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NCAA March Madness 2000
(PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: November 1999

Background Info

A month ago, when reviewing 989's Final Four 2000, I noted the sorry history of college basketball games on the PlayStation. Perhaps no sports genre has suffered a worse fate on the PSX than college hoops, including 989's forgettable recent release. With EA Sports' March Madness 2000, we may be seeing the final college hoops title on the original PSX. Can EA finally take one up strong and dunk it? Or is this game just another college basketball airball...

Presentation/Graphics : 80
The most obvious problem with March Madness '99 was that graphically, it was a choppy mess. The sluggish animation lacked the kind of smoothness that PSX sports gamers have come to expect. Thankfully, March Madness 2000 has addressed this, and the game plays much more fluidly that last year's game.

The players are detailed and move well, with a great range of special moves - fakes, crossovers, pump fakes, stutter-steps - that smoothly blend in with the overall animation. The overall player models aren't as polished as NBA Live 2000, but they are very detailed and well animated. They easily beat out the freakish graphics of Final Four 2000.

They game has lots of little details that enhance the presentation - players stretch during breaks in the action, fidget on the free-throw line, and "follow-through" and hop slightly after they release a shot. The courts look great, with reflections, shadows, team-specific logos and colors. A lot of these little visual detail add a feel of authenticity to the game.

The crowds look good, but are not animated, which is surprising, since previous editions of the game had animated crowds. Perhaps EA simply found that this slowed down the game too much. For whatever reason they decided to drop the frenzied, animated crowds, and it's a shame, since a wild, active crowd is a huge part of NCAA basketball.

I'm still bewildered as to why EA Sports develops its Live and March Madness games separately. I would think they would be better served, both in gameplay and graphics, to work on one core basketball engine, fine tune it, and adjust versions to the two different games. For some reason, March Madness has generally been the neglected stepchild of EA basketball. This franchise would benefit from some of the graphical advances their Live counterparts have made.

Presentation/Audio : 90
The crowd effects in March Madness 2000 are among the best I've every heard in any sports title. Finally, someone has offered a wild, loud, enthusiastic crowd that not only reacts to the ebbs and flows of a game, but maintains a high intensity for the entire game. The crowd cheers, chants, and heckles the teams throughout the game. Crowds have team-specific chants as well. EA did a great job capturing the sounds and feel of an actually college basketball arena. I still think they could crank it up a notch for big rivalry games, such as Duke-North Carolina or Indiana-Michigan, where the crowd noise should be almost deafening, but compared to previous college hoops games, the crowds in this game are excellent.

If ever a real-life announcer were perfect for a videogame, it would be the always-excited Dick Vitale. People seem to either love or hate Vitale, and I'm definitely the former, since I enjoy his enthusiasm and obvious love for the game. However, with that said, Vitale's color commentary in this game is pretty underwhelming. The biggest problem is that it sounds like Vitale was only brought in for about an hour to record two dozen of his expressions. After a game or two, you've heard all of his comments, and it gets repetitive very quickly. Sure, the real-life Vitale is repetitive, but this is much worse. In a single game, I heard "he's a glass-eater!" and "this guy needs to shoot more!" several times each. His voice and comments add an authentic "sound" to the game, but unfortunately, there's so little of Vitale to hear, he doesn't add to the game what he could. Vitale's play-by-play counterpart, Ron Franklin, does a decent job calling the action on court, but also seems a little too quiet. Overall, the commentary sounds very canned and predictable. EA has done much better in other games. It's a shame they have wasted Vitale's presence in this one.

I also wish they would better integrate the fights songs more into the game (the songs played only during mostly menu screens), and I'd like to see more of the popular fight songs included in the game (for example, UCLA and North Carolina's fight songs are missing).

Overall, though, the great sounds of NCAA basketball are in this game, and offer some of the best crowd effects I've ever heard. There's room for improvement here, but I'm nitpicking -- the audio in this game is outstanding.

Interface/Options : 85
The menus and set-up screens are, typical of EA, slick, polished, and simple. It's very easy to navigate through options and settings and get into the action.

The controls are tight and responsive, and with lots of control options both on offense and defense. You can control everything from attempting a steal, to "holding ground" for a charge, to executing a "give-and-go," to pumping up the home crowd. The controls are at the same time as simple or as complex as you want. Beginners can step right in and play without problems, while experienced players can utilize complex moves into their actions on the court.

The game offers the standard slate of options - exhibition, season, tournament, and dynasty modes. You can adjust the rules and options for gameplay. A good new addition to the options this year is a set of sliders that allows you to adjust various aspects of gameplay, such as the frequency of steals or blocks, or the overall game speed. These controls are welcome in any sports game and help players fine-tune a game to their particular tastes.

Gameplay : 80
The actual gameplay in March Madness is a mixed bag. On the low- to medium-difficulty levels, the game seems to have too many steals and blocks. It's a little too easy to get into that classic steal-and-dunk videogame mode. The highest level of difficulty is more challenging, but still a little too easy. With some practice, you can beat a top ten team with an unranked one too easily, even at that highest level. There doesn't seem to be enough differential between the skills of the best players compared to the more ordinary ones.

On the other hand, the game does make it more challenging to pass or drive the lane than many other basketball titles. Your offense can't just rely on driving to the hoop for a dunk every play.

The AI is sort of helter-skelter as well. While the defensive AI is a bit suspect, as noted above, the CPU players always seem to shoot way too well. Teams rarely seem to have cold-shooting nights.

All of these elements are gameplay, thankfully, can be tweaked and adjusted with the AI sliders, but finding the right balance can take some time.

Overall, I'd say the gameplay in March Madness is above-average, but not without fault. I give EA credit for giving us the power to fine-tune gameplay, but they could have tightened up the default AI and gameplay a bit more before releasing the game.

Replay Value : 75
The dynasty mode has been expanded this year to allow for more complex recruiting and team management. As with all college sports games, NCAA rules prohibit March Madness 2000 from using real player games, so players are have only numbers, not names. Unfortunately, this tends to de-personalize the game a great deal. In NCAA Football 2000, players didn't have names, but you could edit them and add names, and the announcers would, most of the time, actually use them in the game. As you progressed though recruiting, the new, fictional players had names. This really helped personalize your dynasty teams and make them more engaging. With March Madness, your players are numbers and all recruits are just numbers. I think this subtle difference hurts the replay value of the game. It's just hard to get attached to #14 or #32... even if they are your prized blue-chip recruits. When you never hear or see their names, they just feel generic.

The tournament and dynasty modes offer a lot to keep people playing this game, but the repetitive announcing and impersonal, nameless players take some of the flavor out of the experience. I'm not sure how many people, other than fanatical college hoops enthusiasts, will stay hooked on this one for a long time.

Overall : 82
March Madness 2000 is easily the best college basketball title on the PlayStation. The graphics, audio, and features deliver an entertaining game of college basketball. The game should satisfy any NCAA hoops fan. While some of the gameplay quirks, commentary, and dynasty features are still in need of improvement, overall, this is a fine game. The truly great college basketball videogame has still not been delivered, but this is a great start in that direction.

By: Matt P. 1/19/00

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