juggernauts, and won (or lost) games 10-7 or 6-3. The legends that you choose to draft onto your team have a huge impact on the experience you'll have with APF2K8. The best thing about the style of creating a team is that you'll always have a weakness somewhere. With eleven draft slots available to fill out your starting 22 players, you have to make some compromises while creating the team in order to avoid having a huge hole in your squad that your opponent can exploit. However, a smartly created team can actually have a legend at almost every position on the field, and through some substitutions, moved to play at the opposite end that they'd normally play on. For example, if you wanted to draft a legend cornerback, free safety, outside linebacker, and defensive end, in many cases, you'd end up with an absolutely stacked weak side of the field. The default position for the legends usually ends up on the side away from the tight end, so the right side of your defense is completely wide open. However, you can manage the substitutions of your team before playing a down, so you could switch the linebacker to the strong side to compete with tight ends, and the cornerback to the other side of the field as well. Now you'll have a defensive end rushing from one side, an outside linebacker that you can choose to rush through playcalling on the other and a free safety to provide backup support for your generic cornerback. Your legend cornerback is far more effective, so leaving him on an island with no-name safety help is a more viable option. That's the beauty of the team creation process. You can build a squad however you want. Stack it with receivers and offensive linemen if you want. Even with a no-name quarterback, you'll have all day to throw and chances are the other team didn't take four cornerbacks, so you'll have a field day in the passing game. Just don't expect to have much time of possession or stop anybody on defense. The rest of your team is filled out with generic players, but you can customize their strengths by position: whether you want your offensive linemen to be pass or run blocking specialists (or balanced), your wide receivers to be deep threats or possession receivers, etc. So if you take stellar running backs and stack your defense, you might as well get a run blocking offensive line and play Marty ball.
After drafting your team, you are presented with various screens to name your team, choose a city to represent, as well as a stadium to call home. In a curious decision, the cities and team names are pre-set, with no ability to create your own names using a text editor. I'm guessing it has to do with the possibility of somebody creating the Indianapolis Colts and taking them online, but I'm not certain that is nearly as big a risk as upsetting the hardcore fan base who wants that ability is. If somebody pays $60 and wants to create an all-time Colts team, that should be their choice in my opinion. For comparison, Winning Eleven has built up a ridiculously strong fan base due to a great game engine and fantastic customization options in the soccer genre. Many gamers expected that kind of customization when APF was announced, and a large portion of those players will be disappointed. However, the lack of naming options doesn't hurt the uniform editor in the least. In the most advanced uniform design utility I've ever seen in a console, twenty-four separate options exist for jersey type, shoulder style, pants, etc. Toss in nameplate customization, sock varieties, number style, and individually color-adjusted helmets, logos, accessories, and home and away jersey variants, and you can really get carried away. The first time I created a team, I spent roughly two hours in the uniform editor alone. The level of detail you can go to for every component of the uniform is exhaustive, and I have seen recreations for almost every NFL uniform on various message boards and websites already. To allow that kind of creativity in a uniform editor makes it all the more puzzling that you cannot edit player or team names. You can even customize playbooks and plug in new formations (or take them out), but it's quite tedious since you have to add or remove plays one at a time. If you want to take that kind of time, however, you can do it.
All the customization and draft strategy in the world won't make a bit of difference if you don't get a good football engine when out on the field, however. Thankfully, APF delivers...most of the time. Your experiences will vary greatly from game to game and from team to team, which is a testament to what a great job Visual Concepts did with the special abilities. Using a gold-tier running back like Gale Sayers will give you a completely different experience than Earl Campbell. Sayers is arguably the most elusive back in NFL history (although more than a few Barry Sanders fans would argue that point, and have very valid reasons), while Campbell was a bruising tank of a runner that instilled fear in defenders throughout his career. Playing the game, you have the greatest success catering your style to match the players you've chosen. If you have Sayers, you don't want to call dive after dive right up the gut into the heart of the defense. Sure, it could work, but you really want to call counters and tosses to get the defense the slightest bit out of position and get him to the perimeter, and then make something happen in the open field. If Campbell is in your backfield, find the nearest defender and bring the pain, because he'll shrug off most defensive backs without even losing much speed.
And graphically, that pain train is actually impressive looking. I've seen some gripes about the graphics engine, and during replays I don't think any of those gripes hold water. During gameplay, however, I can see where some would be less than impressed. The field textures are just a muddy shade of green, which take away from some well-done character models (which look ten times better than the first preview pictures shown months ago, thankfully). Animations themselves look gorgeous, but in true 2K tradition, the transitional animations lose a bit of believability. Players sometimes skip from one animation to another and it can get a herky-jerky look to it. It's not enough to detract from a great football engine in my opinion, but I can see where some complaints are coming from. The presentation is also pretty bare-bones, with a rough halftime and postgame show that replaced 2K5's ESPN presentation. Dan and Peter are back in the booth, and you'll hear the same commentary as in years past. If I hear one more comment about war and peace, I may use my own special ability on the sound department at Visual Concepts...
Ahem. Getting back to the special abilities, however, the more you play with the legends,the more you'll be impressed. Dan Marino has such a fast release that you can actually alter your play style because of it. I could wait for receivers to get open an extra half second or so with the rush closing in, because the ball would be fired so quickly that I could practically be in the grasp and still get off a laser shot. Steve Young could be relatively accurate while running around, whereas even attempting a throw while scrambling with Troy Aikman would result in a laughable loss of accuracy. I grew to fear Ronnie Lott after he drilled my poor receiver into the turf for the fifth time in a game. I called plays away from Too Tall Jones because he was absolutely annihilating my linemen, making it impossible to run a play his direction. The legends on your team really impact how you'll call your plays, and who you see across the ball from you dictates the plan that you'll implement to attack them. That's not to say that they're overpowered, however. I've seen no-name wide receivers make Willie Brown look silly, and I've seen Earl Campbell get his legs cut out from under him by a generic safety. It's just that you don't want to test those matchups too often. The generic players can hold their own against another generic, but matched up against a legend they'll lose the battle more often than not (as it should be).
When you actually sit down to examine how the game plays, and how the players interact, you can't help but be impressed. The pocket formed when dropping back for a pass is better than any game in history. Period. It's not even close. Tackles drop back and dont rush out to engage the ends, and you'll actually have your offensive line create a throwing lane for you that works for the play call. Time and time again I watched a receiver sit down in zone coverage with a perfect throwing lane to fire the ball in between the numbers. When you leave the pocket when you shouldn't, all hell breaks loose. Yet somehow the team at VC managed to capture a defender overplaying his responsibility, leaving you with a lane to scramble with your quarterback right up the gut that's a country mile wide. You get used to subtly shifting your passer left or right to keep a blocker between you and the defender that's rushing you, and after a few games it becomes second nature. It should be mentioned that moving the stick FULLY in any given direction is a recipe for disaster, no matter what player you're controlling. In any situation other than a ball carrier in open space bursting to daylight, you'll have much better success laying off the speed burst button, slightly changing your player's balance and keeping him under control. Move the stick all the way to the left when pursuing as a linebacker, and a talented player can easily slip by you with a simple juke. You'll watch in horror as your linebacker flails, pirouettes, reaches out with an arm, or even falls down as the ball carrier sails by. Overplay a pass as a defender and you'll be so horribly out of position as you try to spin around that it's an easy six for the opposing offense. Moderation is key to success in APF.
Speaking of success, the passing game in APF is brilliant. I have become used to the ability to throw the exact type of pass I want, and it's spoiled me somewhat. A tap on the button will create a genuine lob that you can drop right in like mana from heaven. A held button will fire off a laser that looks like it's the cliched "frozen rope". The brilliance is in how the different quarterbacks perform. With Marino, I could throw any pass at any time. Steve Grogan couldn't get nearly the same zip on the ball, requiring me to alter my play calls and actually consider receivers covered that were, for all intents and purposes, open. With Marino or Elway, nobody was ever covered to me. I threw a ton of picks, but it's amazing when a game can actually make you feel how those guys probably did...too much faith in your arm, in your ability to fire a supersonic rocket precisely where you want to regardless of who was around. APF's passing game gives me that "problem". I'll throw a pass and see a defensive back make a play on the ball, then throw myself back in my chair with a forehead smacking "d'oh!!". Conversely, with Grogan, I'll see a wide open receiver and do my best to throw a nice, catchable lob. This creates large opportunities for the safeties to come clean somebody's clock, or simply make the interception. Giving the user that kind of control over the exact type of pass that they want to throw cannot be underestimated, and is tough to give up when going back to other games. No route is "off limits", as I experience in other games. Every route has a time and place, and given a capable quarterback, can abuse a defense. A quick out is a highly effective pass in man coverage, but throw one when you THINK it's man coverage and in fact a corner bumps and sits down in the zone, and it's a quick six instead. Seam routes can bring a zone defense-playing team to its knees, whereas a talented man to man coverage team will eat it alive. I can't say enough about the passing game in APF.
The running game is equally impressive, but in more sporadic bursts. Absent from years of 2K football games, "mario running" has made an appearance this year in APF. For the unfamiliar, mario running has to do with your running back getting caught behind blockers, feet still moving, yet going nowhere. I had rarely seen it in previous 2K titles, yet saw it more than I care to admit in this version. The backs have historically had a habit of "getting skinny" or shoving a lineman to the side, and to some extent they still do...but you'll have a maddening (no pun intended) instance where the back just seems to stick to the blocker far too often to ignore. However, when the blocks DO line up, it's gorgeous. It's never felt so good to patiently wait for that pulling guard to cut down an outside linebacker, shift to the inside slightly and watch the tackle get to the second level and start dropping people. The head tracking of players makes it even more impressive, especially from a replay, where you'll see a back turning the corner looking back to the center of the field in an eerily realistic way. You'll have many simple blast plays that turn into breakaway scores because of a key block thrown at just the right time, and that's exactly how it should be. Yet for every play like that, you'll have three or four that offensive linemen just get abused and you're dropped instantly. It's entirely possible to gain consistent yardage on the ground (even without a legend), but it takes far more patience and commitment to the run to do so. A lot of my games of APF ended up like past versions of Madden: feast or famine. I'd average 1.5 yards per carry for a number of runs, then break a 45 yarder due to a perfectly blocked play. Very seldomly did I generate consistent 4 to 6 yard gains, even with Christian Okoye and Natrone Means subbing back and forth with a legend offensive lineman at three of the five positions. It's certainly not a bad running game...not at all. But it seems more scripted and less organic than the passing game does. You can almost see the number crunching going on when the linemen run out to run block, whereas the passing game seems very fluid all around.
Defensively the warts begin to show. Part of it is the number of offensive legends that you'll go up against game after game, but part is just spotty AI that has made its return in the defensive secondary from NFL 2K5. At least it happens less frequently this time around, but it does happen. Overall, the defensive backs make plays like they should most of the time (which is a huge upgrade over 2K5 in my opinion), but the plays they don't make leave you scratching your head. Case in point: Ronnie Lott has just leveled receiver after receiver and I throw a skinny post. Lott can clearly see the receiver coming right at him, the ball in the air, and many times already he's absolutely flattened the poor wideout. This time, he settles into an interception animation, slightly rocking back on his heels, hands up in front of his face mask. Andre Reed is in plain view when he cuts right across Lott's vision, snags the ball, and races in for the score. Sure, even Lott made a mistake now and again, but you think he'd go for a pick instead of a chance to take Reed's head off? Not the Lott I watched play. It's magnified with the no-name secondary members, but you'll still see generic cornerbacks make plays on the ball. It's not nearly as big a problem as it was three years ago with 2K5, but the problem isn't completely gone by a long shot.
The front seven play pretty sharp, however. Almost too sharp. The new reach-tackle system (where you can push the right analog stick left or right to reach out and grab a ball carrier, even while engaged with a blocker) is great, but on occasion it makes it impossible to run up the middle. Add to that extremely quick-reacting linebackers, and you'll fight for every inch against the first level of defense. You'll approach what appears to be a huge hole, only to get snagged by a defensive tackle's paw, and then a flying linebacker charges in for the cleanup gang tackle. And speaking of gang tackles, they can be downright brutal. You're guaranteed to have a handful of "holy sh..." moments the first few games you put into APF. The gang tackles can be bone crunching, but happen a lot. I know that the first defender doesn't make the tackle most of the time in the real NFL, but they also don't hold the ball carrier in place to allow a second defender to knock his block off time and time again. It's a good feature, and long overdue, but it seems a bit rushed. A bit more organic system of gang tackling would be welcomed, where ball carriers might glance off of tacklers and get hit by another with more frequency. That happens in APF, but not nearly as much as the school yard "I'll grab him while you take his legs out from under him" maneuver.
The kicking game is another new system that I really had trouble coming to grips with at first. It's much like Madden and NCAA's analog kicking meter, but this one requires you to press up at the right time as well, AND with a lot of velocity. When the kicker plants his plant foot, you should be slamming the stick forward. Now, you could get the timing right, the angle right, and go a bit softly on the stick...resulting in "Perfect" timing and "Centered" angle on-screen feedback, yet still kick a dud. At first I had trouble kicking past the 15 yard line on kickoffs, but once you figure out that you have to treat the analog stick like you're a silverback gorilla, your kicking will get better, I promise. You literally have to rip it from the down position to the up position, all the while ensuring you do it at the right time, and the perfect angle. It's definitely something you get better at with practice, but it can sure be frustrating at first.
So the passing game is sublime, the running game is definitely above average, and the front seven play like studs while the secondary has moments of brilliance alternating with moments of ineptitude. What can possibly be wrong with the game? I'll tell you...depth. You're limited to playing as a created team without the ability to go into a quick play game as any other team. That's right, if you have a buddy over, you have to walk them through the create-a-team process before you can get on the field. No quick games here, folks. Also there's no franchise option, which I can understand because the meat of the game is building a team and taking that team to the field, but it would be interesting to sign these legends to contracts. That would probably open up another can of worms since all of these guys are "in their primes", so who knows what ages they would be and how that would all work out. I can understand it not having a franchise with a draft, but it would have been a nice option to have an all-generic franchise option. Probably defeats the purpose of having it called "All Pro Football", but I'm sure it would be doable. Also, the season mode is somewhat anti-climactic, and you could actually end up facing players from your own team on the other sideline. The first time you create a team, the CPU teams are generated. But the next time you create a team, the CPU teams are still the same as they used to be, so you probably have copies of players that are on other teams when you go into season mode. It's a bit bizarre, but hardly a big deal compared to the fun you can have on the field. Add to that online leagues that have good performance, where you can take your created team onto an online battlefield for a full season, and that's where I believe the developers really intended APF to make its mark. Online games are very fun, but between two great players, frequently turn into a punt-trading extravaganza with All-Pro linebackers taking down All-Pro running backs, then a couple incompletions followed by a punt...wash, rinse, repeat. It's definitely fun, but I've heard my share of gripes in games I've played with people online.
In a nutshell...if you like playing online, and like 2K football, you can't go wrong with All-Pro Football 2K8. If you're primarily an offline gamer, it's questionable at best. The true football aficionados who enjoy drafting up new teams and seeing how they perform, then adjusting playbooks to cater to specific players will have an absolutely fantastic time with it. As long as you don't need multiple seasons, customizable players and team names, quick games with a team that you didn't spend thirty minutes creating, rock-solid defensive back AI...actually that's quite a few things missing. Were it not for the great gameplay from gun to gun on the field (or most of the time for defensive backs), it would be tough to recommend this to anybody. As it stands, it's a nice change of pace to the competition, and I think it's definitely a "testing the waters" release by 2K Sports. See if they can package up the NFL 2K5 engine, slightly tweaked, with no license and see how it sells. NFL 2K5 is proclaimed the greatest NFL game in history by many people, so it's not necessarily a bad plan. I'd just prefer to get a bit more meat for my $60, considering the same engine cost $20 back on XBox a few years ago. But if you can look past the lack of features and modes, or plan to play exclusively online with other football addicts, you can't really go wrong with it. I just can't score the title much higher with so many basic features that we've come to expect from games in this day and age absent, in addition to the occasional AI flaw that prevent it from being rock solid 100% of the time on the field. It's nowhere near "bad", but definitely feels like a market test product from time to time.
But 2K5 fans will take that any day...as will pure football fans.