IGN Review of NCAA Football 07
One play. Sometimes, that's really all it takes in college football to blow a game wide open or turn around what seems to be certain defeat. You never really know when that game changing moment might come, but you can definitely feel its impact on the field and in the stadium when it happens. That emotional pendulum might seem to be one of the intangible characteristics of the sport, but EA Sports has managed to capture the up and down, hang on the edge of your seat for every play feeling in this year's version of NCAA Football 07. The result, along with a redesigned camera for dramatic moments, new playbooks and adjustments to both sides of the ball helps to makes NCAA Football 07 one of the more immersive football games in a long while.
Hitting the Field
There are a number of offensive, defensive and special team changes to the gameplay, which makes 07 feel and play different than before. While there appears to be much more of a focus this year on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive, the adjustments really make the game feel more dynamic. In previous versions of NCAA Football, you had a stock set of plays that just about everyone else had, which didn't truly differentiate your school from another one. Sure, there were Ace and I formations as well as dropping back into the Shotgun, but unless you were going to dedicate the time to editing your favorite team's playbook to exactly what you wanted, you were dipping into the same pool as everyone else. You no longer have to worry about that in NCAA Football 07. This year, each team has its own unique playbook with team specific calls on both sides of the ball, and since they're thirty percent larger this year, you'll most likely find a play that you've never seen before.
On offense, thanks to the increased focus on players pulling off their assignments, developing running plays, such as the option, is much more advantageous than ever before. Not only will your lead blockers jam defenders on the line, but they'll actually provide additional protection down the field. This gives your quarterback much more time to set up the play and decide if he'll pitch the ball or hold onto it. Players can also decide specific line shifts and/ or slide protection to help prevent blitzing linebackers or safeties. What's more, as your backs or receivers make plays down the field, you no longer need to worry about pounding a button to hurdle downed defenders, as players will instinctively leap anyone that falls in front of them.
Quarterbacks have also been given the ability to throw a ball directly at a receiver's feet to avoid the intentional grounding penalty if they're still in the pocket, which can help if you're constantly facing a blitzing defense. Moreover, quarterbacks no longer need to worry about pulling down passing windows if they need to avoid incoming defenders. The sprint button is now dedicated to all controlled players, so you can always run away from trouble if you notice it coming your way. Your quarterback also has the same juke moves tied to the right analog stick as his backs and receivers, so you should be able to escape from just about any situation and have the opportunity to make a play. While the added mobility is extremely nice if your pockets keep collapsing before you can do anything, the option to continually sprint can give your quarterbacks Vick-like evasion and playmaking skill.
Special teams now have a new kicking meter too, which ties accuracy and power directly to the movement of the right analog stick. Pull it back and you build up power; push it left or right and you'll slice it in that direction. But this redesign also features into the new focus on trick plays this year. Apart from reverses, double options and direct snaps to halfbacks, you can also pull off puntrooskies and tight fake option passes to keep the defense on their toes. Unlike past years where it was pretty apparent that you were trying to pull a fast one, your players will actually sell the fake better this time around, giving you more time to let a play develop. It's truly satisfying to watch the entire defense bite on a fake handoff only to toss a quick strike into the flat and watch your receivers take off. Similarly, you can hot route receivers without changing their formations, further throwing the defense into disarray.
Fortunately, the defense doesn't have to face these insurmountable odds without their own tweaks. Now, every single player on the defensive squad can be given their own defensive hot routes, allowing them to perform man-to-man coverage, zone play or blitzes. If you don't particularly have the time to cycle through each individual man, you can establish defensive line and linebacker shifts to cover ground. You also have the option to jump the snap. Instead of trying to simply sprint across the line, you can take a defensive player and try to time your blitz into the backfield. If you time it just right, you'll knock over the lineman or the blocker and have enough momentum to break up a play. If you're too early, you might be drawn offsides; too late and you may find yourself on your backside.
Turning the Tide
Depending on how well you play during a game, you'll notice a meter slowly increase after big plays. Stop the offense on 3rd and short, bust a run for thirty yards, or run back a punt for a touchdown and you'll quickly get a sense of how much the momentum in the game changes. For the most part, this shift will go back and forth during evenly matched contests, although there is always the possibility that one game changing play will swing the balance in favor of one team or another. As the momentum meter fills up, you'll start to notice some of your players pulling off even more spectacular plays, such as one handed catches, big hits on defense, and fighting for extra yardage to the point where their stats are boosted.
While these momentum bars can be overturned with one play (and in fact are even cut in half when the teams go into the locker room at halftime), the one pitfall with the system is that it can unfairly unbalance the game towards one particular team, leading to unintentional blowouts. For example, running backs will easily mow down defenders and wide receivers will have incredible hands that catch anything thrown near them, no matter how sloppy the spiral might be. While it would only take one play to turn the tide of this system around, you sometimes never have that chance because the boost is so extremely high.
Big Man On Campus
NCAA Football 07 also has revamped last year's Race for the Heisman into the Campus Legend mode. While you were constantly striving to be a Heisman award winner last year, that focus really limited created players to the offensive side of the ball so they could pad their stats. This time around, you're simply seeking to be so valuable to your institution of higher learning that they place you in their campus sports Hall of Fame, ostensibly retiring your number. However, you also have to focus much more on your academics than ever before, keeping your student-athlete's GPA line above a 2.0 so he isn't declared ineligible for that week's game.
First, you create a player, and set a 40-yard dash time as well as run him through position specific drills to determine what schools will offer him scholarships. From there, you select from one of 18 majors, each classified as either Easy (such as general education), Moderate (Mathematics) or Hard (Chemistry) to pass. Each day, your mornings are taken up with classes and your afternoons are taken up with practice, which gives you to opportunity to run a specific formation and gain a bonus whenever your team uses it in that week's game. Your nights are pretty much your own, but you'll have four options to choose from: you can study for your midterms or finals, work with a tutor to boost your GPA, run a position specific drill to increase your stats, or you can attend a social event.
At the end of each school year, your player will also take part in a Spring Game (which is called Scrimmage on the main menu). Here, each team is provided one five minute half on either side of the ball. The offense receives points for every first down or touchdown that they gain, while the defense racks up points for turnovers, sacks or defensive stops. While it might seem like a mini-game, the Spring Game is useful for determining impact players for the upcoming season, and it can also be used to get your player to become a team captain, further elevating their chances to become a full Campus Legend. (Dynasty players will find this low-impact game vital for determining whether or not you want to red-shirt incoming freshman based on their performance in the scrimmage.)
While the re-tooled Campus Legend mode does give you more of a feeling of being a student-athlete, there are some problems that makes its implementation either unrealistic or clunky. First of all, the 40-yard dash can be dominated by players that are skilled with pounding the sprint button. I tried this drill more than a dozen times, and some of the extreme standouts were a QB with a 4.37 and a 350-pound lineman with a 4.72. Apart from the dubious 40, you might find that the "studying and test taking" sections feel out of balance with the rest of the game.
Granted, I don't expect that athletes will dedicate their entire life to their books, nor do I think that they'll constantly party all the time, but sometimes you'll need to study three nights a week of simply to maintain the same GPA without a single increase in sight. The same can be said about tutors and their exams, although you'll need to dedicate four nights to keep your grades afloat. Failing to spend at least this much time will immediately drop your GPA precipitously, which will force you to score a 100% on a midterm or a final to correct the downward slide. It's pretty strange that you can spend so much time on your studies, even passing every test given by a tutor, and not get anywhere academically at the cost of your character's stats.
Graphics and Gameplay
The recent NCAA titles have really looked exceptional, and NCAA Football 07 is no different. Along with helmet sheen and snow and a few new additional player faces to differentiate the character models on the field, there are some new animations to make the game seem more realistic. One of the more immediately striking features comes with the new cinematic camera angles during kickoffs and punt block attempts. Designed to give you a feeling of actively playing a cinematic, the camera sweeps in low and follows the in-game action, making you feel as though you're actually running on the field as well. The same can be said about the momentum moments, which tightly zoom in on the play before sweeping out to a normal view.
You can run into a slight pitfall with these moments, because if you wind up getting a momentum moment as you score a touchdown, the transition between that camera angle to the celebratory animation will go so long that you'll usually get flagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It sucks when you're not taunting, but the game decides that you are anyway because of its own play mechanic. You'll also notice that the camera can sometimes get lost on some of these momentum moments, selecting the wrong player on the field to focus on. For instance, it doesn't make any sense to highlight a linebacker leaping for the ball when the play isn't anywhere near him. Similarly, the included feature of coach challenges don't necessarily work as well as you'd hope they would in the game. While it's nice to have the option to challenge a referee's call, there are some plays, such as passes declared receptions even though the receiver is blatantly out of bounds, that the game will let stand. This will simply infuriate players, and practically relegates the challenge to a gimmick that you can toss a quarter over instead of accurately getting fair reviews.
Finally, one significant change that veterans of previous NCAA games will pick up on is the ESPN integration within the game. ESPN: The Magazine supplants the previous Sports Illustrated items in Dynasty and Campus Legend mode and provides the updated stats and tracked info during a season of play for coaches and players alike. However, you also get much more than a cosmetic change; the first addition is ESPN Instant Classics, which will evaluate the play of your games and, depending on how dramatic and incredible the game way, assign it a greatness score. Next, you can get an updated sports ticker with sports scores displayed at the bottom of your screen, as well as ESPN Radio updates.
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