I recently read an article which said that EA Sports grabbed exclusivity rights to the NFL license mostly because the NFL said it was going to stop allowing more than one developer work on its games anyway, and EA Sports happened to be the highest bidder. I'm not sure I believe this article, because it ignores a handful of holes in that idea. The first is that it doesn't say anything about how NBA commissioner David Stern is reported to have turned down extra money for an exclusivity agreement from EA Sports. The second is that it fails to explain why EA Sports also got exclusivity deals with the NCAA, PGA, and NASCAR as well. Maybe the PGA isn't a big deal, but NASCAR has a large and quickly growing audience, and the NCAA has widespread popularity across two sports. The third hole is that no one ever bothered to say that once the agreement was sealed. There's no excuse for this to not have been mentioned immediately; exclusivity licensing would have been bad enough as it was, but it happened on the heels of the infamous EA Spouse controversy, and EA Sports didn't make the effort to save face. All they did was give out a generic statement about how the agreement would allow them to make higher-quality NFL games.
When the deal broke, I was upset. I reviewed both the Madden and the 2K offerings that season and viciously ripped EA Sports in both reviews. (And I stand by them completely.) I found that Madden 2005 was a bigger, updated retreat of Madden's trademark slippy, unrealistic arcade gameplay while ESPN 2K that year was (and still is) the finest football game ever made. Playing the games a couple of years down the line, though, it seems that EA Sports actually HAS been making higher-quality football games. In 2008, I reviewed the upcoming crop of EA Sports football games for both the NFL and NCAA and found that the series had taken great strides forward in the areas that had been more troublesome for me than any other. I said I preferred the NCAA game that year, but both were immensely playable and a lot of fun.
2K Sports ended up taking the expected hiatus before coming back in 2007 with All-Pro Football 2K8. As it turned out, they didn't throw in the towel after all. What they were doing instead was getting licensing of their very own from the NFL Players' Association, in order to bring the likenesses of a bunch of retired players into their newest game. It was a good idea, and Madden NFL 2009 introduced a similar feature a year later which I loved. So to be a team architect in a 2K Sports game sounded like many happy hours of ideal armchair football. Unfortunately, despite the concept and the awesome player selection, All-Pro Football 2K8 feels rather limited when put against its Madden counterpart from the following year. I can't believe I'm saying that, but duty calls and it feels like 2K Sports and EA Sports have reversed position for their football games - Madden is taking the gameplay strides while 2K is using its lack of an NFL license as an excuse to not do anything challenging.
First and most obviously, there's the players list. It's very extensive and impressive, but you can't help but notice some omissions that stand out. Lawrence Taylor, the greatest linebacker of all time, isn't in the game. Jim Kelly isn't anywhere in the game either, and he was part of the vaunted 1983 quarterback class, went to four Super Bowls, and was 20-10 when his teams played against Joe Montana, Dan Marino, or John Elway. Joe Greene isn't in the game, Sam Huff isn't in it either, hell, here's a list: YA Tittle, Terrell Davis, Cris Carter, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, James Lofton, Larry Csonka, Richard Dent, Eric Dickerson, Art Monk, Ray Nitschke, and Deion Sanders. Still though, you can't complain about a lack of selections.
On the other hand, some players who did make it into the game leave question marks hanging over your head. Is Brian Bosworth known for anything more than tripping over his untamed tongue and getting run over by Bo Jackson? Jeff Hostetler is in the game. Sure he won the Super Bowl, but he was also a career backup whose gameplan for said Super Bowl was to not screw up. Mark Rypien, Natrone Means, and Alvin Harper also made the cut.
The players are divided into gold, silver, and bronze levels. Gold level is strictly the A-list - it's where you'll find Joe Montana, Barry Sanders, and Reggie White hanging out. Silver is a grouping of lesser players who have acclaim and renown in the football world - some of them border on the Hall of Fame, some actually in it (Andre Reed), but they didn't transcend the game the way the A-list did. Ottis Anderson, Bart Starr, Too Tall Jones, and Jesse Tuggle reside there. The Bronze level is the most questionable. All the players are definitely known to football fans, but their careers range from outstanding to okay to bad. It's inconsistent. Bernie Kosar, a great quarterback, is a Bronze. But so are Leon Lett, Carl Banks, William Perry, Rocket Ismail, Steve Tasker, Willie Gault, Dwight Clark, and Brian Bosworth. If you don't follow football, just be aware that's a very absurd range of talent. Tasker was the finest special teams player ever, with the possible exception of Devin Hester. Banks had some great years, Lett and Clark are best known for standout moments, and Perry was a better pitchman than a football player. OJ Simpson somehow made it into the game, by the way, as a gold-level running back.
When you first flip on All-Pro Football 2K8, the first thing you need to do is build your team. You get eleven of the retired players for it - two gold, three silver, and six bronze. If you don't like anyone available, there is a create-a-player option to put yourself or perhaps an excluded favorite into the game. After selecting your players, the rest of your team is randomly generated, which kind of takes away from the novelty of the game. That's bad enough, but it's after you select your players when the team architect feature shoots itself in the foot. I came to realize years ago that 2K Sports does team creation in the most halfway form possible. First of all, without an NFL license, created teams are the only teams you'll be playing against. Yet, the team you create personally is the only one you'll be allowed to take onto the gridiron. You can create more than one team, but it feels cumbersome and makes you wonder why you're not allowed to play as one of the game's teams.
Beyond that, team creation is even worse and more limited. 2K Sports appears to have created the feature with without any regard for what you might really want. The only part of the feature which really gives you a big list of options is selecting their location. You get a list of virtually every major and minor metro area in the United States. Of course, the announcers never bother to say the name of the city during games! This made it convenient to 2K Sports, because by not mentioning the city name, they don't have to explain why my first created team, the Sacramento Firebirds, play in Wayne County, Michigan! The limited options lead to a second problem: Beyond the city selection, every part of the team creator exists strictly to compliment a very particular name, logo, and home stadium. You can't exchange the Beasts' logo with the Cougars' or Red Dogs' logo. If you change stadiums, it's going to look weird because every team has its name and logo design worked into the stadium aesthetics. You also don't have any control over what colors your team wears. I wanted to put my third created team, the Buffalo Iron Men, into some snazzy duds of dark blue but the game won't allow you to do that. Third, you can't create a brand-new team name. My second created team was lamely, generically called the Tucson Scorpions. I had wanted to call them the Tucson Sidewinders. Perhaps the Tucson Roadrunners. Given the generic names, I'm shocked 2K Sports managed to create a team called the Firebirds, which has long been a favored name of mine when I create teams in video games.
You get a full season gameplay option, but no franchise mode, which is inexcusable. Pretty much every option 2K Sports is known for doing well, including The Crib, was either severely cut back or lopped altogether.
After years of making the best football sims known to man, 2K Sports is finally fumbling and taking sacks once the actual game begins too. 2K style football still means a tougher game and lots of controlled scoring and statistics. In 2K8, this trickled down to the easy mode as well, and the easy mode provides a challenge. Much of this challenge is legit, but a good chunk of it feels like padding as well: If there's a penalty, you can bet it's going to be against your team. The increased burst of catch-up speed from the computer AI in the last quarter of any given game it's losing hasn't been improved, and in fact it's worse than ever. It's so bad now, in fact, there doesn't seem to be any point in even trying to stop the computer. Any third- or fourth-and-long situation it faces will be converted. Any red zone face-off will result in a touchdown. Any last-quarter drive in a close game which could potentially put the computer away will be cut short. Any challenge will go the computer's way.
All-Pro Football 2K8 marks the first time I've seen that the 2K Football series uses consistent defenses. At last, 2K Sports has made a football game in which using a zone defense isn't just for people who like to give up first downs. Getting sacks and interceptions happens about as consistently as it does in the NFL. There's a tackle stick, but as with 2K's Madden counterpart, no reason for its existence. But whenever I take control of my favorite defensive position, middle linebacker, well, before the snap he skips around in such a way that it's impossible to move him closer to the line without jumping offsides. After the snap, I'll occasionally have the analog going down, but Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary won't move in that direction for several seconds, which is a real pain in clutch situations.
Offense is cool. It controls as well as it ever did, but I've discovered that I'm not able to spread the ball around as efficiently as I could in editions past. In the past, it made no difference if whoever I was aiming for was the primary receiver on the play. In 2K8, the primary receiver is noticeably the one with the best chance at catching the ball. The other receivers are noticeably worse, and throwing to them will result in a lot of dropped and missed passes, or worse, an interception. While this means the option to switch the primary receivers on a play now has an actual purpose, it's very inconvenient to do so and I preferred my old method of just throwing to whoever was, you know, open. Running is easier than ever, though.
2K Sports ditched the useless numbering system of player ranking. Now, they have implemented an ability system which is based on the players' real-life counterparts. It picks out a series of attributes those quarterbacks were known for on the gridiron and emphasizes them in the game. Need a fourth-quarter comeback? John Elway is your man. Too many of the other team's runners getting into open field? You can rectify that problem using a hard-hitting defensive back like Jack Tatum. Dan Marino have too much time in the pocket? Grab a player with the sack master ability, like the Minister of Defense, Reggie White. I like this system because it allows me to create teams and players using the abilities I believe are most pertinent and important to a team's success. It makes choosing the right players an important strategy in its own way, rather than just giving you a number which tells you he's the top dog on the block.
The graphics in All-Pro Football 2K8 include some clever, wonderful stadium designs but otherwise look like something you would see on the old Xbox. Some of the players don't really look like their real-life counterparts - Joe Montana especially. And if nothing I've written so far tells you that 2K Sports was being lazy, the sounds will. Peter O'Keefe and Dan Stevens are back doing the commentary. This is ordinarily a good thing, because the fictional O'Keefe and Stevens are bright and enthusiastic. But in All-Pro Football 2K8, almost - if not absolutely - all of their lines have been recycled from previous editions. I want to shoot out my screen if I hear Stevens say "You can't coach that!" one more time. The music is decent, but includes a hideous remake of the classic Rush song "Tom Sawyer."
I can't believe my beloved 2K has finally been taken out by the yearly roster update from EA Sports. It really looks like 2K Sports was hoping to grab gamers using just names and a concept, and that they were using their lack of an NFL license as an excuse to not do anything with All-Pro Football 2K8. The concept is definitely worth looking into, but only get this game if you don't like the current NFL. (Which I don't blame you for.)
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