EA's March Madness series was a good, but never great, series on the original Xbox. It seemed as if every year it would get a few new things right, but it could never quite get over the hump to achieve greatness. Now, smack in the middle of the real college-hoops season, EA has brought the series to the Xbox 360 for the first time. Perhaps EA should have waited a little longer than midseason to release NCAA March Madness 07, as its many flaws taint an otherwise decent game.
Not all mascots are cute and cuddly.
March Madness 07 offers up just a few game modes. You can play a quick game; participate in tournaments such as the NCAA tourney, NIT Season Tip Off, or Maui Invitational; and take the reins of a college basketball program in dynasty mode. There is no basic single-season mode, which is a large oversight since not everyone wants to deal with the responsibility of running a program. Many of the game's menus are difficult to navigate, and as an added bonus, it appears to be impossible to back out of certain screens. The tournament brackets are poorly designed and remain blank until you select an individual game.
If dynasty mode is your thing, you'll find a lot to like here. Most of it will be familiar to veterans of any college sports game; you'll need to recruit players, schedule games, and allocate resources for training and game planning. And of course, there are the negative situations that real coaches get to deal with--players will break rules, athletic directors will bug you about your job performance, and talented players will sometimes leave school early. One neat new feature is the school-pride upgrades. The school's alumni will challenge you to accomplish goals such as winning your home opener, recruiting certain player types, and winning televised games. Your rewards for accomplishing these tasks will help your team and program improve, and they range from cheerleaders and pep bands to new campus facilities like a study hall or practice gym. Hardcore hoops fans will be disappointed to learn that teams do not have their official 2006-2007 schedules in the game, and they'll have to manually craft their team's in-game schedule to match that of the real team. There's an NCAA Tournament selection "show" at the end of the season, but it's nothing more than Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler tossing out generic commentary over static screens showing the seeds.
March Madness uses the concept of team intensity and player composure to mixed results. Players' composure will rise and fall based on how they're performing. The better they play, the more confident they are, which makes them play even better; and if they stink up the joint, they'll probably continue stinking it up some more. In practice, it's tough to notice any impact that player composure has on the game, so you're better off not worrying about it. Team intensity is reflected in a meter that slowly fills as your team makes big plays. Once you've filled a couple of bars, you can hit the left bumper and press a direction on the right analog stick to have a player wave his arms to fire up the crowd or pump himself up. When the meter is full and there's a break in the action, you can unleash an impact moment. Once activated, you're able to dance with cheerleaders, interact with the crowd, chest-bump teammates, and even get in the face of an opposing player. After you're done with the theatrics, the crowd will be whipped into a frenzy (or, if you're on the road, they'll be nice and subdued), giving you a bigger advantage. Some people might find the impact moments to be a little over the top, but they're integrated nicely; they aren't all that frequent, and they're quite entertaining.
Shooting hoops while the game loads is a nice touch.
From a gameplay standpoint, March Madness 07 is inconsistent. Just when you think it's getting good, some obnoxious flaw will rear its ugly head and ruin the game. But there are a number of things it does well, and the controls are one such example. March Madness 07 eschews NBA Live's three-button shooting scheme for the friendlier two-button setup, where one button shoots and another performs dunks and layups. Live fans will appreciate the inclusion of the excellent freestyle control, which lets you perform a variety of dribbling moves with a flick of the right stick. Floor general play calling lets you quickly choose an offensive or defensive play to run by tapping the D pad. There's even an overlay on the court that shows you where you need to be. The lockdown stick is another nice addition to the mix. When you're on defense, you can move the right analog stick in the direction of the player you're guarding. This lets you play them closely, enabling you to prevent them from receiving a pass, cutting to the hoop, or getting position down low.
The game does a great job of capturing the college atmosphere. Big schools have the stands packed with crazed fans who will do anything to help their team win. Smaller schools have empty stands and fans who are more apathetic to the on-court proceedings. Of course, there are cheerleaders and pep bands to spice things up, and a number of the big-name schools have mascots going bonkers on the baseline. Players will exhibit plenty of emotion--they get hyped up after a monster dunk, and they'll react negatively after getting whistled for a foul.