EA has been punching out March Madness games for a number of years now, and the results have beenů decent. It has always been a good game of hoops, and excelled in capturing the college ball atmosphere. In recent years, however, it has taken a big time backseat to the 2K Sports series, which has indeed been superior. Thanks to some decent gameplay and some fantastic atmosphere and intensity (albeit accompanied by sufficient flaws), NCAA 07 March Madness on the 360 takes a step toward once again competing with 2K Sports in the college basketball world.
The gameplay in March Madness is, again, good. Not great, but good. The engine is the same one that EA has used in their two 360 NBA Live outings, and you can tell. Some of you are thinking: Oh no, don’t tell me it’s anything like Live 07 was. Thankfully, it’ actually much improved. The gameplay has been tightened considerably, and I can actually say with a clean conscience that this game is a lot of fun. The physics, something that has been stressed in next-gen sports games thus far, is very advanced, and definitely adds to the realism of the game. The controls are smooth and for the most part they work very well. There are a number of tweaks and new features that help to improve on the gameplay.
The first is the Floor General. Play calling, and more importantly the execution of the play, have been vastly improved. When you call a play, you’re going to see the AI actually run the play. If it’s covered, they will improvise and pop out to a new spot to reset the floor again. In the same way, the defensive AI has been stepped up as well. If you think you’ve found a go-to play you can run over and over again, you haven’t. If you try to run the same play repeatedly, the defense will adjust, and by the third time that point guard will be jumping under that screen and intercepting the pass. It is the best AI I’ve seen in a basketball game thus far, which is high praise. Shooting and the other controls are largely unchanged, with the two-button shooting and the freestyle stick remaining as they have been. The passing game has seen a small change: now you see a small white circle appear below the player you would pass to if you were to hit pass at that moment. This takes care of some of the issue of passing to the wrong player.
The biggest addition to the controls is the new lockdown stick. On defense, if you are guarding the ball, you can maneuver the right stick toward the ball handler, and you will play high pressure, in-your-face defense, making it difficult for the ball handler to dribble or pass effectively. This feature looks really great, and provides a nice risk-reward aspect. If your defender is rated highly on defense, you’ll be able to do some damage and create some turnovers. However, if you’ve got a slow-footed forward trying to pressure Ronald Steele, you’re going to get burned. The system is just fun, and it works very well.
Visually, this game looks good. When players are moving slowly or standing still, it’s the best looking baller yet. The crowds are awesome, with individual movements and cheers, led by great, more realistic looking cheerleaders and mascots. When the action gets going, however, the visuals take a shot to the face. Some choppy animations take you out of the atmosphere from time to time, and sometimes you’ll wonder how the ball got to where it is, or how it bounced that way from that angle. All in all, the game still looks good. Let’s just hope that in future years, EA can smooth out the choppiness.
Where the game really shines is the intensity and real college atmosphere. When you make a free throw, you’ll hear the “Whoosh!” from the home crowd. When the home team disappoints, you’ll hear the boos. New this year is intensity control, with which a meter will fill up for you or the other team depending on momentum, and on which team is making the big plays. You’ll be able to use your filled meter to pump up the crowd, or even taunt the other team or crowd. I made the mistake of taunting the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium as an away player, and I couldn’t believe what happened. They relentlessly jeered that particular player whenever he touched the ball. It really is a great touch. If the meter gets full, you can also trigger an “impact moment.” You can use this to play off of the crowd, other players, cheerleaders, or even the mascot. These moments are impressive, and are a great reward for gaining the intensity. There is also a composure factor. For example, a freshman at an away game is not going to react well to getting jeered, and you may want to take him out before he starts making mistakes. The game also sounds great, with Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler providing commentary that does a pretty good job of keeping up with the action. It’s always hit or miss these days, but here it is satisfactory.
As far as features, this one sure won’t disappoint. Dynasty mode is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, and it will keep you busy. There is a ton of depth, with improved recruiting, and features like alumni challenges and tons of tournaments to enter. You’ll also have to control your training and budgets. My favorite is the School Pride feature. As you meet particular goals throughout the season, you’ll be able to upgrade all sorts of things on campus, from the weight room to the student section to the practice gym to the band. It gives you that much more incentive to win and keep playing.
Xbox Live adds a bit of depth to the game, and there are plenty of people to play against out there. ESPN online integration is also a plus. If you’re connected to Live, you’ll see current sports news and scores scrolling from time to time. It’s a nice feature, but does anyone really need that? Maybe, maybe not.
If you are a big-time college hoops aficionado, I believe you’ll be able to look past the flaws of this game and appreciate the college atmosphere and intensity it brings. EA is definitely on the right track, and if they sure up some details, this series looks poised to challenge 2K’s supremacy in the next several years.