IGN Review of NCAA March Madness 07
Correct me if I'm wrong, but college basketball season begins in November. That's when powerhouses like Duke warm up for ACC play against the like of Columbia, when the Florida Gators cut their teeth against Jacksonville and Arizona trounces on Samford. Lopsided matchups aside, real college basketball fans love the start of the season like they love cheerleader carwashes and two-for-one ramen deals.
So to capitalize on the season tip-off excitement, EA releases NCAA March Madness 07 two months late. I can see EA's point that most people don't care about college hoops until the tourney begins, but die-hard fans live for every game of the season. And die-hard fans are the people that buy college basketball games. Try and explain to the Cameron Crazies, camping outside for tickets in frigid December that most people don't care about college basketball season until the tournament. Seriously, I dare you. Imagine releasing Madden in December because football fans enjoy the playoffs more than the regular season? While EA is planning on making January the standard release window for March Madness, we hope and pray that the game is moved back to a November ship date.
That little rant aside, March Madness on the 360 is a pretty good little basketball title with a ton of atmosphere and some great touches that will put pressure on the College Hoops 2K franchise to step up its game. Madness is EA's third basketball title on the console and we're happy to say it's by far the best, outperforming NBA Live 06 and 07 in almost every way. While it still has some minor problems, EA is finally making progress with the next-gen basketball engine and we look forward to seeing what's next.
Borrowing heavily from the Live engine, Madness if full of its own college flavor. Players hustle and dive for loose balls and show the kind of emotion that most NBA stars don't show until the playoffs. At the same time, Madness retains the excellent physics system from Live in which every step counts. No more ice-skating on the parquet here. If you're sprinting down the floor and try to stop on a dime, you'll see that it can't be done (the jump stop button helps, though). On the court, however, the highlight of the basketball experience is the new Floor General play calling system.
While calling plays is nothing new in a basketball title, and using the D-pad to call plays if not exactly revolutionary, the execution of the plays by the AI -- especially on higher difficulty settings -- is simply outstanding. Calling for a Double High, my power forward and Center set up on either side of the free throw line and the shooting guard and small forward wait on the wings. When the point guard dishes to one of the high post players, the other high post will set a pick for the point guard cutting to the basket. A quick dish down low results in an awesome slam and two points for the point guard.
But then you try to run the play again, thinking you've found a money play and a way to exploit the computer AI. This time, the defending point guard fights through the screen and closes the lane, making it more difficult for you to complete the pass down low to the point guard. Still, you force a great pass in and make a challenging lay up.
Then you try to run it again. The post defenders know by now that they have to switch on that screen. If you try to get it down low to the point guard this time, the pass is either intercepted or your little point guard is in an unfavorable matchup with a 6'8" big man that doesn't like him.
That doesn't mean I still can't run the Double High. I just have to look to the wings flashing then look back to the post, or wait for the point guard to finish his cut and pop out up high to call another play. This is what I've always wanted from a basketball game: the strategy, the sweaty chess match between coaches to exploit match ups and create opportunity.
And if I've been killing the defense with my arsenal of plays, it may just switch to a zone and I'll have to find the gaps with my zone offense because you can bet that the Double High and 1-4-High are not going to work. The computer also does a fine job of running the plays that their real-life counterparts run, as well as giving the ball to star players and letting them take over a game. EA needs to look at including out-of-bounds plays next year as well as making fatigue more of a factor at the default settings.
On the defensive side of the ball, the lockdown stick makes its next-gen debut. Simply press the right analog stick toward a ball handler and play in-your-face defense. It's a nice touch and offensive players will have a more difficult time passing and dribbling with a man in their face. If your defensive player isn't rated very high or he's trying to guard an amazing ball handler, then you can imagine how bad his ankles will be broken as the guard breezes by. It's a nice risk-reward system and a more stylish maneuver than slamming on the steal button for 40 minutes like we've seen in past college games.
Passing has also been tweaked. A small visual white circle appears beneath the player you are aiming at which really helps you work with the inside-out game as you dump to the post, out to the wing, into the post again and back out on top. There are still plenty of times when you pass to the wrong player, but this system improves the problem dramatically. Conversely, the AI on defense does a great job of cutting off ill-advised passes, so much so that you may think that there are too many intercepted passes. But no, that's just you making stupid passes. So don't do that. The crowd hates that.
You know what happens when the crowd hates you? They boo. Finally this makes it into a hoops title thanks to what EA is calling Intensity Control. With every alley-oop dunk, steal or and-1 call, your team gains intensity, as displayed by a meter seamlessly integrated into the HUD. At the same time, your team loses intensity every time you are alley-ooped on, every time the ball is stolen from you and every time you make stupid fouls. By clicking on the left bumper, you can use this intensity to motivate a single player, to motivate your teammates on the floor, to pump up the crowd or to taunt an opponent. If you taunt the crowd when playing on the road, the crowd will jeer every time that player touches the ball the rest of the game.
If you build up the intensity meter you can trigger an Impact Moment where a player can interact with the crowd, his team, opponents, the band, the mascot and the cheerleaders to give his team a huge boost. Oh, but only the home team can do the cheerleaders. All of this intensity affects your composure.
Take your average freshman. Put him in Cameron against the Blue Devils. Then throw in the Crazies for good measure. You think he's going to have much composure, or do you think he's going to dribble the ball off his shaking knee and out of bounds? Yeah, it's the knee. If things get bad enough, he'll make "frustration fouls," off-the-ball infractions when he loses his temper. He'll make poor decisions with the basketball and it's up to his coach to get this guy off the floor.
On the flip side of that coin, a composed player is going to convert more field goal attempts and make smart decisions. You can really feel this composure as you play and it adds a new level of depth and atmosphere to March Madness, the kind of depth that pulls you into the game and adds a bit of emotion. While the Impact Moments are not very exciting, this composure system is an excellent touch and something that every sports developer should look at.
Dynasty Mode has been retooled with a solid recruiting system akin to that of NCAA Football 07, school budgets, training schedules and my personal favorite: School Pride. As you meet certain requirements throughout many seasons of Dynasty, you can upgrade your weight room, practice gym, study hall, injuries clinic, band, student section, crowd, cheerleaders and you can even name three streets on campus. These upgrades give boosts to your team (better discipline ratings for a new study hall, for example). If you start with a crappy team, the bleachers will be empty early on. Start winning, and that will all change.
Visually, March Madness 07 is a beautiful game standing still. In motion, it suffers from some choppy animations like many of the EA Sports titles released on the 360. Sometimes the ball looks strange leaving a passer's hand, taking awkward, impossible angles. The ball also skips across the screen due to a strange camera tracking issue. At the same time, the arenas and the crowd look amazing. I love watching free-throws as the home fans quiet down and raise their spirit fingers, and I love the giant "whoosh!" the crowd yells when the shot is drained.
In the booth, Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler provide some hit-or-miss commentary. They have a lot of great things to say -- they just occasionally say them at the wrong time. Still, I'm a Vitale fan and I love the energy he brings to a booth. Whether you like his over-the-top style or not, you can't deny the excitement he has for college basketball, and EA did a nice job of conveying that here.
Online, Madness features some basic online options, including ESPN Integration with ESPN Radio and ESPN Motion video highlights. While I am a huge fan of this feature, I'd rather EA swap it out for a giant roster of classic teams to play with. I guess I just miss my friend, Bobby Hurley. Online leagues wouldn't hurt either, but we will have to wait at least one more season for EA get that going. Imagine a 64-team tournament on Xbox Live? Maybe next year.
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