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NCAA March Madness 2001 (PSX) Hands-on Preview

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: Nov 2000

Hands-on Preview based on an early alpha version.

The end of the college football season is nearing, so what is the college athletics fan to do? That's right. Basketball. Many Midnight Madness events opened up the practice sessions indicating the beginning of a glorious new college basketball season. And what better way for a bunch of out of shape, lazy basketball fans to celebrate? Live vicariously by hitting the virtual hardcourt. EA recently sent us a beta of this year's upcoming March Madness 2001 developed by Black Ops.

I've put in enough games to form some impressions of the title. Unfortunately, I didn't have to do much playing to realize some tuning (and we aren't talking fine tuning here) is much needed. On the cosmetic end, the graphics look pretty good. Players have a decent amount of detail, and the player animations are second to none. Players make great crossover dribble moves and lean in for shots. The play in the low post looks great too. Players take fadeaway jumpers and extend their arms for blocked shots. Women players are included in the game, and each has a cute little ponytail. Isn't that just so sweet? The stadiums are also nice. The hardwood floors look realistic and the schools' logos are printed at center court. Oddly, while the reflected image of the bouncing basketball is shown, players project nothing more than a blob on the shiny court. On dunks, the goal vibrates up and down. The only graphical problem I encountered was with the movement of the basketball. Too many times the ball would get lost in the shuffle. This appears to be a combination of not enough frames of animation as a ball is shot or passed as well as poor collision detection. The sound in the game was generic. The play-by-play was off at times and uninspiring. The crowd would cheer for both teams. You'd think EA would have mandated that the awesome sound package of the NCAA Football franchise be a requirement for March Madness.

Once you get past the boring sound, it's time to shoot hoop. There are loads of modes in the game, ranging from single games to full dynasty modes. The women's game is represented with the inclusion of a 16-team tournament. The number of teams in March Madness 2001 is overwhelming. With the NCAA Division 1 teams, women's teams, and classic teams from the past, there are well over 200 teams to choose from. I decided to play my games using some pushovers. My impressions are based solely on playing as my lowly Rice Owls, Coppin State, Mississippi Valley State, and MEAS (Mid East Atlantic State or something).

Starting out, I was stuck playing in the Sophomore skill level (there are four levels, ranging from Freshman to Senior). The menus were a little goofy to me and I had trouble finding where to set the difficulty. At the Sophomore level, I quickly got the hang of the controls. Passing was a simple as tapping the X button. By holding the X button, you could pass the ball off and make a cut. Then, once you release the X button, the ball would be passed back. Pretty nifty, eh? While this form of passing was appreciated, what was not was trying to pass into the box. Passing in the paint was almost always a losing proposition as the ball would be stolen. Eventually, I realized that passing in general was hit or miss. The collision detection is such that if the ball comes near another player it is intercepted. The number of steals quickly became unrealistic. Stranger still was that some passes to the low post ended up as alley-oops. When ready to shoot, you just hold the O button. A pump fake is achieved by tapping the O button, yet many times my taps ended up being full blown shots.

On defense, the control is simple. Steals are attempted with the square button, and you can attempt steals on the run. Despite having some big men in the middle, I found that players could realistically avoid my big men when I jumped to make a block. When the ball was outside or during a fast break, I'd frantically hit the X button to switch to the closest player. Unfortunately, the switch didn't always work. The CPU would choose the wrong player or not switch at all. Other times, the switch was too slow.

Things I like about March Madness 2001 include the pace of the game, the variety of the offensive and defensive sets, and the use of fatigue. I set the game to its slowest setting, which resulted in a realistic pace. I counted around a dozen formations, which can be called on during the game. But the fatigue was great. As players fatigued, their shots would come up short and their bodies would lunge. The CPU teams fatigued equally and made appropriate substitutions.

After I found the difficulty level, I decided to see just how good the AI and mechanics of the game were. I set the game to the Senior level and selected perennial powerless house Coppin State. To see just how bad I could be humiliated, I went up against the top ranked Blue Devils of the hated Duke University. Aside from the inability to pass inside, what I noticed was that the Blue Devils couldn't make a dunk. Using 10 minute halves, they must have missed more than a half-dozen dunks. Oddly, the CPU team tended to miss more dunks on breakaways. When it was all said and done, my very first game at the highest level saw my 153rd ranked team lose 63-60. Some of the key stats included 18 blocks (yes, 18) by Duke, 21 steals by Duke, and 25 steals (25!!!) by Coppin State. I then switched to the 155th ranked team MEAS (sorry MEAS grads for not knowing the acronym of your illustrious institution) and took on the Blue Devils again. My second attempt at the Senior level saw me victorious.

The reason I beat the Blue Devils? Flaws, and many of them. I can forgive the picky items like too many continuation fouls, but things like exaggerated blocks and steals ruin a game. I could set my center up in the paint and let go of the controller on defense. I was almost guaranteed a steal by one of my players. Blocks were everywhere. On one three-point shot, my guard shot from the arc. I was amazed when the shot was rejected by a player a good four or five feet inside the arc. If I wanted to score in the low post, I'd just make a pump fake, watch the defenders leap, and then make a clean jump shot. By not pump faking, even my seven footers would be blocked. And I did try setting the game options lower to mitigate the steals and blocks to no avail.

Hopefully some work can be done on this game before it hits the shelves. The basic engine is pretty good, particularly with the variety of animations and the effective use of fatigue. There are just a few areas where the game comes up short. If they aren't fixed, this game will foul out.

By: James Smith 11/13/00

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