Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NCAA 2007 Impressions (Xbox 360)

Well, it's that time of year again, the time when I play the yearly EA football games, then tell you not to waste your money. NCAA was a mess last year. Madden was worse, particularly on the 360, where it was a disaster. Head Coach got torn up so bad I didn't even bother.

I've been accused of having an anti-EA bias. No, I don't. I have a bias against shitty games.

Seriously, when was the last time EA Sports had a truly outstanding team sports game? I'm drawing a blank.

So after playing the 360 version of NCAA 2007 for about ten hours, believe me when I say this: it's a pretty damn good game.

Hey, I'm just as shocked as you are.

That's the short version, and if you want to skip the detail, just know that the 360 version is worth the money, and I don't mean barely worth the money.

By the way, if you want impressions of the Xbox version, head over to the grumpy old men over at The Blog for the Sportsgamer.

I've written many times that no graphics-based sports games ever really get completed. They get shipped every year, but they never get finished. And every excellent sports game I've ever played has involved compromise--there will always be problems, and you do your best to navigate around them. One of the biggest reasons NFL2K5 was such a superb game was that when things were broken, you could generally turn the option off or use sliders to make adjustments.

And on the face of it, NCAA 2007 is missing a ton of features I want in a game. Features like:
--accelerated clock
--sim to end (and a jump-in feature as well)
--in-game saves
--multiple camera angles (there is ONE freaking camera angle in the 360 version)
--ability to watch a CPU vs. CPU game (somebody find the stoned employee who took out this feature, and thanks for screwing us on slider development)

Plus the 360 version is missing features that are in the Xbox version. Features like:
--S.I. magazine covers (which, strangely, is a feature I've always loved)
--the new spring game
--spring drills
--campus legend mode

I'm sure that's not it, but who the hell really cares? Like I said, the Sportsgamer guys are all over the Xbox version.

So what does the 360 version do right and why does it stand out from previous versions? Here's a list:
--a well-designed and flexible playcalling interface. This includes a "window" approach where you can see replays or game information while you call a play.
--greatly expanded playbooks. There are HUGE numbers of plays now.
--blocking on screens and draws is much better this year. Screens, in particular, are all kinds of fun now.
--there are a sizable number of new animations. It's not all-new (ignore that b.s. about the 360 version being build "from the ground up"), but the new animations represent a significant improvement)
--sliders actually seem to change behavior this year, sometimes radically.
--while it's ridiculous that there is only one camera (totally ridiculous), it is extremely well-placed and is very playable (for me, at least).
--blocked kicks. FINALLY!
--the stadiums are phenomenal. Truly phenomenal. If you don't think that matters, just wait until you're looking at what you think is a still photograph, then the camera begins to move forward and you realize you've been looking at a screenshot of the stadium as rendered by the game engine.
--the crowd looks so much more realistic. Again, if you don't think that matters, wait until you see it--there's a huge difference in the immersion level.
--here's another one for the immersion factor: post-play celebrations have been added this year that are entirely appropriate and realistic. They're not excessive, they're not too frequent, and they're not overdone in any way. Again, that might not sound important, but they look real, and anything that looks real is important.
--wide receivers no longer have hands of stone.
--player stats in Dynasty mode are significantly improved. No, they're not perfect, but they're a big step up from last year.

Sometimes games have a bunch of positive one-offs, but never overcome their flaws. Well, the game certainly has its flaws. Here's what I've seen so far:

--sometimes players "skate" along. This has always been a problem with EA football games, and it's still there.
--tackling animations are still well behind NFL2K5 in quality, and the animation in general, while significantly improved, is still behind as well.
--the transition from the "walking to the scrimmage" shot and the actual playable game view is jerky at times.
--Time-out usage is spotty. I've seen some very questionable decisions.
--penalties are still called sporadically and bear no resemblance to real football (tip: turn all the penalty sliders up to 100 except defensive pass interference, which should be set at 60. That helps a bit, anyway.)
--the announcers were great the first year they used them. With each passing year, and each new lame comment by Lee Corso, they get more grating.
--the sound effect of the ball dropping to the turf is absolutely horrific. It's too loud and sounds like something dropped on a wood floor. When you hear that thirty times a game, it's really pretty annoying.
--There are too many visual distractions that remind me it's not real football. I don't want the team name to flash on the scoreboard ticker because they're gaining momentum. I don't want the play-clock to flash when I'm below ten seconds. I don't want to see a star at the feet of star players. Let me turn all that crap off, please.
--Also, the damn scoreboard ticker is too bright. Come on, it's a basic option to let me make any onscreen overlays more transparent.
--there's an analog kicking meter (hooray), but they've butchered it (oh hell). The right analog stick maps to a kicking meter. Damn it, you guys, the whole point of having an analog stick is that it's NOT a meter. When the kicker starts to swing his leg back, we need to move the analog stick back, and when he starts to move it forward, we need to do the same. You've already got the code in the Tiger Woods game--just adapt it.

I actually have far more objections to things they left out (already listed above), particularly display options, than to anything that's actually in the game. It's very solid, and I am very impressed after ten hours. At this point, it's the best version of NCAA Football that I've ever played.

Here are a few general notes if you're interested.
--Heisman level is challenging but fair. It's definitely the preferred difficulty level this year.
--there is no ESPN highlight package. Arghh.
--pressing "A" after calling a play takes you directly to the line of scrimmage. This can be a problem for online games (a big problem), but it streamlines the game if you're offline.
--depending on how long it takes you to call plays, 7 or 8 minute quarters are a good place to start if you're looking for 120 plays a game. Again, it will depend on how long it takes you to call plays and how often you use the "A" button.
--there seem to be too many broken tackles on default Heisman level, at least for me. I increased tackling ability from 50 to 65 that and made a significant difference.

I'll be working on a Heisman slider set. Since EA took out the CPU vs. CPU option, though, it's going to be much, much difficult and far less objective than it was in previous years. What I'll be trying to do is increase defensive ability to make games more balanced (NCAA has always tilted toward offense). I should have some preliminary settings by early next week.

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