E3 06: NCAA Football 07 Preshow First Look

We take an early look at EA's upcoming college football game.

NCAA Football 07

If there's one thing you can count on in college football, it's that momentum changes everything. Just ask the Oregon State Beavers--a team that in the past few years has nearly upset some major competition (we're thinking of two games in the 2004 season where the Beavers came this close to upsetting both LSU and USC, only to blow it in the end). Momentum changes are hard to quantify; certainly a big play--a huge touchdown run, a key interception--can change a team's fortunes in a heartbeat. But there's also the every-down grinding that can slowly see the football fates turn on a favorite and lift the underdog to glory, or just as easily, grind that same overachieving team into dust. Momentum is an essential and ineffable slice of college football, and it will make its presence strongly felt in the upcoming NCAA Football 07 from EA Sports.

NCAA 07 is heading to a number of different consoles, including the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, and PlayStation Portable, and the new momentum feature will find its way into each version of the game. The basic idea of momentum is the same throughout all the platforms--you'll be rewarded for a successful play with a small amount of momentum, and you'll be able to gauge your momentum progress thanks to some handy on-screen menus. Make a crucial catch in the 360 version, for example, and the menu will show a miniature helmet crashing into your opponent's helmet. Unlike older EA Sports games that also featured momentum (such as the NHL series)--where it was often tough to see what you were getting from a built-up momentum bar--in NCAA 07 you'll notice tangible benefits from your accrued momentum. Fill the bar up, and players on your team will get attribute bonuses and be able to make special plays, such as one-handed grabs or huge tackles, that they might not make otherwise.

The development crew at Tiburon is striving to make NCAA 07 a unique experience on all platforms, but there's a reason they chose the Xbox 360 version of the game to show off at EA's recent pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo press event: the game looks gorgeous. After pausing the game, the producer pointed out some of the small details that make the environments in NCAA 07 so impressive. Details they may be, but they're the kind of details that no fan of a particular school will miss--the "Touchdown Jesus" mural, which looms over Notre Dame's stadium, and Howard's Rock, atop the hill at Clemson's Memorial Stadium, are just two examples we saw.

When it comes to the college atmosphere, it isn't just about notable landmarks, however. The development team has also striven to make sure the crowds are as realistic as possible, too. The majority of the crowd will be wearing home team colors on game day, but there will be a designated area for visiting fans. They'll even react appropriately to the action on the field--if the home team scores a touchdown, for example, the visiting fans will throw their arms up in frustration. Thanks to accurate satellite imagery, campus buildings in the stadium backgrounds are authentic as well--as opposed to generic backgrounds in older games. Of course, all this accuracy comes at a price--not all of the 119 1-A teams will have their stadium recreated with such detail in the game; producers told us the number is around 70 right now, with the rest of the stadiums planned for next year's game.

Impact players return in NCAA 07, but according to game producers, their effectiveness has been toned down a bit. In addition, thanks to the new spring-practice game feature in dynasty mode, you can designate that season's impact player after playing out the all-important spring game. Sure, at first glance a meaningless practice game might not sound like something that's worth your time, but if you look a bit closer, you'll realize just how much value you'll have by playing it out. Just as in the real world, the spring-practice scrimmage is all about addressing holes in your roster and judging new talent in the process. If you've got a stud freshman wide receiver that needs some catches, you can throw to him all day long in the practice game and watch his receiving attributes benefit in the process. By the time late summer rolls around and the season is underway, you'll be happy you took those reps on the practice field.

There's more good news for NCAA 07: the playbooks have gotten significantly bulkier this time around. Producers told us they've added around 100 new playbooks to the game, with around 21 new school-specific formations, including the Nevada pistol (a modified shotgun formation, where the tailback stands behind the quarterback, as opposed to next to him). Furthermore, the artificially intelligent players on the field are smarter than ever before--players in motion will run behind the quarterback to set up the triple-option play.

Other new additions to the gameplay include the ability to set slide protection for your offensive linemen and a cool feature that lets you take control of the defensive end on punts. When you switch to that player, your perspective switches to a behind-the-back view, giving you more of a feeling of being there than in previous games and giving you a better chance at making the punt block--something that has been all too rare in previous versions of the game. A new analog kick meter, which judges your kick's strength and accuracy based on your skill with the right analog stick, felt okay to our hands, if a bit too easy.

Then there's all of the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into the game's AI, particularly when it comes to better line play when defending against scrambling quarterbacks, a big flaw in previous games. Quarterback spies, for example, now actually work; as does committing your defensive line to stopping left or right sweeps by leading your coverage in that direction. That said, there is a trade-off--committing to stopping a sweep right, for example, might spell disaster if your opponent decides to run a counter play. From a control standpoint, you can rush the snap with your defensive linemen by pressing the Y button to get a big jump on the quarterback, but you'll want to be careful--it's all too easy to jump the snap and get called for a penalty if you use the move too much.

Last year's Race for the Heisman feature was the first attempt at a player career mode in the series, and this year, the formula has been tweaked a bit. Your goal is still to become a legend in your school's football program, but this year you'll have the added challenge of becoming more of an all-around achiever. You'll declare a major and be required to keep up your GPA while taking a series of periodic tests. It's okay if you're more Marcus Vick than Tony Gonzalez, however; you can choose an "easy" major such as football trivia, as opposed to something tough like chemistry. Just keep in mind that GPA counts--if you can't keep your grades up, you run the risk of being suspended. There's also your social calendar to worry about--will you be the kind of student that hits the books every night, or do you plan on making the most of your big-man-on-campus status and hit the parties? At the end of your campus career, all of your achievements, both on and off the field, will be recorded for posterity.

Dynasty mode is the heart and soul of the NCAA series, so it's no surprise that it's on the way back in NCAA 07. You'll be able to take the reigns of a real college team in the Xbox, PS2, and PSP game, of course, as well as in the Xbox 360 version. Much of the mode will feel familiar to longtime vets--in-season recruiting, pipeline states (for those areas where you typically have the best shot at getting star pigskin talent), hiring and firing of assistant coaches, and the ability to set your schedule. The Xbox 360 game will feature a 3D map of the country, as well as a new menu system, which should help you navigate through all 50 states and your team-specific needs with greater ease than ever before. And of course, there's the aforementioned spring-practice game--which pits your first-team offense against your second-team defense, and then the second-string offense against your primary defensive team--to help you address the biggest holes in your team.

As for other changes in the Xbox 360 version of the game, "turbo" has now been switched over to the right trigger, which, according to the producers, is becoming more the control standard these days. In addition, pressing the B button when on offense will bring up a retuned hot-route menu, which you can cycle through and assign to specific receivers. Players will be able to save snapshots from their game to a photo album, complete with game statistics.

There will be new minigames, as well--bowling, tug of war, and option dash. Bowling is similar to the Ten Yard Fight mode of old; you simply try to gain yardage from deep in your opponent's red zone and rack up "pins" as a result. Gain six yards on a drive, and you'll end up with a six in the frame; manage to score a touchdown in the same frame, and you'll get the spare. Tug of war features a rope meter underneath each team on the field; as you gain or lose yards, you'll gain or lose rope in the process. The first team to score wins. The final minigame, option dash, is basically a tool to teach you how to run the option and has you trying to score as many touchdowns using the option as you can within a time limit. The coolest thing about the minigames on the Xbox 360 version is that there are no load times when switching between them--when you're done with one, you simply call up the next one and it comes up more or less right away.

The final piece of the NCAA puzzle is better ESPN integration than ever before--one can see the links between EA and ESPN cropping up more and more in their games. In addition to streaming audio blasts from ESPN Radio, as well as ESPN the Magazine taking the place of Sports Illustrated in the weekly season updates, NCAA Football 07 will feature a live ticker, complete with the real-life game-day picks from the ESPN College Gameday broadcasting duo of Kirk Herbstriet and Lee Corso. If Corso picks Michigan and Herbstriet picks Ohio State on game day, you'll know about it while playing NCAA 07.

The greatest thing about college football games such as NCAA Football 07 is that information leaks months before the game is released. The worst thing is that it makes us miss the real game of college football that much more. Nonetheless, we'll be bringing you more on all versions of NCAA 07 in the coming weeks and months as we all weather the long off-season, so stay tuned for more.

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