NCAA Football 07 Updated Hands-On

It's early June, but the virtual college football season is just getting fired up as we go hands-on with EA Sports' latest NCAA game.

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Texas Longhorns fans remember the moment; USC Trojans fans probably wish they could forget it. With just over two minutes left in the game, Pete Carroll decided to take the ultimate gamble on fourth down and two at the USC 45-yard line--he went for it, looking to take advantage of LenDale White's power and, in turn, keep the ball out of Texas quarterback Vince Young's hands. The gamble didn't pay off, as White was shut down by a swarming Longhorns defense. Texas ball. And all college football fans know what happened next.

Smile for the camera. NCAA 07 features plenty of new running animations.
Smile for the camera. NCAA 07 features plenty of new running animations.

EA Sports has learned a lot from that momentum-changing moment in this year's NCAA National Championship game. Perhaps more so than in any other sport, college football is about momentum, the rapidly shifting swings of fortune that can occur at any moment. With the latest in its college football series, NCAA Football 07, the development team behind the game has sought to capture those moments of inspired passion that make college football utterly unique.

One of the biggest areas in which you'll see momentum shifts occur in the game is in special-teams play, with a host of new fake punts and fake field goal plays that can, in an instant, change the outcome of a close game. The punt rooskie--one of the more famous examples of on-field trickery--is now a selectable, as are variations on the play such as fake kick option plays, and new pass plays from a kicking formation. But it's not just the team with the ball that can shift momentum on special teams. A new behind-the-back third-person camera when playing on defense will let you pressure kickers like never before, and if you're good, you'll probably get your hand on a few punts this year. In years past, blocking a kick felt more like a random dice roll by the computer; this season, the ball is in your hands (if you're good enough, that is).

The new trick controls are bolstered by a host of new plays in the NCAA playbook--by far the most extensive overhaul of the game's tactical side in series history. In addition to new formations, such as Tulsa's triple-stack wide-receiver formation and South Carolina's Emory and Henry set, the playbooks themselves are more tailored to the teams than ever before. So while two teams such as Auburn and Arizona might share an I-formation, the available plays in that set will differ slightly. For more insight on the new playbooks in NCAA 07, check out our two-part Q&A with EA producers Larry Richart and Anthony White (part 1, part 2).

Along with the new strategy options, NCAA 07 will feature some control and presentation tweaks that make a lot of sense. First, juke moves have been split off into strong and weak jukes--big jukes are controlled with the right analog stick by moving it left, right, forward, or backward; the slightly more subtle and quicker small jukes are pulled off with the right and left trigger. In a nod to those new to the NCAA series, a number of newbie-friendly menus pop up here and there to act as a legend for all the pre-snap options you have, such as slide protection, audibles, hot routes, and so forth.

A new kicking meter is also in place, the same one that can be found in this year's Madden game. Gone is the button-controlled kicking--the new mechanic feels more like the swing stick in Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Onside kicks are more realistic this year as well--you use a slightly modified version of the kicking meter, which lets you pick the exact spot you wish to make contact with the ball. If you make contact at the top, you'll send it spinning; if you kick it low, you'll send the ball into the air. Also, when returning either punts or kickoffs, you'll be met with a slightly lower camera angle that mimics the field of vision of a kick-return specialist.

From the quarterback to the place kicker, everyone has to run the 40-yard dash in summer camp.
From the quarterback to the place kicker, everyone has to run the 40-yard dash in summer camp.

The hardcore contingent of NCAA fans spend most of their time in the game's dynasty mode, and while the mode feels very last year's game, there are some important changes. For one thing, Sports Illustrated has been replaced with ESPN the Magazine; in fact, the sports network has a broader presence in the game this year thanks to a consistently updated sports audio ticker (first seen in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball). The biggest addition is the spring practice game, which serves your needs as head coach in a number of ways. First of all, it's a good way for you to get a gauge on the players in your team. Remember, this is the spring game, so your seniors (and a few star juniors) from last year are gone, and the incoming class of freshmen hasn't arrived; you'll be left to evaluate the talent that remains in order to help decide who gets the starting job next season. The spring game also will give you bonuses to specific members of your team, but only if you decide to play the game out; if you choose to simulate the game, you won't reap the benefits.

The other big addition to NCAA 07 is the revamped career mode, which has been rechristened as "campus legend" this time around. Whereas the goal of last year's game was to win the Heisman trophy, that's only a small part of what you'll be looking to do this time around. After creating a player from scratch and choosing which position he will play, it's off to summer camp where you'll look to take part in a number of drills that are specific to your position. A quarterback will take part in passing drills, for example, while a defensive player's drills will revolve around pursuit and tackling. Based on your showing in these drills, you'll be awarded with a "star rating" that will determine which schools are available to you. A one-star player, for example, won't be able to get close to a Michigan or a USC, while a five-star player will have his pick of the litter.

After you've chosen your alma mater, you head into the meat of the game, but not before choosing a major. Yes, that's right, you'll have to pick a major. Majors are split along three different difficulty levels--"easy" level includes "1A Team Nicknames" and sports geography; "moderate" level covers everything from world geography to mathematics; and finally, "difficult" level includes chemistry and psychology. The more difficult the major, the more it will benefit your player, which is a cool touch. Excel in psychology, for example, and your player will gain bonuses in awareness, speed, and carrying (perfect for a running back). To stay eligible for game day, you'll need to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, and you'll bolster (or bring down) your GPA with periodic meetings with your tutor, a midterm exam, and a final exam. It's not too involved, and even the most difficult questions aren't that taxing, but it's definitely a fun take on the virtual college experience.

Choose your major carefully--how well you do in class can affect your players' on-the-field success.
Choose your major carefully--how well you do in class can affect your players' on-the-field success.

Maintaining your GPA and performing well on game day are not your only goals in campus legend mode. You'll also want to be a bit of a socialite by attending "social events" (which we read as "raging beer bashes"). Of course, you don't actually get to go to the parties, but your popularity rating will boost a bit if you decide to leave the books behind and socialize. In fact, you'll be able to keep track of your progress in each of campus legend mode's goals--academic status, popularity, and athletic goals--thanks to a handy progress report feature in your dorm room. As the season progresses, you'll be able to add attribute points to your player and watch his skills improve over the course of his college career.

In all, whether you are the kind of college football fan who likes to simply fire up a game and score some touchdowns, the stat nerd who is obsessed with taking SMU back to its glory days, or the college pigskin nut who wants to relive the time you scored "four touchdowns in one game", NCAA Football 07 looks to have something to offer to you. We'll have more on this game in the coming weeks, leading up to its July 18 release on all platforms, so stay tuned.

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