NCAA Football 07 Review (Xbox)
"If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door." – Ralph Waldo Emerson (attributed)
I’ve always been fascinated by this quote, catchphrase, theory, whatever you choose to call it. Most of you have probably heard it in the simpler more condensed version that simply says, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." It’s a concept that has captured the attention of American industry for well over a century, yet, at its core, there are a thousand holes in the theory.
Now we could get into the debate that people have been having for years about whether or not people are willing to “beat” said path. We could argue about why people would be interested if they don’t mind mice running around. Or, perhaps at a simplistic level, what if people don’t have a mouse problem at all?
The question that has always stuck with me is slightly more basic than that. Why do we need a better mousetrap?
The standard old-school mousetrap works. It’s effective. It’s quiet. It’s inexpensive. I’m not trying to say that it’s not important to advance, but sometimes the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” really makes sense.
When EA Sports officially kicked off the 2006 football release season with their new NCAA 2007, they were breaking new ground in this franchise. They would release their debut college football effort on the Next Next-Gen systems – the Xbox 360. Literally, this is a new title being built on the heels of their successful series that has rocked the current-gen for years. They’d put a whole team of developers on the new project. But, where would that leave the people who have yet to plunked down the fat scoots for a 360?
NCAA 06 on the Xbox, despite a few quirks, was one of the best football titles of all-time. Like so many of its predecessors in this collegiate franchise, I literally was playing this game until the day before NCAA 2007 hit stores. I’ll admit, I was more excited about the 360 version, because it’s new. But, I’m a loyal dog. NCAA 2007 would get multi-platform love from me this year and, most likely, every year that they release multiple versions.
Before we get into my two cents on what I found on the big black box, I do think it’s important to mention that I was playing NCAA 2007 on the slightly smaller off-white box for about a week before I received my copy for the Xbox. I'm not going to directly compare the two because they are both football games, which would be like comparing a Dodge Stratus to a Corvette because they’re both cars. Obviously, the Xbox 360 just has more power under the hood. But, I do think it’s important to use the 360 version as a reference point, because, in the end, I am going to recommend that you own both.
Most people scored NCAA 06, on a mental 10-point must system, somewhere in the high 8’s to a perfect 10. It was an amazing title. So, needless to say, the Xbox team of developers was fighting both high expectations for a great follow-up as well as the Next Next-Gen version’s debut release.
Let’s get this out of the way right away for those who have hit their word limit already and don’t want to sift through the details. If you liked NCAA 06, you’re going to love NCAA 2007. If you loved NCAA 06, you may just wet your pants with excitement.
The team at EA Sports did what seems so simple in concept, but so often overlooked in reality. They took what worked and expanded on it. Then they took what didn’t and fixed it. What more can you ask for?
So what worked last year?
The gameplay was fantastic last year. Sure, there were a few minor hiccups; like the deep pass being a little too simple to complete. I understand that a lot of the gamers plunking down the $49.99 like to try to put up 700 yards passing per game, but even they had to be thinking it was a little easy. In NCAA 2007, the gameplay is smooth. It flows naturally and really seems to move at the perfect speed for the game. All the great AI tendencies from last year were given a fresh coat of paint and, thankfully, the few suspect areas were cleaned up. And since gameplay fell pretty squarely in the “it ain’t broke” column, they decided to simply sweeten the pot.
The first new addition you’ll notice right off is the new implementation of momentum. "Big Mo", as I like to call it. Make big plays at big times and momentum will swing to your side. The more the momentum swings, the more you will feel it in the way your team does or doesn’t execute on the field, depending on which side of the momentum slide you’re on. Running backs will get an extra shimmy in their step. Make that extra move. Break that last tackle. Receivers will make that tough grab on the sidelines. Linebackers will hit those gaps harder and faster. I know it sounds like it might be over the top, but it really isn’t. It’s so much better then the Matrix-esque “in the zone” moments in last year’s release.
Regardless of which side of the momentum meter you’re on, you’ll also find some nice additions to the gameplay on both sides of the ball. Offensively, NCAA 2007 scraps the Truck Stick in exchange for the Impact Stick. I was not a huge fan of the Truck Stick, but definitely conceded its place in the game. There are a lot of big backs in the NCAA that bowl over the opposition, especially in major mismatches. But, it did not properly account for the little backs. The speedsters. The lightning to the Truck Stick’s thunder. The Impact Stick, which further moves sports gaming into the dual-analog stick era, is almost more akin to the Trick Sticks you find in games like NBA Street or, some would argue, more like EA’s dearly departed football competitor. Timing is really the key to using the Impact Stick and learning what the stick is going to do in certain situations. It adds a depth to running with the ball, and certainly trumps the "lower your head and charge" mentality of the Truck Stick.
The Hit Stick is still there on defense, but the newest feature you’ll find is called “Jump The Snap.” I know this control had a lot of people worried about its implementation. You could almost smell the online cheese. Fortunately, it’s really well done. Much like real football, it works well if your opponent allows it. But savvy competitors, including the AI, will mix up snap counts and throw in hard counts to burn you. Once you commit to your jump, if your timing is off, just start marching back the five yards. Oh, and did I mention that those dumb penalties will swing the momentum? Risk and reward, my friends, risk and reward.
Also new this year is the inclusion of team-specific playbooks with unique formations to fit. Although these were not quite as deep as I had hoped from hearing all the hype, it was nice to see teams who are famous for certain unique formations actually running out of them. It’s a nice added element to the game and would really excel if future releases could fine-tune the packages.
But, wait, the fun and features are not relegated to just offense and defense anymore. Special teams is an extremely important facet to every good team. NCAA 2007 is finally addressing that by spending some time adding some flash and fun to these moments in the game.
The new kicking system will jump out at you right away. Again, the right stick is put to work now that it is actually mapped to kicking in a very similar system to what you find in most current golf games. Actually, more accurately, it uses the last two generations of golf games. It still uses a power meter for timing, but it also adds the element of showing off your thumb coordination by forcing you to pull the stick straight back and push straight forward (while staying in time) in order to get off a straight kick.
The yin to the yang of the new kicking system is a new interface for defending/blocking kicks. You actually change the view of the field during these special play moments in an attempt to find the right route or gap to hit to make it to the kicker or punter in time for a block. Blocks are a huge momentum swing and add a nice element gameplay. Plus, to those who are already playing the 360 version, not only will this view be new to you, but the number of successful blocks is considerably lower than the next-gen version.
Presentation in the game remains solid in the Xbox version of NCAA 2007. Few would argue that the three-man both featured in this title is one of the best around and hands down the best in any EA Sports title. Brad Nessler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit still provide play-by-play and commentary that flows smoothly with the action on the field. It does seem to be a little bit more recycled then in years past. There isn’t a lot new here and the game still lacks front-end presentation. With the ESPN license, EA Sports would be foolish not to be working on a virtual "College Gameday" segment to run in the front of each game or week of a Dynasty. It’s been done and done well by other companies. People love it. It would really spice this title up.
Back to the original topic, most would agree that the Race For The Heisman mode was just short of useless last year. Yes, I know, the Operation Sports community is not necessarily on the pulse of the average sports gamer, but it was a pretty weak mode. But, instead of scrapping it altogether, EA once again took it, stripped it down, tweaked it, and repainted it with the title of Campus Legend.
Campus Legend mode actually tries to take the perspective more from the student-athlete angle. It’s more about being the big man on campus then winning the Heisman. Because, let’s face it, if you’re the strong safety at Western Michigan University, the chances of you winning the Heisman are thinner than the lovechild of Nicole Richie and Jenny Craig. However, being the BMOC in Kalamazoo is a different story.
This year, after creating your player and accepting your scholarship, you’ll actually have to choose a major. You’ll study, take tests, go to practice, pop quizzes, and be forced to decide how you want your player to behave in your free time. Party or study? There’s a tough choice. If you’re going to play this mode, you do want to take those tests seriously. Your attributes are directly related to your major and your success on the field.
It’s not radically different then Race For The Heisman, but it does a couple of things right. More importantly, I think it’s at least a small next step to what a mode like this can be. I know that we’ll likely never get to a point where we have a true NCAA student-athlete mode (cough…Rhett Bomar….cough), but I respect the fact that they didn’t give up on the concept and are at least trying to improve it.
The meat and potatoes, as always, will still be found in the world famous NCAA Dynasty Mode. Simply put, it’s still the champion. No other career, season, franchise, or whatever mode compares to the Dynasty Mode in NCAA 2007. And, just like the rest of the title, they did nothing to change that. They only made it better. All the same great tasks and abilities from previous Dynasty Modes are there, with only one minor change and one nice upgrade.
The minor change was inevitable. During your Dynasty mode, instead of the Sports Illustrated covers handling your week-to-week interface in your Dynasty, it’s been replaced by ESPN Magazine. They paid the big bucks for the contract; you knew they were going to use it. Sad thing is, this is really the only place they are using the ESPN license to any extent.
The upgrade is one that gamers have been clamoring for since the original NCAA days. NCAA 2007 has finally brought that missing piece between the recruiting phase and the start of the season to life – Spring practice. You now get to take your team through various position drills to get them into playing shape and ready for the new season. You’ll finally have some control over how they grow in the off-season. The practice phase culminated in the Spring Game. You’ll get two five minutes halves to run your first and second teams out on the field to get a feel for who your players are going to be this season.
Online play on Xbox Live is there and reliable. In my opinion, EA still needs to embrace the online gaming community more than they do. It’s getting a little stale with the same old limited options. Online gaming is only growing.
So the question has to be asked, do we need a better mousetrap?
NCAA 2007 on the Xbox has the best parts of last year’s version and it's improved. No, it’s not as pretty as the Xbox 360 version. But it’s deep. It’s smooth. And, most importantly, it’s fun.
If you’re an Xbox owner who loves football, well, you’re likely not reading this; you’ve already bought the game and are playing as we speak. If you’re an Xbox 360 owner who already owns that version of the game, but you’ve been hemming and hawing about spending the other $50, it’s the best thing that’s been released on the Xbox since the 360 launched. Period.
As much as I hate scoring these reviews, I’m going to save you some posts and nasty emails. I would give NCAA 2007 a perfect 10/10 based on the gameplay and the amount of fun I had with it. However, I’m knocking a point off for the lack of ESPN integration, the status quo on online play, and for not adding to the pre-game intros.
There you go, EA. The perfect 10 will be the mouse. What will you do to trap it next year?