It might not appear old when you watch it on film, but All-Pro Football 2K8, now a six-year veteran, is ancient by sports gaming standards.
On its release day, I drove to a newly renovated Circuit City, filled my gas tank for $2.49 a gallon, unfolded three twenties and a five from my wallet then secured one of the store's twenty shelved copies of All-Pro Football 2K8.
I experienced my first system-crashing “red ring of death” on the opening kickoff of my first All-Pro Football 2K8 game, with Al Del Greco's boot traveling only a few yards downfield before the ball froze mid-flight.
Three XBOX 360s later, and I still find myself firing up All-Pro Football 2K8 once the weather starts to turn cold and the leaves turn from red to dead.
This seasonal ritual continues, not out of nostalgia, but because All-Pro Football 2K8's competitors have failed to offer football fans a compelling alternative.
Sports gaming has made tremendous advancements since the summer of 2007. Comparing MLB 07: The Show to MLB 13: The Show is like comparing the 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates' 68-win, last-place finish to the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates' 94-win, NLDS appearance.
Football video games, inexplicably, have failed to improve at the same rate as other jock genres. Despite multiple changes at the executive level and a roster of artists, designers and programmers that has been turned over like brats and burgers on a tailgate grill, Electronic Arts' football games remain stuck in perpetual mediocrity.
2007 marks the football genre's last great effort, just as the early 1990s signify the last great era of hip hop music -- before greed and commercialism took over.
Years pass, and through the autumn air, Illmatic keeps spinning, while on the field, All-Pro Football 2K8 keeps winning.
Despite the fact that most sports games feature around 30 playable teams, the unfortunate reality is that only 3 or 4 teams will actually be used online. In NBA 2K, the Heat, Thunder and Lakers form the unholy trinity of cheeseball. For Madden, the fearsome foursome includes the 49ers, Seahawks, Redskins and Packers. All-Pro Football 2K8 continues to be the only console sports game I've taken online where repetitive team syndrome does not exist.
With a pool of 248 ex-NFL players to choose from and just 11 roster spots per team, variety is mathematically inevitable. In over six years playing the game, I've seen just about every player in All-Pro Football 2K8 get picked -- including all seven placekickers and the punter Ray Guy. Sure, there were certain legends like Lem Barney, the speedy cornerback/return man, and Pete Metzelaars, the 6-foot-7 catch-everything tight end who tended to make a lot of people's teams. But by large, most lineups you faced online were uniquely crafted around a certain style of play. Gamers looking to revive the West Coast Offense might recreate the triple threat of Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Joe Montana. Fans wanting a dynamite defensive line could reunite Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons.
Against copycat, "lobby trash" teams, uniform and stadium variety at least offered a superficial reprieve from tedium. While teams could only be built using premade logos and preapproved names, the Nashville Gladiators could still come pretty close to resembling the Tennessee Titans, with their open-air Memorial Stadium missing only the logos and banners of LP Field.
While modern modes like EA Sports' Ultimate Team and NBA 2K's My Team have expanded upon All-Pro Football 2K8's idea of creating your own dream team, those modes ignore the concept of team parity. Ultimate Team is particularly notoriously for lacking competitive balance thanks to “credit card teams” and “credit farmers,” as gamers can simply open their wallets or exploits loopholes in the virtual currency system to build unstoppable teams full of 99-rated players.
Game designers thought to include "ratings equalizers" long before All-Pro Football 2K8's release, but that method crudely morphs matches into clone wars, with every player performing identically.
All-Pro Football 2K8 gave each team an identical budget (two gold players, three silver players, six bronze players), but it also let each athlete in the game remain unique, with personalized ratings and abilities -- something that cannot be achieved by simply turning on other video games' "performance equalizer" option.
From the way its passing pocket forms to the way its players move around the field and collide with each other, All-Pro Football 2K8 looks closer to a live football telecast than any video game to date. Though some of the technology powering its animation systems is starting to show its age, All-Pro Football 2K8's gameplay has yet to be topped.
While EA Sports' football titles continue to limit players to only a few hundred plays per team, All-Pro Football 2K8 let gamers take all 6,442 of the game's included plays into the huddle. All-Pro Football 2K8's tiered play-calling system even allowed defensive line stunts to be called independently from the secondary's assignments.
A superb substitution manager let gamers edit the starters for every offensive and defensive formation in the playbook. Special teams even had their own adjustable depth charts.
Finding the right player to deploy in each formation was easy thanks to All-Pro Football 2K8's simplified rating system based on gold, silver, bronze and generic player tiers. This eliminated the need to sort through dozens of vague numerical ratings, as a quick glance at the line of scrimmage was all it took to realize your silver-tier wide receiver had a favorable matchup against a generic-tier cornerback.
In EA Sports' throwing system, all passes are tethered to the wide receiver, ensuring that the quarterback always aims his throw in relation to the receiver's current location on the field. This system produces very few incomplete passes and can cause physics-defying moments where the receiver breaks off his route mid-sprint to run off in the opposite direction as soon as the pass starts to leave the quarterback's hand.
In All-Pro Football 2K8, passes, instead, were tethered to the route itself, allowing quarterbacks to throw the ball before the wide receiver came out of his break without fear off sending the receiver way off his route. A "lead pass" in All-Pro Football 2K8 wasn't technically leading the receiver, but instead, moving the throwing target along the predetermined route path.
Success in All-Pro Football 2K8's passing game hinged on whether or not the ball came out on time, which would vary, depending on whether a play was designed for a 1-step, 3-step, 5-step or 7-step dropback. Armchair quarterbacks also had to be skilled at maneuvering forward, not backward, to avoid pocket pressure, as edge rushers in All-Pro Football 2K8 were adept at getting upfield quickly and cutting off outside scramble lanes. Defensive lines using the outside fan technique would rack up sack after sack on quarterbacks who tried to sprint outside as soon as the ball was snapped. Offensive linemen had the ability to double-team superstar defensive linemen or slide protection to the left or right to counter overload blitzes.
A quick, intuitive hot route system allowed gamers to alter player assignments and change unit alignments with no more than three button presses. Gamers who felt it was unrealistic to completely redraw plays at the line of scrimmage had the option of limiting teams to just one hot route per snap.
Using the right joystick, the entire secondary could easily switch between inside, outside, press or off coverage techniques. Unlike EA Sports' football games, which still restrict the player from flipping certain run formations, any play in All-Pro Football 2K8 could be mirrored at the line of scrimmage by clicking the right joystick. Teams could even choose to break the huddle in a fake formation then quickly shift to the play's real formation right before the snap without having to audible. Defenses could also use formation shells at the line of scrimmage to further disguise their true intentions.
Special teams were beautifully recreated, highlighted by a challenging kicking game that included bad snaps, botched holds and blocked kicks. A trick play was even included in the shotgun formation where the quarterback would attempt a quick pooch punt. Computer signal callers could also be tricky, as they would occasionally attempt to draw on offside penalty on fourth and short, only to call a timeout before the play clock expired so the special teams could be sent out. No kick, not even extra points, was ever a gimme in All-Pro Football 2K8, especially when the wind picked up or the field was wet.
Rain and snow impacted gameplay, causing weaker kicks, more fumbles, more dropped passes, more bad snaps, and random “slip and fall down” animations for all players in motion.
Flowing commentary and TV-quality camera pans added believability to All-Pro Football 2K8's broadcasts. Actors Dan Stevens and Peter O'Keefe returned to the booth, providing their familiar mix of humor and insight. All-Pro Football 2K8's halftime and post-game studio show could not match the quality of Chris Berman's studio reports from ESPN NFL 2K5, but they still remained superior to any of EA Sports' recent attempts.
Sidelines were packed with excited players and angry coaches, all of whom reacted to whatever was happening on the field in real time. If the ball carrier broke into the open field for a sure score, his teammates would start jumping around and cheering, recognizing the incoming touchdown. If a pass lead a receiver out of bounds, his teammates would put their hands out to brace the receiver. The optional 2K Field Pass provided close-up shots of players exchanging pep talks and trash talk after key plays. Some profanities were occasionally uttered, earning the game an “Everyone 10+” rating and a “Mild Language” descriptor from the ESRB.
Injuries also occurred in real time, meaning a wide receiver could pull a hamstring coming out of his break, then limp across the field holding his quad for the remainder of the play. Injuries didn't just occur in exhibition games, but also, in season mode or in online leagues, forcing gamers to rebuild their team's gameplan if one of their eleven star players went down. With no free agent market to simply buy replacement players of equal skill, All-Pro Football 2K8 made coaches sweat the decision to leave in fatigued stars.
All-Pro Football 2K8 was the first football game on the XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3 to include 32-team online leagues, a feature EA Sports didn't offer until Madden NFL 10.
All-Pro Football 2K8 shipped with a spectacularly designed website, which tracked every stat imaginable and recorded every single play that was run during league games. If someone pulled out their Ethernet cable mid-game, the game logs would identify the culprit with an exact time stamp.
In this pre-HD PVR era, many heated disputes over “clock milking” and “fourth down cheese” were settled through the All-Pro Football 2K8 website, which bore hard evidence of the play-by-play circumstances that led to questionable fourth down calls or excessive time-wasting tactics.
When many team owners began questioning whether or not All-Pro Football 2K8's running backs were overpowered on the league's current slider settings, all it took was a quick examination of the league-wide broken tackles statistics to see that, indeed, an increase the tackling slider was warranted.
I participated in numerous NFL and NCAA leagues over the years, with the latter even going so far to create a secret ballot coaches' poll and a bowl selection committee. Those All-Pro Football 2K8 league games, along with the controversial GameStop online tournament, created some of my favorite gaming memories.
Though 2K Sports shut down the All-Pro Football 2K8 website in 2010 and closed the game's lobbies in 2013, head-to-head matchmaking and friend-to-friend games still work, allowing online pen-and-paper leagues to continue on the XBOX 360.
With such a massive playbook to page through, it was no surprise that All-Pro Football 2K8's testers could not get all 6,000-plus of the game's plays working as intended.
Defenders were rarely fooled by draw plays or designed shotgun runs, all of which typically lost yardage, regardless of personnel or alignment.
Strong power-o plays from the shotgun formation were so badly broken that the quarterback would actually walk forward after receiving the snap, never even attempting to hand the ball off to the running back.
Trap, power and sweep runs featuring a pulling blocker were extremely hit-or-miss due to the pull animation, which was completely scripted for the blocker's first few steps. The predetermined animation would occasionally take your blocker into the path of an oncoming defender, but more times than not, pulling guards and tackles blindly ran out into open space and blocked no one.
Designed quarterback rollouts also contained significant protection issues, as the strong-side tackle was given a different blocking assignment than the other linemen, which regularly resulted in him standing upright and blocking no one.
In the offense's favor, iso runs out of the near, far and split back formations contained a unique handoff animation that almost guaranteed a positive gain for the offense, making those plays the equivalent to the “fullback dive” in older Madden titles. The quarterback sneak was even more unstoppable, quickly becoming outlawed in most online leagues.
Similarly, the fade route was explicitly off-limits in most leagues' house rules due to an animation glitch that regularly gave receivers a five- to ten-yard head start over the defender, regardless of the matchup.
Out routes, screen passes and Z routes, while not impossible to stop, also possessed a much higher success rate in All-Pro Football 2K8 than they should have against disadvantageous matchups and coverages.
The hurdle move, performed by clicking in the right joystick, was not only unfairly overpowered, but also a graphical sore, causing defenders to “ghost” through the ball carrier's body and miss all diving, X button tackles.
Finally, there was a bizarre glitch that caused all created centers to move around the field using a slow, upright jog animation. Created centers were so buggy that they would randomly freeze up in the middle of plays, as if struck by one of Sub-Zero's ice balls.
Visual Concepts never officially explained why All-Pro Football 2K8's customization was so restrictive, but the obvious implication was that the small California company feared upsetting the NFL and its army of lawyers. Certainly, the technology was there in 2007 to include editing tools on-par with say, Forza Motorsport 2, which released just two months before All-Pro Football 2K8. But ultimately, Visual Concepts and its publisher, Take-Two Interactive, decided that allowing complete customization was not worth the risk of worsening their relationship with the NFL.
By 2011, when hackers finally discovered several obscure and difficult methods that let gamers fully customize All-Pro Football 2K8 using third-party computer software, it mattered little to the game's sales, which to date, are estimated to be around 400,000 units combined on PlayStation 3 and XBOX 360.
Limited Offline Modes
All-Pro Football 2K8's lack of a multi-season franchise mode, the primary mode of play for all simulation sports games since the late 1990s, also put-off many potential buyers. Visual Concepts believed the game's 248 football legends, all already at the peak of their playing careers, could not sensibly appear in a mode centered around player progression and regression. While Visual Concepts could have built a franchise mode around the game's existing pool of generic players, the project's lead designers believed that a game featuring Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Joe Montana contained more market appeal than one starring Kelvin Johnson, Adrian Peterman and Thomas Bradie.
Take-Two Interactive signed each of All-Pro Football 2K8's 248 players to individually negotiated, multi-year licensing agreements, assuming that the large collection of football legends would become the game's greatest selling point.
Hindsight now shows that consumers were not interested in John Elway and Barry Sanders, but instead, the teams they played for.
Aside from the controversial O.J. Simpson signing, which cost Take-Two Interactive $50,000, prices for All-Pro Football 2K8's individual licensing arrangements have not gone public. However, language in O.J. Simpson's contract, which only made the news because a Los Angeles court ordered Simpson to turn over his financial records, did reveal that Take-Two Interactive "grouped the [game's] retired players into categories, with each member of a category being paid the same amount." If a former murder suspect's appearance cost Take-Two Interactive more money than many Americans will make in a year of work, then it seems safe to assume that a significant portion of All-Pro Football 2K8's budget was squandered on forgotten football stars.
Gamers will not find a better-playing football game on the XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3. With plenty of custom rosters to download and a price tag now under $5, football fans have no reason not to own a copy of All-Pro Football 2K8. Other football games may offer more modes or prettier graphics, but on the field, All-Pro Football 2K8 remains as dominant as the legends who grace its cover.