NCAA Football 07 Review (Xbox 360)
Submitted on: Aug 11, 2006 by Shawn Drotar
Madden may get all the press, but around these parts, NCAA is the go-to game for a football fix, and it has been for years.
Now, the college football cornucopia that is the NCAA Football series soft-lands on the Xbox 360, bringing less features to that system than its current-gen cousin does to the Xbox and PS2, but a whole stadium full of gridiron goodness just the same.
Speaking of stadiums, most games begin with a sweeping fly-over of one of the game's lavishly appointed ones, and it's obvious that a lot of care and attention to detail went into creating these football cathedrals.
Unfortunately, those fly-overs lose some of their beauty as distinct frame-rate issues rear their ugly heads in virtually every stadium pan.
Unlike the current-gen version of the game, there are a large number of teams that play in generic stadiums. It's too bad, but it's assumed here that building such detailed models takes quite a bit of time, and it's likely that EA will be adding to the number of authentic stadiums as soon as possible.
In the meanwhile, the generic stadiums are just fine for in-game play, and the fans arrayed within them express excitement, enthusiasm and disappointment in appropriate proportions.
In fact, the crowd sounds are one of the game's finest achievements.
Such an introduction to the game seems like a harbinger of ill news, but as it turns out, it's not at all.
While the stadium frame-rate hitches are a bit irksome, they don't detract from the game itself in any meaningful way, and when the game itself starts, you won't be worrying about the stadium much, anyway.
The game runs in silky-smooth fashion, and the game's sole camera does a good job of capturing all of it. Player models are by-and-large excellent, if a little over-muscled, and their animations are spectacular.
Contextual animations bring the game to vivid life, and don't be surprised if hard tackles elicit shouts, groans and winces from anyone looking at the screen. While there are some collision detection issues at times (for example, your quarterback may be sacked by a lineman running by him), at other times, the collision detection is spot-on, and really helps bring a visceral rush to the proceedings.
The game play itself is solid throughout, but there's definitely room for improvement in some areas. To wit:
-- There are far too many kick blocks, especially on extra points. They seem to come in bunches, and while the fact that you'll see them makes kicking something to concentrate on instead of sleepwalk through, it still happens far too often.
-- Corner routes are far, far too effective, especially with a mobile quarterback and a moderately speedy tight end. In fact, I'd argue that running a tight end corner would qualify as a "money play" - and since I'm not a tournament gamer, I don't consider that to be a good thing. Certain other plays, like the fullback dive, are also too effective in general and end up as a crutch for poor game planners.
-- The new Momentum system seems a bit too overpowering in favor of the human player. You can play your heart out for a half in a close game versus a superior foe, take the lead with one drive, and then watch the other team collapse like a house of cards, throwing picks, fumbling and generally making bumbling fools of themselves, whereas earlier, you may have been struggling to even stay close.
-- There is no ability to double-team receivers. In the college game, where a team will often have one dominant wide-out, the lack of any functionality to appropriately guard that player is unfortunate.
-- Conversely, interceptions happen with regularity, and it's not uncommon to see three or four times as many picks as you'll see in a real college football game. Moreover, the game's sliders don't adequately address the issue - even with an "Interceptions" slider.
-- Players will collide with each other constantly, and it's jarring to see what happens when you call a defensive line shift and linebacker shift on the same play - your team starts looking like an old-fashioned electric football game, with players buzzing around and bumping into each other while they're still as little plastic statues.
-- "Mario running" is back. Your ball-carrier will rarely "get skinny" trying to go through the holes in the offensive line, instead running in place; looking peculiar and exasperating the gamer. It doesn't happen on offense alone, either; I've intercepted passes and been stuck behind one of my own unmoving players until the tacklers caught up to my cornerback on more than one occasion. It seemed that EA had made steps toward resolving this issue - which has plagued all their titles for years - and to see it make such a high-profile (and unwelcome) re-appearance on the world's most powerful console is frustrating and disappointing.
The above comments are meant as constructive criticism, however, because what the game does right on the field carries much more weight than what it doesn't:
--The game's controls are excellent to begin with, but in case they don't fit you quite right, they can be mapped to whatever scheme you choose (within reason, of course).
--The playcalling screens are flexible, versatile and easy-to-use for the football neophyte and the armchair general alike, and the value of such an effective playcalling scheme in a football game can't be overstated.
-- The new "Jump the Snap" feature works perfectly, balancing the risk of an instant five-yard penalty against slicing through the O-line like a hot knife through butter. It's not easy and requires flawless timing, as it should.
--The new Impact Stick feature all but eliminates the need to press a face button while carrying the ball. While you still may choose to cover up the ball or throw a stiff-arm with the buttons, the game can be effectively played by flicking the right stick alone while carrying the football. Contextual animations are triggered given the size, speed, agility and overall skill of the ball-carrier, and with just a little bit of practice, the result is a natural, almost instinctive gameplay experience that completely draws the gamer in.
--The AI seems more sound in general on both sides of the ball, and the end result is a game that feels more simulation-oriented than before. It's a very welcome change, and one that gives the sport of football it's proper due. Gamers have become more sophisticated, and it's heartening to see that the games they're playing can become so, as well.
Moreover, the game simply "feels" good. Very good. The blend of solid in-game controls, efficient design, breathtaking animation and smooth gameplay is both addictive and fun. NCAA Football 07 is simply one of the most enjoyable sports games around, and that alone is enough to recommend the title.
The game's presentation is lacking in some respects, but it's not bad - just bland.
NCAA's three-man announcing team of Brad Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso do their usual, admirable job, although their commentary doesn't feel quite as fresh as it has in other years. That said; there are few pro announcers who put as much effort into recording their lines as these three obviously do, and the game's presentation would suffer greatly without them.
NCAA doesn't really make you believe you're watching or participating in a college football game, however, despite the commentators' best efforts. Replays are few and far between, and the small window in which they do play adds nothing to the proceedings.
While announcers will reference famous rivalry trophies and the like, you'll never actually see them, and there won't even be a limited cut-scene to show the victors with their hard-earned spoils.
The ESPN license, which EA Sports obtained at extraordinary expense, is essentially nowhere to be seen, which is both baffling and disappointing, as it could have added so much to the game's look and overall package.
On the plus side, there are a limited number of cut-scenes, in part because they've been replaced in many ways by something much better - players that show "emotion" on the play after its conclusion. Linebackers will be frustrated after a long gain, players will celebrate after a big sack, and you'll see many other "human" reactions in-game. This gives the game a very organic and lifelike feel, and it's another one of the notable accomplishments in NCAA 07 that deserves special mention.
The feature set is a bit sparse, especially in comparison to it's current-gen counterparts.
However, there's still enough meat on the game's bones to keep most gamers busy enough for some time.
The game's Dynasty mode is solid and challenging; with in-season recruiting working as well as you'd hope. Players will waver back and forth, and you'll see some players show maximum interest in multiple schools, adding to the tension during down-time between games.
There are no Division I-AA teams, though their omission doesn't detract from the game too much.
Surprisingly, one of the most enjoyable parts of NCAA is found in an unlikely place - the title's selection of mini-games.
Whether you play them alone or against a friend, there's a great deal of fun to be had. Option Dash isn't new, but it's twitchy fun, while the new Tug of War and Bowling modes are perfectly designed micro-football experiences.
A good mini-game should require a command of the game's controls and at least a passing knowledge of the game's strategy and concept, but offer a new experience.
Tug of War does exactly that, opening up (or limiting, if you choose) your playbook for one-play drives. Starting at the 50-yard line, each team gets one play, and the other team will start their play where the last one ended. The first one to score a touchdown wins. Despite the format, the game is undeniably football, with a unique strategic twist.
The Bowling mini-game is as well. Starting at the 10-yard line, each team has two plays in a "frame" to score a touchdown. Each yard is scored like a pin in the sport of bowling; scoring a touchdown on the first play counts as a "strike", and doing so on the second earns the gamer a "spare". Like in real bowling, stringing "marks" together is the key to high scores.
But within the game are different approaches to victory. Instead of going for the end zone every time and earning a "mark" or nothing, a more methodical approach can pay off as "spares" and "strikes" add the next one or two plays to the total, allowing a player to double-up their score.
Again, it's definitely a football game, with all the skill and knowledge needed for success, but it takes standard football strategy and makes the gamer re-apply it in a different way.
That's how the very best mini-games are made - and Tug of War and Bowling both take their place among the best sports mini-games ever made.
Online play is available and it works fine, however the slowdown that's noticeably been present in almost all EA Sports games on Xbox Live is here again. It's not unplayable by any means, but it's unfortunate that EA Sports hasn't been able to get its own online games up to the standard performance level of most Xbox Live offerings.
Taken as a whole, however, EA's first step into next-gen college football is an altogether successful one. The game, though lacking in some elements, is not truly watered-down, and there's plenty to keep most gamers entertained.
The most important part of any sports game - the on-field play - is smooth and solid, with some breathtakingly realistic animations adding extra spice. Though some nagging problems persist, they don't much detract from an enjoyable and varied gameplay experience.
The bottom line? NCAA Football 07 looks, sounds and feels the "next-gen" part, and for those of you waiting for a quality football title to play and play again in your Xbox 360, your game is finally here.