To say that last year's March Madness 2002 was a disappointment is like saying Dick Vitale is only a little enthusiastic and clichéd about college basketball. The main reason for last year's failure, aside from only being a modified version of the mediocre Live 2001 gameplay engine, was the lack of not only a Dynasty mode, but also a season mode! In this day and age, with the competition for the sports gamer's dollars driving the quality of game higher and higher, EA Sports' slight could be compared to Ford selling vehicles without engines in them.
In EA's defense, the 2002 version of Madness was the first on the PS2 and changes were promised in the off-season to rebuild the college basketball series. After Live 2003 released one of its best games in years, the hype for Madness only grew. Can EA Sports duplicate its hardwood success found in Live to March Madness 2003?
Presentation/Graphics : 85
March Madness does not look quite as good as Live 2003, but still makes the grade nonetheless. The facial, uniform, and stadium details just aren't as impressive as the NBA counterpart. Players boast a variety of afros, headbands, and sweatbands, but as you make your way through the years of your Dynasty, you'll see the same face over and over again. The uniforms do not appear to be truly authentic and alternate uniforms are not available; however, EA for the most part was able to get the right type of floor (checkerboard format, vertical or horizontal floor boards) in each stadium. The logos on the courts change appropriately for Championship Week and the NCAA Tournament and some March Madness atmosphere. In your first year, the Final Four logo from New Orleans will be on the floor, but in ensuing years a generic NCAA logo is used.
Despite the inaccuracy of some of the uniforms and stadiums, the game does look and play very good. Madness incorporates the same Freestyle ball handling and defensive moves Live does, and the dribbling animations are very tight and responsive. The dunk and lay-up animations are comparatively sweet. I always wanted the EA basketball games to get some of the gameplay smoothness that its NBA Street series has, and I believe they are more than on their way. You can edit the look and equipment of your players; however, this comes at an expense. There is a bug in the game where if you edit some of your gear, it will also tweak with that player's ratings.
The crowd is pretty active during games. They stand up and cheer when you make a good play, and at certain times they do the Wave. But my favorite crowd cheer is what you see the Cameron Crazies from Duke do before games-everyone jumping up and down in their seats and chanting "Ohhhhhhhhh..." You actually see the crowd jumping up and down.
Presentation/Audio : 90
I sort of touched on the audio package above when I mentioned the activeness of the crowd, but college basketball is deeply engrossed in fan activity. When I think of college basketball, I think of much of the fans as I do about the standout players. I got goosebumps the first time the crowd stood up and started jumping around. EA did an amazing job with the audio in NCAA Football 2003, and they did the same with Madness. In college football, there is more of an emphasis on the band playing due to the bigger size of stadium; but in basketball, there are more chants. The crowd, after an opposing player fouls out, will chant the ???? When I upset a higher ranked team, the crowd also chanted, "overrated!" The band also plays a lot of music during play stoppages. I would have preferred to hear even more crowd cheers, and some school-specific chants like Illinois's "I-L-L...I-N-I!" or Florida State's war chant.
During alley-oops and dunks, you'll get the sound of a missile or something, which I think EA hopes to add to the anticipation of the play. The menu music consists of the school fight songs.
Interface/Options : 75
Although Madness did add a Dynasty and a Season mode, there really isn't much anything else new to the game and there actually are some omissions. EA added their Maui Invitational tournament, but that is only a fancy name for the standard tournament game mode and you can play the NCAA Tournament with the seedings, but not the teams, from last year. Madness takes a big shot to the gut in the options score because it left out a big portion of the teams (over 100) from Division I basketball. Although powerhouses like Davidson and Dartmouth made the game, consensus nationally ranked Creighton (I think they are around 15 or 16 in both the AP and ESPN) and the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference is left out in the cold. I don't know what conferences got the boot, but I also know that Eastern Illinois University (I go there) and the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference was left out also. This is inexcusable in my opinion because it screws up the NCAA Tournament format as it takes away numerous automatic bids. To my knowledge, Sega Sports' College Basketball 2k3 has all the Division I-A teams in its game.
The Dynasty mode is fairly deep, but the sim engine really ruins some of the fun. Dynasty is fully equipped with Top 25 polls, RPI Rankings, and Bubble Watch. You can see how your stats stack up, both individually and team, against your conference and national brethren. There are coaching sliders that you can adjust which can bring up your team's ratings in speed, shooting, awareness, or the fan's impact on the game. The results of playing with those sliders have been inconsistent in my findings, but it may just depend on the team.
At the end of the season, you will see which of your players left for the NBA, albeit it graduation or early entry. From there you move onto one of the game's coolest features, the Roundball Classic. The game pits the nation's top 20 high school seniors in sort of a McDonald's All-American game (the Roundball Classic is a real event) and the prestige of landing one in recruiting has the same effect. I liked the feature because I could find out what players were the real deal and what players weren't. Recruiting isn't as nice as the one found in NCAA Football, but that may because it isn't as deep. I would have liked to see more concrete numbers given, as opposed to the generic scout's comments like, "this guy is consistent from the line" or "this guy is a natural shooter."
There are some major problems with the sim engine. I simmed a couple of seasons with Duke, and despite finishing second in the conference two years in a row with identical 12-4 ACC records and a 27-4 overall record and winning the ACC Tourney, I was seeded fourth and then sixth in the NCAA Tourney! The reason, I believe, is that the game only determines selection on the Top 25 polls and not RPI, and that human teams drop from the polls much faster than CPU teams. I started out the season 12-0 one year with Duke and was ranked sixth in the nation, but after I dropped four of my next eight games, I was out of the top 25! And when I won the ACC Tourney I was only ranked 23rd in the nation! I played Virginia and Florida State in the NCAAs and they were both seeded higher than me. I would understand if a mid-major like Gonzaga or Kent State were to get a shaft after a 27-4 season, but the Duke Blue Devils?
The interface is sort of laggy as you move through the assorted screens and menus, and I still haven't figured out to vertically sort statistics like overall rating.
Gameplay : 75
If you like offense, then you will love this game. Similar to Sega Sports' NCAA College Basketball 2k3, Madness plays much like its professional game. You should expect plenty of fast break action. I remember one game I played with my friend, where I was playing as Arizona and he with Notre Dame, on the normal sliders, and 10-minute halves. The score ended up with me claiming victory 108-106. I shot 78% from the field and he shot 76%. A majority of those shots were either dunks or one of the numerous fade away shots that seemed to go in every time. The game with my friend revealed a lot of weaknesses in the gameplay engine.
First off, the shot making ability of all the players inside the painted area, regardless of skill or height was annoyingly unrealistic. Three pointers are much harder to come by and this comes as a disappointment because the college game is so dependent on the shot. Two pointers are aided out by the slick lay-up and dunk animation set Madness has. If you can recruit a player that has a high dunk rating on the default slider sets, that player will be dominant. Offense is fun with the Freestyle ball handling. Although I found that it was too effective, especially in the open court, the animation of seeing a defender get his ankles broken was pretty cool.
On defense, there are way too many blocked shots. I started a dynasty with Illinois and in a game against Bowling Green, I had 17 of my shots blocked in the first seven minutes! One thing I did like was the ability of the defense to pick off passes. The collision detection is dead-on in this area. If you throw a pass and a defender is in position to steal the ball, they will do it. But as good as the collision detection is in passing the ball, it is not as good in player to player. This is most evident when the CPU full court presses. There are some instances where your player can simply not move because of the detection. Full court pressure is a pain in the ass because of that reason.
Many of the game problems I describe can be fixed by an A.I. slider fix, but I ask why should we have to? The out-of-box gameplay is ridiculously unrealistic. You can adjust the sliders, but I hate having to play "Jenga" with a sports game. You can create a more realistic game by turning down dunks, fastbreak, and blocks, but the game still does not play like a true college basketball game. The fluid game pace that regular college basketball has doesn't quite make it out. Players don't move with awareness on offense, and there isn't enough awareness on defense with full court pressure.
Replay Value : 70
This score would have jumped if there had been online play. Although the addition of the Dynasty mode helps, there isn't enough there to warrant a high score. I would get more replay value out of NBA Live. The college charm is strong in the game, so that could keep some gamers going.
Overall : 84
March Madness is a definite step up from last year's game, both features and gameplay wise. However, there are some gameplay faults that keep it from breaking away from the rest of the pack. In the middle of the college basketball season, the style of game is fresh in my mind and Madness does not capture it as accurately as I believe it should. The atmosphere is there, but the game style, more so than a lack of animation or AI, is not correct.