A good game that should've been great

User Rating: 7.4 | NCAA Football 07 X360
"NCAA" has always been a really fun series, and this year's version for the Xbox 360 is really fun, too. But I've gotta ask: Am I the only one who expected a little bit more than that?

At what point do we start demanding more from the 360? As a so-called "next-generation" gaming console, what is it exactly that defines this generation? The ability to generate high-definition visuals?

When did this turn into a beauty pageant? Great graphics do not great games make.

We've yet to see a title on the Xbox 360 that, in terms of its gameplay, could not have existed on the original Xbox or even the PlayStation 2. "NCAA 07" is no exception.

Despite some occasionally spotty frame rates, the game looks absolutely *fantastic* -- especially on an HD set. Seriously, if I wanted to be as fair as possible, I'd spend the next 10 minutes mopping up puddles of my own drool over how great this game looks compared to what you get on PS2 or Xbox. For instance, the lighting effects are stunning -- especially when you're playing an evening game and the sun goes down during the course of the action, and the entire complexion of the field changes with it. And what about when it's raining and the field gets muddy and your players' uniforms start to pick up stains – is that cool or what? I mean, go ahead and invite your friends over right now and pop it in. They'll be amazed. They'll be floored. They'll be so excited they might need a diaper.

Until they pick up the controller, that is.

You might reasonably expect that a brand new, bleeding-edge machine with unparalleled power under its hood would be capable of more than its technological predecessors. But if you used "NCAA 07" as your yardstick, you'd be profoundly disappointed.

The game not only does less than this year's Xbox and PS2 versions, it arguably does less than "NCAA 05" did two years ago.

This is probably where I should mention that I've always been a huge fan of the "NCAA" series and of EA Sports in general. This game won't change my loyalty to either one. I fully expect next year's "NCAA" for the Xbox 360 to be great. But this year's, well, that's a different story. This year's is a pretty sad excuse for next-gen gaming.

Perhaps the reason that's so obvious to me is this: I've also played the PS2, Xbox and PSP versions of this year's game. And surprisingly enough (to me, anyway), I prefer PS2 or Xbox. No, they don't look nearly as good, but they might the best ever in the series in terms of the overall gameplay experience.

Look at it this way: When the game was released for the first time on the PS2 five years ago, did you ever once even *consider* that the PSX version might be better? Of course you didn't.

So why is it such a prevalent question this time around? Well, quite frankly, it's because the industry isn't ready for a next generation of consoles yet. There's no revolutionary step taking place here (until Wii comes out, anyway). In fact, in the case of "NCAA 07," the only steps being taken are backwards.

The differences between what you get on the Xbox/PS2 and what you get on the 360 are pretty glaring.

Most obviously, threre's no "Campus Legend" mode on the 360 version. Like the "Race for the Heisman" mode in previous years, "Campus Legend" provides an over-arching, almost RPG-like context to your gameplay. To some of the youngsters on the GameSpot message board, this would qualify only as a "gay feature" that's unnecessary, because, you know, they're hardcore and all that matters is the gameplay. To those posters, I would simply ask, "If all that matters is the gameplay, why do you buy the same game every year?"

But whatever. I believe God is in the details. I believe that little things can often add up to big things. I think features are oftentimes the difference between good games and great games.

Apparently that makes me gay. Fine.

In any case, "feature-rich" is not a description one would likely apply to this game. It's got all the necessary stuff, and almost nothing more. Customized playbooks? Nope. Standing formation substitutions? Sorry. Create-a-school? Forget about it. Alternate uniforms? No dice. Classic teams? Yeah, right. On-the-field matchup comparisons? Puh-leeze.

Hell, you can't even change the camera angle from the default setting. Welcome back to 1995.

This game also doesn't have a jump/hurdle button for when you're running the ball. On defense, you can't consciously attempt to strip the ball – you just have to go for a big hit and hope for the best.

We're also missing player introductions along with any other pre-game or post-game activity to speak of. Each game starts with a virtual coin toss (not on the field with actual players) and ends with a whistle and the abrupt display of a front-end menu. (Perhaps they couldn't do a real on-field coin toss, because officiating crews don't exist in the 360 universe – they don't appear during gameplay, either; for comparison's sake, "Madden" has had that feature since at least 1998.) Most, if not all (I can't be certain), team mascots eventually show up after scores, but that's about all we get as far as the "pageantry" of college football is concerned. Heck, half the teams play in generic stadiums that bear no resemblance whatsoever to their actual home field.

Oh, and there are bugs. Some are mostly inconsequential, such as the kicking statistics being totally screwed up. Others are unforgivable, such as the time the game just stopped responding near the end of the second quarter of a hard-fought game against one of my rivals. I'd just stopped them to bring up 3rd-and-four when I realized it had been a while since the whistle blew. The players were still just trotting around on the field. The commentary had stopped completely. Eventually the players just stopped moving and stood around, shifting their weight from foot to foot. None of the buttons or button-combinations on the controller would bring back the front-end. All I could do was shut the machine off. Of course, I was leading at the time.

Other bugs are simply ubiquitous. I don't think I've encountered a single possession on offense or defense where the game's sketchy collision-detection didn't come into play. I've lost count of the number of times one of my running backs or receivers has "snagged" on a defensive player and they both just run in place while facing each other for several seconds until someone else finally comes along to break up the play.

The core gameplay is exactly the same as it's been for the last five or so years. There have been some minor tweaks, including revamped AI and the addition of a handful of new animations (the latter also available on other consoles). On special teams, punt returns seem a lot harder, but blocking kicks is a million times easier. (I blocked two in my first game, before I even knew what I was doing.) On offense, passing seems tougher and CPU defensive AI – particularly in the secondary -- seems smarter. (See, it's not all bad!) On defense, it seems much tougher to penetrate the line for a sack (unless you "jump the snap"; see below), but on the other hand I averaged at least 2 interceptions per game on the default "Varsity" difficulty level. Against a poor QB – even before I got used to the new controls -- I could easily pick off 5 or 6 passes, returning many of them for touchdowns. That's a little much.

Speaking of difficulty levels, there seems to be an even greater discrepancy between them than ever before, which is hard to believe. During my first "Dynasty" season on the "Varsity" difficulty level, I struggled through the first half of a 9-4 campaign (probably due to the change in controls), barely squeaking past even the lowliest of opponents. After week 3 of that season, I decided to play a "Quick Game" on the "Freshman" difficulty level just to see how much easier it would be, and I ended up winning the game (against a #2 ranked opponent) by a score of 104-0.

By the beginning of my second "Dynasty" season, I'd gotten accustomed to the new controls and was routinely running up the score on even top-ranked teams. So, I switched to All-American and got humiliated by a mediocre opponent. Each difficulty level is a fairly huge step up, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. In my opinion, that's fine for an action/adventure game that's pretty much the same every time you play it, but for a football game – which offers an entirely new experience with each and every snap of the ball, and which is ostensibly intended to create a highly realistic simulation of the genuine article – the difference between difficulty levels should be considerably more subtle. That's not really a big deal, though. Just a minor nitpick.

The big gameplay change this year is the "Momentum Meter." It's as simple as this: When you make a big play, the game's momentum swings in your favor and your team plays better. The flip side is obvious: When you make a stupid mistake – such as throwing a bad interception or fumbling the ball deep in your own territory – the momentum swings toward your opponent. More than ever before, this encourages conservative play-calling, because once momentum is against you it can sometimes be ridiculously hard to get it back -- even if you're Ohio State and your opponent is San Jose State. If you make a big mistake early in the game, you might lose to a much, much worse team … which is kind of dumb, in my opinion. Maybe in the parity-rich NFL momentum can be the difference between a win and a loss, but in the college ranks the better team is almost always the better team, regardless.

The new addition I actually kind of like is the "Jump the Snap" button. If you're playing as a defensive lineman and you time your jump *just right*, you can bust into the backfield for a sack or tackle-for-loss. Of course, if you don't time it properly, you end up costing your team a penalty, or at the very least getting owned by the offensive lineman. I'll have to admit, though, that the sheer overwhelming dominance of a well-timed "Jump the Snap" has me a little concerned that multi-player games will devolve into nothing more than a contest to see who can "Jump the Snap" more effectively. If one or both players master this skill, the rest of the game simply won't matter much.

Another change is the system for picking plays in multi-player games. It's a bit clunky, and makes it fairly easy to guess which play your opponent picked. Too bad you can't play two-player co-op instead. (Unless you get the Xbox or PS2 version, that is.)

Based on my first off-season, that part has changed a bit, too. Recruiting is considerably more difficult than in past years. Apparently the days of loading up with 8-10 blue-chip recruits every summer are gone. I was actually prepared to mark that down as an improvement, until I saw how well the other schools recruited. My team finished #13 in the final BCS rankings, but only finished #38 in terms of recruiting classes. In last year's version of the game, I don't think I ever finished lower than 2nd place in recruiting, even when my team had a so-so season.

By the way, you don't have to distribute points between recruiting and discipline anymore. Disciplinary infractions don't exist on the Xbox 360. How many lines of code could that possibly have required?

Overall, this is a good game that should have been great, and in my book there's nothing more disappointing than that. Playing "NCAA 07," you simply cannot escape the feeling that it could've used a little more time in the oven. In a few years' time this is a game that will be remembered more for what it *didn't* do than for what it did. And in that respect, the game is a symbol of almost everything that's wrong with the industry: When you boil it all down, it's an unoriginal sequel that's been rushed to the market to capitalize on a new system that offers absolutely nothing groundbreaking, and it'll be snapped up by the lemmings who've been conditioned to think that slightly better graphics and updated rosters are worth $60 each and every year.

With "NCAA 07," you get what you pay for, and so much less. Here's hoping EA Sports makes it up to us with "NCAA 08."