Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: January 17, 2007
Roughly speaking, the March Madness series can be described as a successful college version of NBA Live. It's consistently been a lesser game — in terms of quality and sales — when compared to its college football counterpart in EA's lineup, NCAA Football. Will the next-generation debut on the Xbox 360, NCAA 07: March Madness alter the course of the series, or are the results less than stellar?
NCAA 07 begins exactly the way NBA Live did with its next-generation debut. Instead of jumping right into a menu, you are given a player who is on a non-descript outdoor court somewhere. After selecting your team, the logo is posted everywhere to make the player's choice of schools very obvious.
First and foremost, there are far too few options in NCAA 07 itself. Beyond the dynasty mode and the ability to play through the three featured tournaments (NIT, Maui Invitational, and, of course, the NCAA March Madness tourney itself), there is only an online mode. What this means is that unless you are a huge dynasty fan, there is almost nothing to play. For those interested in said dynasty mode, however, the game generally works really well.
"Generally" is the key word. The menu system is incredibly poor, and although it works most of the time, there are points when it doesn't. Selecting a menu option might bring you somewhere, but you occasionally cannot get back, and the only way out of that menu tree is to go back to the always-running basketball shoot-around game, hit "Start," and begin again. This may not sound like a very big hassle, but it becomes irritating with repeated attempts. That's not the only issue, as the entire bracket system which is included never actually shows the names of the team on the bracket. Instead, players must select each individual bracket just to figure out what is going on.
The dynasty itself allows about as much as any of EA's college games in the past years, including the ability to recruit and train players. A new addition is the ability to get additional support from boosters and alumni. When important games are won or particular teams are defeated, you are given extra pride upgrades, such as a new gym or study hall that will improve your team and bring in recruits. A huge disappointment lies in the lack of a realistic schedule for each team. March Madness was released halfway through the basketball season, and yet teams feature randomly generated schedules. When half of these games were already played in real life, it's kind of strange to be playing in these made-up schedules.
There is also an attempt to incorporate team dynamics into March Madness, to very little effect. Players lose or gain composure based on their play. In theory, if a player is continually shut down, he will lose all of his focus and play poorly, but the frenetic pace of NCAA 07 does not allow for most players to ever go that long without the chance for a comeback. Once a player begins doing well, he is also given the option to pump up himself or teammates, along with taunting his opponents. Similarly, depending on whether the player is home or away, you can taunt either the crowd or bring them into the game a bit more. Small teams with few students will do little in the way of bringing intensity to its players, but large schools feed off the veracity of its fans quite well. The feature is far less dynamic then it should be, though.
After the absurd physics encountered in NBA Live for the 360, both the ball and player movement were sure to be scrutinized here, and we're happy to report that both aspects are much more realistic in NCAA 07. The ball will constantly be passed to inattentive A.I. teammates who run right past you, and multiple times in a game, they ignored simple bounce or chest passes because they had their backs to the ball, effectively blocking themselves from the play. Your A.I. teammates also have the exasperating habit of losing their balance and consequently falling out of bounds. If you crowd a player, he will almost always go out of bounds by backing up or give himself a backcourt violation. This is certainly novel at first, but it soon cheapens the experience when it's so easy to get the ball back in a turnover.
Nearly every time you make a drive in the lane, try to block a ball, dribble around the court or pass the ball, a foul is called. What is particularly frustrating about this is that you will nearly always find yourself in foul trouble a few minutes into the second half of big games. As players go for the ball more aggressively, more fouls are called, but it can get pretty ridiculous. There is also an inordinate amount of time spent diving for balls that were knocked out, generally leading to puzzling fouls.
For all of its faults, NCAA 07 is gorgeous to look at. Staying in line with the NCAA's wishes to keep likenesses of student athletes out of video games, there are only a few generic, randomly generated player models here, but they all look great. Courts are also incredibly well done, and the big-name arenas are particularly detailed. From the team logos on the jumbo screens to the shine of the lights on the hardwood, the entire experience comes together very well.
Animations are a bit strange sometimes, with the players going the wrong way and looking highly unrealistic. The dive animation for lost balls is another huge problem, and on numerous occasions, you will have no idea what is going on as the players scuffle around. Even at points where you apparently win, you still somehow manage to lose the ball, but that's more of an issue with the previously mentioned foul system. There are also some serious framerate issues that crop up in the game. Players will move through each other — and the ball, too! — and there's also serious and persistent problem with transitioning between moves. Player movements are sometimes jittery, and animations are dropped as they player makes his way toward the hoop; this completely kills the sense of realism.
March Madness' online mode is just disappointing. Continuing the ESPN integration, EA has included the constant sports tickers and spoken news that was similarly featured in other releases this year. Oddly enough, this is the best online feature, because this is one of the most stripped-down experiences in the current group of EA sports games. Online consists of nothing more than normal games; there are no online tournaments, which is a pity because it would have been great to challenge a few friends.
NCAA 07: March Madness for the Xbox 360 is not a bad game — it just feels rushed and empty. With its frenetic pace, NCAA 07 is very different from its competition, Visual Concepts' College Hoops. The title is plagued with too many issues to be a big contender this year, which is a shame because the core gameplay is a lot of fun, proving that this series, like the young NBA hopefuls, is full of great promise and potential.