Review: With NCAA Football 07, EA Tiburon lays testament that perhaps it's better to sit on the bench your rookie year, in preparation for a solid sophomore debut.
The Xbox 360 launch was untimely for college pigskin fans, and after a year of being left out in the cold, college football has finally made the leap to next-gen. It was well worth the wait too. NCAA Football 07 is an exciting title that will feel familiar to those who played last year's next-gen Madden, but a deeper career mode, intuitive mini-games, and added gameplay perks are what separate NCAA 07 from its pro-football brethren.
At first glance, the graphics are strikingly similar to Madden 06. In comparison, the textures, arenas and processing power all have minimal upgrades. Although, that's not to say there are not any improvements, as what the game lacks in horsepower it makes up for with its subtle-yet-distinct animations littered throughout each play. The whole process of a play looks so natural, with lineman cleaving through one another, receivers fighting for position, and everyone else on the field looking compelled to help his team come up big. Whether it's tackling, making a block, or eluding the defense, you'll constantly notice new and various animations.
A day-and-night engine was implemented so that as the game progresses, the sun's involvement changes in a realistic manner, altering the lighting and shadows throughout the duration of a game. If a game kicks off in the late afternoon, you can see the sky slowly transcend from fairly bright evening to a sullen, nighttime overcast. And since the sky's brightness alters throughout play, you would think the weather would perhaps go through some transformations as well. Instead, you must watch rainfall shower the field monotonously the whole game.
The player models are formidable, but aside from a more athletically-structured design, they don't boast any noticeable improvements over those in Madden 06. However, the mascots were done to perfection, parading around the sidelines with humorous dances and playful expressions. Packed to the brim with enthused fans, the stadiums are massive, with some of the bigger venues--Notre Dame for instance--receiving more attention to detail. Between the exuberant fans, goofy mascots, and harmonious marching bands, the college atmosphere is convincingly recreated. The presentation has a few highlights, as well. For example, replays are led off by a ferocious television-inspired graphic of two team helmets clashing against one another. Other than a few visually-pleasing moments, though, the presentation is fairly vapid.
It's just too bad there's still no net beyond the uprights; as a result, you'll watch balls endlessly soar until they're lost in the sea of fans. It should also be noted that, on occasion, there were some collision-detection issues, namely when a receiver and defender both attempted to make a play on the ball. We encountered a similar problem after the snap at the line of scrimmage, with lineman and other players getting caught up on one another, and the frame-rate tended to take a dive here and there. Despite a few minor issues though, the whole 22-man dogfight operates smoothly for the most part and looks spectacular in motion, and while the game may not have made any monumental leaps visually, the wide array of animations helps to make up for such shortcomings.
Before anything, you have to pick your favorite team. While the smaller divisions aren't available, you should have no problem finding a team you like throughout the list of well over a 100 to choose from. Upon doing so, the theme and music for the menus are fine-tuned to whichever university you choose. The menu is stacked with game modes, including a lengthy dynasty mode and three brand new mini-games to boot.
While its PS2 and Xbox counterparts have ?Career Legend? as its core mode, the 360 version has a trimmed down ?Dynasty? mode instead. Embarking on this 30-year tenure, you can target prospects all across the country. You'll want to carefully recruit the next wave of young talent, since you have a limited number of scholarships. Throughout the season, your team will have a premier player on each side of the ball, signified by a star emblazoned under him. As more and more games are played, your star player can lose his prominence if he underperforms, giving a more deserving player the opportunity to don the mark. As the head of your own destiny, you can keep an eye on the Coaches Poll and Media Poll, watch the Heisman race unfold, and maybe even groom some of your players toward an All-American selection. However, this mode is fairly trimmed down, feeling more like a basic season mode than anything. While there are a few managerial options and parameters to toy with, dynasty mode lacks substance. There are no training camps, drills, or any between-game activities to speak of. Sure, you can fool with coaching tendencies such as offensive style and substitution frequency, and can also set up the depth chart to your liking, but other than that, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to actually want to complete numerous seasons, much less 30 years.
What NCAA Football's core mode lacks is somewhat remedied with its enthralling mini-games. Aptly named, ?Bowling? starts you off at the 10-yard line with two chances in each set to make it to the end zone. There are 10 sets total, and every yard counts a point, so players will want to tussle forward for every extra inch. A strike is awarded by reaching the end zone on your first attempt, while a spare is tallied if it takes two plays. In this fun red zone battle, the scoring works just the same as if you were at the bowling alley. The scoring may be different, but penalties are still in effect for each mini-game.
?Tug of War? is also indicative of its name. In this mode, the action commences at the 50-yardline, with opposing teams trading between offense and defense after each play. It's all about field position, as the object is to outdo your opponent until you reach the end zone. Summing up the list is ?Option Dash?. In two-minute drill fashion, you start at your own 20-yard line, having to take the ball down field using the same option play. Along the way, you accumulate points by performing various jukes and eating up yards. Each mini-game is creative in its own way, and not only are they entertaining extras, they are instrumental in honing your skills in certain real-game situations. As inventive as these games are, it's a shame they aren't available on Xbox Live.
The gameplay seems to have been lifted straight from the next-gen Madden, with the physics and pre-snap options being almost identical. Before the snap, there are plenty of options on both sides of the ball to make any needed adjustments. On defense, you can shift your defensive line, line-backing core, and secondary all to your liking--press coverage, deep coverage, show blitz, it's all there. On the other end, you can pick hot routes, move receivers around, adjust fullbacks, audible out of a play, and more. The pre-snap options are easy to manage and have enough variety to put your group in position to make a play.
The game plays very much like Madden 06 for the 360, but that's not to say it doesn't bring anything new to the table. The boys at EA Tiburon have incorporated a jump-snap option on defense. A well-timed jump snap allows your lineman to get a jump on the count and usually breeze past any blockers, leaving the offense line in shambles. However, this feature can hurt you as much as it can help. If you jump prematurely, your team will be docked five yards every time. To make matters even more gut-wrenching, the offense can always throw in a hard count, which jerks the camera back--a great counterpunch for any overzealous lineman. Of course, just like the jump-snap feature, abusing the fake snap can also be detrimental to your team, as a hard count not only throws the defense off, it can make your own team become anxious as well.
Last year's NCAA 06 rewarded players with the truck stick, a jolting new method for power running backs to lay a defender flat on his rear. This year they decided to give the smaller, more agile running backs an equalizer. The impact stick is done with the right analogue, and it gives tailbacks that aren't as massive an equal opportunity to attack the defense. However, instead of plowing through a defender as the truck stick does, the impact stick can initiate a number of Reggie Bush-like maneuvers. On top of that, there are buttons for juke and stiff arm, giving you a repertoire of moves to stand toe to toe with even the stoutest defenses.
Be it a hit stick, impact stick, or whatnot, you can posterize your flashy heroics at their most dazzling point thanks to the new snap shot option. In an instant replay, you can pause the action at any moment and swivel the camera angle to your liking before taking the picture. All pictures can be viewed in the photo album and come with game info from which the shot was taken. This is a decent feature for players with a nostalgic liking, but other than that, there isn't much use for it.
The create-a-player feature is yet another somewhat nugatory addition. It's not a bad idea, just poorly executed. The mode allows you to make numerous adjustments to a player, including physical structure, attributes, hometown, handedness, and a few other parameters, but it's just not very deep. There's no option for a visor, no helmet styles, and no shoulder pad variations--in layman's terms, no ability to give your created player any character.
From the jarring fans to the mascots running amok, the college atmosphere is clearly in place, and your team's momentum can lead you to a victory. Speaking of momentum, there's an onscreen ?momentum? meter that measures on-field performance. Although these shifts are not necessarily about your team's performance, but rather, your individual performance. An interception by one of your DBs, for instance, is hardly beneficial to your meter unless you yourself made the pick. Big plays from your computer-controlled teammates have little effect on your meter, which is better in the sense that momentum is based more on an individual's sole performance rather than what his computer-controlled teammates may or may not do. Contrarily, nearly all monumental plays on offense will have your meter skyrocketing, since you control all the action on this side of the ball.
When the meter is full, you'll notice players with an added boost of swagger and dexterity--runners craftily slithering through the defense, blockers plowing through their opponents, defensive backs allowing little through the air, and so forth. Needless to say, it's palpable that players are more attentive and composed. A well-executed and entertaining feature, the momentum meter adds a whole new element to in-game strategy, as it can influence big play opportunities. It's nice to know that controlling the tempo of a game benefits your team's morale, and in turn, your performance. Those feeling skeptical should not be dissuaded, though, as the momentum meter is not nearly as dramatic as a ?gamebreaker?. In fact, even with the meter at its peak, the simulation feel stays very much intact, albeit with an added bit of intensity.
The kicking system in football games has evolved closely with the way that free-throw shooting has in basketball titles. EA Tiburon has continued this trend by borrowing a few pointers from current hardwood games. Kicking (punts, field goals, and kick offs) is now performed with the right analog stick; after adjusting the direction arrow, you pull back on the stick to initiate the rising meter. When the meter reaches its apex, push up. The angle made from pushing up on the stick is displayed at the bottom of the screen, and it plays a role in the ball's route. Execution isn't the only factor, however, as timing is also important. Waiting too long to push the stick may result in a blocked punt or a botched field goal. The reworked system is a breath of fresh air and is a bit steeper on the difficulty curve, making easy 50-yard field goals a thing of the past.
On top of a new kicking system and momentum meter, NCAA Football 07 gives you more options to call a play. It's no secret that the playbooks in past NCAA Football outings were fairly lackluster, but 07 boasts nearly twice as many plays, giving players a lot more leeway with their schemes. Plays can be sorted by formation, play type, key player, and ask Corso. Sorting by formation will likely be the most natural method for football vets, but the alternate ways of sorting through plays are helpful in certain situations, and may also be convenient for those not as inclined with the sport.
While there aren't any licensed players in the game, the commentators still know who the stars are on each team, though only referring to them by position. The game does give you the option of generating random names for all unnamed players, but doing so discredits the game's realism and really seems pointless for the most part. Granted, you can manually enter names for every player, but most will be hard-pressed to find enough patience to enter anything more than the names of their own team's roster.
Aurally speaking, the game doesn't push any boundaries, but does manage to take enough strides to keep everything running smoothly. The analysts do a sufficient job calling the play-by-play action, and they recorded enough material for the commentary to not become too stale. Every on-field thump and big hit is bolstered by the euphonious tunes from the marching band and relentless uproars from the bleacher-packed fans. However, as energized as the crowd is, the fan noise doesn't necessarily coincide with the on-field play.
The online portion propels the game's depth quite a bit. As most any game on Xbox Live, you can compete in a ranked or unranked game. All ranked games count toward your record, and you can see how you stack up against others by viewing the leader boards. There's also an ESPN Ticker that will keep you up to date with real-life sports scores and headlines. The frame-rate can become a bit choppy as the teams set up at the line of scrimmage, but once the ball is snapped, everything runs seamlessly, with the controls just as responsive and precise as they are offline.
Regardless of the many additions, the developers managed to add a few little extras here and there. The new quick-save option allows players to skip a barrage of menus and save any data with a simple click of the left stick. Additionally, there are 50 achievements to unlock, ranging from simple tasks such as passing for four touchdowns in a game, to more complex goals like winning the Heisman trophy. And of course, what's an NCAA game without a tantalizing preview of EA's forthcoming Madden.