Walking into a big college-football stadium for the first time is unlike any experience in big-time sports. A few steps into Neyland Stadium in Knoxville or The Swamp down in Gainesville, and you're overwhelmed by the color, the pageantry, and the pounding, throbbing, nonstop hum of the crowd, the band, and the overhead announcer. That very first time, well, you just don't forget it. Entering a virtual stadium for the first time in NCAA Football 07 for the Xbox 360 isn't exactly the same, but it just might be as close as you can get to re-creating that amazingly passionate atmosphere that makes college football the greatest sport in the land. NCAA Football 07 for the Xbox 360 excels not just with its presentation and spectacle but also with its compelling and hard-hitting gameplay. Despite its relative dearth of features, it's a fine start for the next generation of the series.
Practically everything in NCAA 07 feels different from the same game on the Xbox or PlayStation 2. Take the loading screen, for example--as a game loads, a panoramic picture of one of the 70-odd stadiums found in the 360 version smoothly transitions into a rendered version of the exact same stadium. All of a sudden, the still fans featured in the picture come to life, wildly cheering for their team, the roar from the crowd intersecting with Brad Nessler's game introduction. Students' sections are placed where they are in real life--if you look closely, you'll even see your school band blasting away on their tubas and trombones or the visiting team holed up in their little corner of the stadium, all donning the colors of their team. During the high overhead shots, you might find other on-campus buildings you recognize surrounding the stadium. For all intents and purposes, you are there on campus and ready to take in an exciting game of college ball.
In essence, the college atmosphere, long one of the greatest qualities in the current-gen version of the NCAA Football series, is taken to even greater heights thanks to the power of the Xbox 360. Oddly enough, it isn't the players that are the real stars here--it's the stadiums. You've seen football stadiums before in sports games, but you simply haven't seen them like this--the nuances and details that give each college stadium its unique character are presented in loving detail, and, when combined with impressive environmental and lighting effects, it adds up to a spectacular presentation. All that's missing, it seems, is the bite of crisp fall air on your face when the game kicks off.
The animations in NCAA 07--especially tackles--pack a serious punch; you'll often wonder how your ball carrier got up from the last punishing hit that brought him down. Even better, these animations are context sensitive, so your quarterback won't be able to make a long, cross-field pass unless he's firmly planted on his back foot, and running backs won't be making spin moves unless they've got a solid base, either. Things aren't perfect, of course. There are periodic glitches when linemen shift left or right (and sometimes linebackers showing blitz won't allow linemen to shift at all). You'll notice occasional clipping and collision-detection problems, and the run animation itself looks sort of stiff, especially when sprinting in the open field.
Still, for the most part, NCAA 07 is a visual treat. Numerous broadcast cameras give you close-ups as your players line up at the line of scrimmage, giving you ample time to appreciate the scuffs and scratches on the helmets and the menacing scowls on the faces of the players as the they dip into their stance. Certainly, there's a pretty wide gap in graphical quality when viewing the game in full 720p HD, as opposed to your standard-definition television, but under no circumstances is this a bad-looking game. Finally, it's probably worth pointing out that the players themselves don't really look like college athletes--but rather the kind of hulking brutes normally reserved for muscle duty on The Sopranos.
The controls in NCAA 07 for the Xbox 360 are slightly different than in other versions but certainly won't feel alien to a series veteran. A new kicking meter uses the right analog stick primarily, and it's an improvement over the old three-button system found in Madden and NCAA--it's less dependent strictly on reflexes and more like a golf swing, requiring a smooth backswing and a confident follow-through to get the best kick possible. Another new feature, the jump-the-snap control, lets you get a run on the quarterback (or kicker) by pressing the Y button, provided you time it just right. In its defense, the computer artificial intelligence will make liberal use of the fake-snap option--which pulls back the camera to simulate the snapping of the ball--to try and draw you offside. On the plus side, the AI is canny enough to use the fake-snap camera at the right moments, such as during third and short; on the down side, well, we've fallen for it far too many times for comfort. Other control changes, such as moving the turbo button to the right trigger, make similar sense when running the ball. Best of all, every control is fully customizable, so even if you don't like how things are currently mapped, you can change things around to your liking.
If you played Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360, you'll fall right into line with the play calling in NCAA 07. You can organize your plays by formation, by play type (inside handoff, outside handoff, standard pass, play action, and so on), by key player (in those moments where you want to make sure your impact wide receiver is your first choice, for example), or you can ask Lee Corso for his advice on the call. Corso seems far too comfortable with zone coverage (and averse to blitzes) for our liking, but then perhaps that's why he's in the commentating booth these days. While the Xbox 360 version of the game doesn't feature the massive playbook upgrade featured in the current-gen versions, there's still a remarkable variety of playbooks to choose from. Once you familiarize yourself with the playbook of one team, playing with a different team in a different conference often takes a while to get used to.
Menus in the game have been revamped and reorganized. Navigating through many of the informational screens found in the game's Dynasty mode takes some getting used to, for example. All the same information you're used to--including scouting reports, team-needs screens, pitch feedback, and so on--is there, you just get there in a slightly different manner than you might be accustomed to. By holding the right trigger in the in-season recruiting screen, for example, you scroll through vertical menu items such as targeted players, in-state prospects, and so on. To filter specific positions (such as looking only at quarterbacks), you have to hold the trigger down and move the stick right to access a second menu, then move again vertically to filter each position. It's not intuitive, but you'll get used to it quickly enough. Despite the reorganized menus, little touches such as a quicksave button (accessed by pressing the L3 button) are handy.
Considering Dynasty mode is the heart and soul of the NCAA series, it's good news indeed that the mode is playable in the Xbox 360 version of NCAA 07. It plays similarly to the Xbox or PS2 version--the inclusion of a semi-3D map of the United States for use during recruiting and the lack of the spring practice games and drills notwithstanding--so you'll be spending your regular season battling it out on the gridiron and your off-season battling it out on the road as you vie for five-star recruits to fill up your roster. While the mode is just as compelling as always, we're hoping that future installments in the next-gen versions of the game feature an overhauled Dynasty mode at some point. The five-week recruitment period during the off-season--for some folks, the most exciting feature found in the mode--has plenty of opportunities for greater depth and more excitement. Here's hoping this year's game is only the first step for great Dynasty-mode happenings ahead.
If you make a circus catch or ridiculous runback, you can take a snapshot of it in the replay tool and save it to your hard drive for perusal later on. Important game information will even be kept on the flip side of the virtual photo, so you'll always have some context for that small slice of your collegiate career--it's just too bad you can't share these photos with your friends (and foes) via Xbox Live. Another cool detail: Once you've chosen your favorite team in the game, the background menus of your game will present shots from your team or campus to really get you in the mood for some football.
From a sound standpoint, Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso continue to provide amusing and often insightful commentary to the action on the field, with Corso and Herbstreit fulfilling the color roles and Nessler taking play-by-play duties. The trio records new lines every year, and NCAA 07 is no exception; still, you shouldn't be surprised if you hear some repeats every once in a while, especially from the motor-mouthed Corso. Crowd noise is rarely subdued in the game, but never overwhelms the gameplay, and the uninspired EA Trax audio garbage that infests previous versions of the game is nowhere to be found here--instead, you'll be humming along to the well-known fight songs that are music to every college-football fan's ears.
Where NCAA 07 falls short, at least in comparison to the current-gen versions of the game, is in sheer quantity of content. The game's single-player experience is limited to quick pickup games, the aforementioned Dynasty mode, and a trio of minigames--bowling, tug of war, and option dash--which are pretty forgettable. There's no create-a-school option, and things such as the spring drills and scrimmage modes, which are also part of the current-gen versions, aren't here either. Campus Legend--the career mode found in the Xbox and PS2 version--didn't make it into this version of the game, but honestly, if it came down to Campus Legend and Dynasty mode, EA Sports made the right call. In all, if you're looking for a mature and full-featured game of college football, you're better off to simply stick with the Xbox or PS2 version of the game.
Playing online in NCAA 07 doesn't always match up to the experience in the single-player game--the game is considerably slower, which is especially frustrating in the kicking game. That said, you have the option of creating ranked or unranked matches, and the ability to get into games with folks at or around your skill level in custom matches means you'll usually be able to find a good game online (provided you're willing to put up with the occasional cheeser). The game also features a ton of Xbox Live achievements to unlock, many of which are quite easy to unlock. Don't be surprised if, during the first game you play, you earn somewhere north of 10 achievements.
Though not having an entry in the NCAA series on the 360 last year was a bummer, it gave the development team time to create a game that is certainly heading in the right direction this year. Though NCAA Football 07 isn't as full-featured as the same game on older consoles, the game that is there is a fun and potent mix of responsive controls, challenging gameplay, and, of course, that good old-fashioned college spirit.