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NCAA March Madness 2001 (PSX) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

Background Info

March Madness is arguably the best few weeks in all of sports. The madness begins with Conference Tournament Week, which is capped off by Selection Sunday. After the sixty-four teams are chosen for the Big Dance, March Madness hits full stride. What makes college basketball so addicting are the rivalries, the intensity, and the atmosphere of the athletes and the schools. All of those three things are something March Madness 2001 hopes to achieve.

In years past, the quality of college basketball video games has not been good. When compared to the titles of professional sports, college sports gamers appeared to get the short end of the stick. That was until last year when EA released March Madness 2000 for the PSX. For the first time, college basketball fans had a game it could be proud of. The gameplay was solid, features were plentiful, and the game created the “college” atmosphere. Now, a year later, college b-ball fans can add another game they can be proud of. The newest incarnation of the March Madness series is not perfect, but I think for the first time it outdoes its NBA counterpart, the juggernaut NBA Live series.

Presentation/Graphics : 70
There really is not much to say about the graphics of this game. For the main part, they are exactly the same as last year's game. A few new things I noticed were that players had cornrows on their heads. I was taken off guard by this and thought it was really cool. But the more games I played, I realized about one in three players sported cornrows. I know the hairstyle is popular nowadays, but not as popular as it's implemented in the game.

As stated above, the graphics are the same as last year's game meaning all the great intricacies are back. The uniforms have wrinkles in them and players' bodies have a little bit of definition. The best graphical feature of MM2K1 is the stadiums. Not every stadium is an exact replica, but enough are close enough that you could easily recognize them. I know this is a petty complaint, but I was surprised of how many players were the wrong skin colors. I'm not talking about the backup PG of Podunk University being the wrong shade of tan, but big time players on the nation's elite teams being incorrect. Since I am a big Fighting Illini fan, I will bring up the fact that Frank Williams and Cory Bradford are both white. I couldn't believe this when I saw it. You would think that EA would at least be able to get the skin colors right for the starters on a Top 25 team. Don't get me wrong, the Fighting Illini were not the only team to be marred with players being the wrong skin tone. Almost every team had a starter or two who was wrong. Maybe this was done on purpose to not violate the strict rules of the NCAA. Who knows? The haircuts and facial hair are not the same for all the players either, but you would think something as fundamental as skin color would be taken care of. I owned NCAA Football 2001, another EA Sports college title, and I would say that 95% of the players had the right skin color.

The game boasts of including 100+ new animations and from what I have seen you can believe that that is true. Some of those new animations being new dunks, runners, floaters, reverse layups, and even the ability to dive for loose balls. What EA really should have done is correct the animations they had last year. One of the biggest gripes I had with last year's game was the terrible animation sequences. There were crossovers that would take you from the top of the key to out of bounds. Unluckily, those same crossovers are back for this year's game also. Many other animations are cut short and simply start and end. There is no “in-between.”

If so many things were not the same as last year, the graphics would probably merit a higher score. Since almost nothing changed, the graphics were only average.

Presentation/Audio : 40
As much as I love Dick Vitale in real life (yes I am one of the few, the proud…the Dicky V lovers), I absolutely hated him in last year's game. His horrid performance ranked him next to Ted Robinson's in High Heat Baseball. Thankfully MM2K1 put two new announcers in this year's game, Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. The two announcers were a relief and were a small upgrade, but were not perfect by any standards. Lundquist is pretty decent. For the main part he says the right things at the right times, but Raftery is unspectacular. Raftery is most famous for his “the kiss” phrase for bank shots, but he quickly became infamous for his choppy lines. You can barely make out what the guy is saying. Raftery will bust out a line after a spectacular play and it'll come out sounding like he's speaking a foreign language.

The mediocre play-by-play is not the main reason for the low Audio score. What separates the college game from the pros is the atmosphere. The college game is the pep band, the chants, and the enthusiastic crowd. MM2K1 did a terrible job of creating the “college” atmosphere. Maybe if NCAA Football weren't so darn good at it, my expectations wouldn't be as high. Except for a few scattered chants, the crowd is very unemotional. There is a pep band, but it only plays music when you have the game paused. I played a season as the North Carolina Tar Heels and when I played Duke I couldn't tell if I was playing Duke or Middle Tennessee State.

The sound effects while you're on the floor are okay. There is the dribbling of the ball and the squeaking of the shoes. When you steal the ball there is a slapping of the ball noise and when you block a shot you get a very cool “THWAP” noise. The block shot sound effect is used quite often though. Even when a shot isn't blocked, the sound effect may go off. I don't know if this is a bug or what. You can go in the paint and shoot a pull up jumper and hear the block shot sound. I'm thinking that the ball is being swatted or was tapped in the air. Nevertheless, the ball goes through the hoop. This happens quite often during the game and can be a nuisance.

Interface/Options : 85
There are six game modes in MM2K1. You can choose from Quickstart, Exhibition, Tournament, Dynasty, Women's Sweet 16, and Dream Tournament. Quickstart, exhibition, and tournament modes are all self-explanatory. The dynasty mode added a new feature this year, “Coach K's Coach Mode.” The gist of the feature is that you start as the coach of a low tier program, like a Ball State, and by accomplishing certain season goals, can advance to a program with a higher prestige. A typical season goal would be if you could knock off a Top 25 opponent or finish above .500. If you complete those goals you will have the opportunity to coach at a bigger school. The higher the prestige of the school you are coaching at, the higher the goals you will have to attain to advance to the next level. Your goal is to be able to coach at a Duke or a North Carolina. If the, “Coach K Coaching Mode” isn't for you, you can play a regular dynasty and pick any team you want and play the seasons out.

Despite the inclusion of the new coaching mode, the dynasty mode in March Madness is still very raw and unpolished when compared to NCAA Football. There are post-season awards and three different types of polls, but overall the dynasty mode is only a small fraction of what it could be. At the end of each season you never see where your players go in the NBA Draft (if they are drafted). In other games, after each season, you are able to see where your star player is drafted in the pros. For some reason in MM you don't. A player either graduates, or leaves for the NBA. The underclassmen that leave for the NBA are puzzling. I have had my backup center that got no playing time whatsoever, jet for the pros after his sophomore year. Some things are just very weird.

My biggest gripe is the recruiting mode. Although you can recruit during the season by inviting them to see one of your games, the depth is just not there. When recruiting a player, you are given a few vital statistics, like height, weight, field goal percentage, and offensive and defensive IQ. You can sort players by overall rating or by certain statistics. You are given the information of the certain player's choices of schools (his Top 3 choices and three other schools he is considering) and the caliber of player (blue chip, solid, contributor). Those are all nice, but what you do NOT have, is what state the player is from and what type of player he is. The state would be important because by default, any team can recruit any player in any state in the nation. I like it that teams with little success and prestige do not have the ability to recruit nationwide, just like in NCAA Football. Also, the players are not given a certain type. I would like to know if the 6-10 center I am recruiting is a true post, or a very mobile one. I'd like to know if my 6-0 PG is a score-first guard, or a pass-first one. You are given the very basics of each player during recruiting. All of those basics are included in NCAA Football. I keep making references to NCAA Football, but since MM and NCAA are both titles by EA, you would think they would use the same recipes for success.

Don't get the impression that MM doesn't have a game loaded with features and gameplay options. The Women's Sweet 16 game mode is a load of fun. It's very cool to hoop it up as the ladies. The Dream Tournament also is a boatload of fun as you can play a tournament with sixty-four of the greatest teams of all time. You can get the Fab Five their first championship or get the UCLA teams of the 60's another one. The possibilities are endless.

On the bottom of the screen in dynasty mode is a little sports ticker that reveals the Top 10 teams in the nation. I remember all the old school EA games having that feature and I loved it. I'm glad it's back. Before you advance to the tip-off you are given a wealth of information about the other team from Coach K. You are told whether or not the team likes to fast break or play a tough man-to-man defense. During the starting lineups, the team's go-to man is highlighted.

There are four difficulty settings: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Senior mode is very difficult. The defensive AI is cranked way up and your shots just don't fall as easily. You have to get a good look at the basket for the ball to go in. Probably the best gameplay feature is the AI sliders. Without these sliders, which allow you to change the consistency of a certain aspect of the game like steals and blocks, the game would be impossible to play.

Gameplay : 60
Without adjusting the sliders, the gameplay of MM2K1 can be described in one word: annoying. The gameplay is quick and fluid, but what good is the speed of the game when it is no good? In the default modes, there are way too many blocked shots and steals. This was a major concern in last year's game also. Basically anytime you are in the paint and don't have a dunk the shot is going to be blocked. Sometimes it doesn't even matter where you are on the court. You can shoot a three and if a big guy is sitting underneath the basket and jumps, many times your shot will be swatted. The same type of frustrations are felt when you are passing the ball. Passes to the post are almost impossible to make because they are picked off. My first games, when I played two five minute halves, would be plagued with at least twenty steals and twenty blocks for each team. Thankfully you can turn down the steals and blocks frequency with the AI sliders. In addition to turning down the blocks and steals sliders, you can also change the deflect difficulty. What this does is make the minimum amount of contact with the ball higher for a steal or block to occur.

Offense can really be fun when you master the Expanded Ball Control. When using XBC you have about ten moves you can use at any time. You can use a crossover, a spin dribble, a between the legs dribble, and a shoulder fake move. It's fun to take your man off the dribble and go right to the rack. The one drawback is that the animations of some of the moves are too long and will take you unwillingly out of bounds. Before you take a dribble you can jab step or pass fake. Offense is a lot of fun when you master the controls. The one-on-one moves are well polished, but your fellow CPU offensive players are very dumb. They will not balance the floor or maintain good spacing, but rather run right into you and get in your way. At least those CPU offensive players crash the offensive boards hard. If a player is close enough to tip dunk (even players who are under six feet) they will and following the dunk, the rim and backboard will shake for a while. I thought this animation was very nice. When I was playing with the Duke '92 team in the All-Time Dream Tournament, Bobby Hurley, who in real life probably could barely touch the rim, threw down a ferocious tip dunk and left the rim shaking for a few seconds.

One of the offensive animations missing was an actual “tip” animation. If you don't dunk an offensive rebound, you won't tip the ball, but shoot it like a normal shot. For some reason after the opponent scores, you can't inbound the ball immediately. There is always a two or three second delay which allows all of the defensive players to run back down the floor and set up in their specific defense. I don't know why that happens, but it is very annoying.

On defense the computer can be impossible to guard at times. The CPU offensive passing AI is phenomenal. They always find the open man. When you are playing on the senior difficulty level the computer will tear you up with alley-oop after alley-oop. When the CPU isn't demolishing you with the pass, they are with the dribble. You can press R2 to go in a defensive stance, but the CPU will still blow by you. Your player just can't move laterally quickly enough. You are at a major disadvantage on defense. Since there is no illegal defense in the college game, I learned to just take control of my biggest guy and swat everything that came my way. On the easier levels like freshmen and sophomore, the CPU will continually miss dunks and get passes stolen.

Another potential bug I noticed is the inability to box out the CPU on a missed free throw. I have tried both ways of attacking the situation. I have controlled the player manually and I have let the CPU take it. Both times the offensive player snagged the rebound and dunked the ball. For some reason I can never grab a missed free throw.

The gameplay speed is okay and the animations and AI are average, but what makes the gameplay annoying are the players themselves. When you're playing the game the players feel like they are on ice. Everyone remembers the electric football game that was popular years ago. The players in MM2K1 feel like electronic football players. It feels like you're floating across the screen instead of running or walking.

Replay Value : 75
If you can handle the annoyances of the game you will get many joyous hours of fun. The gameplay options are plentiful and the four difficulty settings will keep you challenged. The new coaching mode will keep players busy for a few seasons. College basketball is very addicting and many players will strive to win a national championship. Although the dynasty mode isn't very in-depth, there is enough there to keep the casual gamer happy.

Overall : 60
With the PlayStation on its last legs, it would be unfair to expect March Madness 2001 to be a revolutionary game. Besides a few cosmetic changes, nothing appears to have changed from last year's game. People buying MM2K1 who own MM2K are probably being suckered into purchasing a $40 roster patch. I still think the game is solid and for the right person this game could be enjoyable.

By: Tim Martin 3/12/01

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