|NCAA 07: March Madness (2007)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available for: Xbox 360, PlayStation 2
There’s a nasty rumor going around that this hard-to-please critic absolutely hates basketball video games. That doesn’t mean I necessarily hate the sport (hell, I played the damn game every day as a kid), but when it comes to pixelating the experience, it never feels quite like the real thing. Of course, some companies have thrown the rules of realism right out the door, and when they do, the game is usually better for it. Perhaps that’s why Activision’s “NBA Jam” is the only basketball series that I’ve ever thoroughly enjoyed. Electronic Art’s latest foray into the next-gen era comes pretty darn close to winning me over, however, and while the release of the game may seem badly timed (the college basketball season began back in November), it’s a promising step toward finally creating a simplistic and stylish basketball game that everyone can enjoy.
Featuring the usual array of game modes – dynasty and tournament – the college edition at first sight looks like a pretty barebones affair, but you’ll soon realize it contains everything you need to enjoy a quick game of virtual basketball. Much like the next-gen sports titles before it, “NCAA 07” plops you smack dab in the middle of an endless practice session where you can work on perfecting your jump shot or just play around with the freestyle dribbling controls. When you are ready to begin your game, however, you’ll be prompted to participate in a 30-second shoot-around that can earn your team an extra boost. The bonus is applied to your Intensity Meter (displayed in your HUD) and increases with each successful play that you make. When your meter fills up, simply tap the left bumper and unleash an Impact Moment, sending one of your players across the court to interact with just about anyone he pleases. Pump up the home crowd by dancing with the cheerleaders and you’ll increase your team’s chances of performing better. Piss off your opponents by taunting them and they’ll have a much harder time keeping their composure on the court. It’s an excellent morality tool that actually plays a major role in the many twists and turns of the average college game.
The Intensity Meter isn’t the only positive aspect of the “NCAA 07” experience, however. The new Lockdown Stick (which forces a defender to get up in your opponent’s face with a quick flick of the right analog) makes playing defense much more meaningful than blindly hacking away at the ball, and the free throw shooting system has adopted the simplest control scheme of any EA sports title yet. Merely move the right stick down, and then back up again and… wah-lah, you’ve just made a basket! Perhaps the best aspect of “NCAA 07,” though, is the ridiculously straightforward control scheme. One button shoots, one button passes and one button dunks the ball. Yes, playing a sports title can really be that easy! The result feels a lot like the latest installment of the “FIFA” series, where completing simple tasks requires simple actions.
It should be noted that while the game is only in its freshman year, “NCAA 07” is already better than the atrocious “NBA Live” franchise, which is littered with so many gameplay issues that EA would be best to just start from scratch the next time around. Sure, the college edition still has its shares of flaws – like the horrible officiating, the haphazard stealing and the lack of any real fluid movement among the players – but it still delivers on a lot more than the sheer joy of playing for your alma matter. This is arcade basketball at its absolute best. No complicated plays (though they’re there if you want them), no fancy dunks (though a mascot mini-game would have been cool), and perhaps most importantly, no big name players. This is college basketball, baby, where star players are better known for the number on the front of their jersey than the name on the back, and where an unranked team like the Ohio University Bobcats has just as good a chance at winning the national championship as a heavyweight like Duke.