Turn on, freeze up, drop out.
2006, we hardly knew ye. The Democrats took control of Congress for the first time since 1954. We discovered the fraudulent nature of Pluto’s planetary pretensions. Our hearts were captivated by a horse, and our wallets shattered by its leg. Iraq and New Orleans continued to compete for the worst place to be an American. And Lindsay Lohan and Brittany Spears tried to pick up our spirits by picking up their skirts (Proving there are some things even we won't link to - Ed.).
But according to EA Sports, none of this happened; 2006 was just a not-safe-for-work dream. How else could one explain the trotting out of NCAA March Madness 07 as if we had forgotten the humbly mediocre March Madness 06? Twelve months have passed, but EA’s development team spent that time tweaking bells and whistles and leaving the broken game engine wonderfully, fantastically, and egregiously broken.
The argument might be made, I suppose, that the game of basketball doesn’t change. You can change a lot of things, but a basket is still worth two points and a seven foot European will still be able to shoot the three-ball but be unable to rebound. How can you discredit a basketball video game for being essentially the same from year to year when the sport of basketball itself never changes?
Because playing March Madness 07 is as close to recreating real basketball as being good at video games is to being attractive to the women. Which is to say: not at all.
March Madness 07 has a lot of new content, some of it good, but none of it addresses the horrendous travesty that it portrays basketball to be. While we can applaud most everything March Madness 2007 that isn’t basketball, the actual game of roundball itself is glitchy, unbelievable, and easily spammed. There is an orange ball, it bounces and goes in a hoop, but that’s where the similarity ends.
There were many problems in March Madness 06, but it also introduced a neat “lockdown stick.” Using the right thumbstick, your defenders could play tight defense on the ball handler, forcing him into traps or into five-second calls. The lockdown stick is back, but for some reason, it doesn’t seem either as innovative or as useful as it did last year. Now it seems too easy for ball handlers to just dribble around a lockdown, leaving your defender stumbling uselessly. So much for last year’s lone success.
This year the new gameplay features are two meters, one called the intensity meter, the other the player’s composure meter. Each player has a composure bar that moves up into the green when the player does good things like score or steal the ball, and moves down into the red when the player turns the ball over or fouls. Each time the composure changes, either a green plus or a red minus appears over the head of the player. Players with low composure begin to hang their heads, even while the game is going on around them. They look really sad.
And they suck really bad. When a player’s composure goes down, he starts to do things like commit stupid fouls and miss easy shots, which in turn brings the composure down more. On the other side, the players gaining all the composure turn into superheroes, stealing every ball and making impossible shots. You remember Space Jam? It’s kind of like that. Oh, you don’t remember Space Jam? Lucky you
The other meter is a team intensity meter. Every time a player’s composure gets a plus mark the intensity meter gets a unit. When full, you can trigger what’s called an “impact moment,” which switches to a close-up perspective of your player during a stoppage in play. By walking up to the crowd, or the cheerleaders, or the mascot, or the opposing team, you are granted with a short animation of your player doing a little dance or saying some disparaging remarks. The benefit is that your whole team can get a significant boost in composure, or the other team can get a significant knock on theirs.
What the Intensity and Composure Meters do, in effect, is turn the entire game into a jockeying battle of “who can screw up the least.” It is very easy, once you’ve gained the upper hand, to keep it. And it is very easy, once you’ve lost your composure, to get blown out. Managing the meters does add drama to the game, but this usually means that you only let your star players touch the ball. Your other players are far too retarded to be entrusted with it.
The unintentional effect of the meters is that the game becomes an even more fast-break dunk-happy affair than it was before. Since dunks almost always get you either points, a foul, or both, dunks are the quickest way to build up composure.
Too bad you can’t dunk your way to a better basketball game. The giant, Eastern European-sized problems with the gameplay mechanics can be summed up quickly with some not-so-witty analogies: Charges are as rare as NBA Asians. Fouls are doled out like Hummers to college recruits. The physics of player interaction and ball movement are post-Einsteinian relativistic. Your point guard can travel through space-time using techniques he picked up in his Quantum Mechanics class. So can the ball. And controlling players, both moving and passing, is as responsive as a Mass Communications major in a literature class.
So there are lots of problems, but the worst is conceptual. There is no difference between any of the teams besides their uniforms. Some teams have a slider turned up or a different set of plays, but you will see the same defensive sets and offensives sets for an entire season. Your ingenious pro-hop move will decimate opponents ad nauseum. Some star players are point guards and some are post players, but there is no real personality.
Or intellect. Players on your team will stand around or walk idly, oblivious to the fact that you are racing down the court on a fast-break. When you are in the half-court offense, players look like recent arrivals to an awkward cocktail party. They linger silently and sometimes wander from one to another, but, having nothing to talk about, walk away.
You can tweak sliders to change much of the gameplay (it won’t change that much), but you cannot turn off the annoyingly frequent instant replays. At least, I wasn’t able to figure it out. And I tried.
Aside from the actual gameplay, the 360 game has some cool peripheral innovations. The load screens are replaced with a mini-game in which you shoot on a practice court for in-game bonuses. The ESPN radio can be activated to give live audio updates on real games. And the menus are sleek and navigable. The game can even look good—the stadiums are pretty and the players look fine until they move, or have to dribble the magic teleporting ball.
But the graphics suck pretty bad frame-rate wise. The game is choppy, especially online, and seems to struggle during changes of possession. The music is awful as well. It’s the same recycled garbage of bad pep band music playing golden oldies. Dick Vitale and ?? provide the commentary, which is fine at first, repetitive soon thereafter.
The selection of modes is weak. In the 360 game, you can only play through the dynasty mode or a single game or tournament. There is no single-season option or practice options. No mini-games either. And the dynasty mode doesn’t even have the real 2006-2007 schedule for the teams. What the hell.
You can also play online, though the experience is hardly a thrilling one. Whoever steals the most inbounds passes (I stole fourteen to my opponent’s eight in my lone victory) wins. Even worse, the game on my machine frequently froze. And this brings me to my last little confession.
I have an old 360, probably one of the first off the line. I love it, but it has problems. It freezes during many games, usually once for every ten to twelve hours of gameplay. However, during NCAA 07 March Madness, that freezing goes up to about once every hour of gameplay. Maybe I need a new machine, but I like to think freezing is just the 360’s way of telling me I need a new game.