EA Sports’ releases for the Xbox 360 have, to date, been an incredibly mixed bag. Madden’s first entry on the console was a rushed disappointment, but the franchise was redeemed to a certain degree with this year’s release. NBA Live was another atrocious first run, and is still limping along behind the 2K series. NHL 07 absolutely exploded onto the console, greatly exceeding most hockey fans’ expectations in terms of depth and fun. So with March Madness appearing for the first time, it was far from clear how the game would perform. NBA Live certainly didn’t provide a clear precedent, but I’ve always felt the college game had a bit of an advantage, and this is reflected in NCAA March Madness 07’s marginal improvement over the Live formula.
The biggest draw that college basketball has always had over the pros is the enthusiasm and intensity demonstrated by its fans and the players on the court. These aren’t millionaire hot shots just showing up for another day at work for whoever will sign their paycheck; the college game is about energy and heart. To this end, EA has really tried to emulate the college experience. The stands are jam-packed with people wearing the home colors, the cheerleaders and mascots are doing crazy dances at either end of the court, and every big play is met with some intense reaction. When players hit big shots or make important plays, they react with passion. The game includes a composure bar which shows when a player is really starting to feel into the game. Fill it up far enough and you can pump up the crowd and your teammates, or get in your opponent’s face for some demoralizing trash talk. When things are going well, the game really starts to pop.
The shine doesn’t last forever however, and as you play more the game begins to show a lot of flaws. March Madness is laughably easy on the default difficulty settings, and turns into a scoring-fest when another player picks up the other controller. The game sports a nice lockdown feature, where you can square up to the player and make it difficult for them to make a play, but the defensive AI leaves holes aplenty, so there’s rarely any problem with just shuffling the ball around until an opening appears in the paint. There’s a handy feature where you can call plays on the fly with the D-Pad, but its effectiveness on defense is muted quite a bit by the fact that defensive fouls are almost an inevitability, to the point where they’re called when no actual contact is made between players. It’s discouraging, and really puts a damper on the multiplayer component.
There are other nagging flaws that, while not quite as pronounced, are still a nuisance. For example, the game doesn’t appear to have any discernible physics system. The ball teleports, clips through players, and moves sideways in very jarring and unsettling ways. Playing as a big guy in the paint isn’t terribly much fun, because rebounds seem to be as much a consequence of luck as anything else. And while I am probably one of few that actually gets a kick out of Dick Vitale, the commentary is dreadfully repetitive, and often functions completely independently of the game. It just reinforces the notion that the game was sloppily put together.
March Madness features the usual array of gameplay modes, from tournaments, to simple multiplayer over Xbox Live, to a fairly run of the mill Dynasty mode. While the role-playing and team-building facets of the Dynasty mode are actually pretty interesting, it’s a bit disappointing that they didn’t include the actual team schedules for the current season. As a consequence, there isn’t much emphasis put on big rivalries or key games. The EA games have also really suffered for a lack of stat tracking in across their franchise modes, and March Madness is no different. There’s very little reward for improving players through the careers – quite the opposite in fact. You can lose player early to the NBA draft, just like in real life. Not that it matters of course, because individual player performance really has little to do with team success, inaccurate as that may be relative to the real game.
EA should seriously reconsider scrapping this game like they did with the NHL and Madden series and build it from the ground up again. The flaws that March Madness suffers from are just too thoroughly ingrained in the core of the game that I can’t really seem the series getting any better with just a new can of paint. It’s definitely not a terrible game, but it’s never going to rise to the level of some of EA’s other sports titles unless it’s put under the microscope and seriously reexamined. I wouldn’t hold my breath for it at this point. With 2K Sports already putting out a better college hoops game several months ago, March Madness is nothing really but an afterthought.