Has there been an EA Sports game - heck, a sports game period - that has improved so much in the last three years than March Madness? After not releasing a version on the PS2 in 2002, March Madness has steadily improved in the 2003, 2004, and now, 2005 versions. This quality boost may be attributed to a stronger NBA Live series, a game whose game engine March Madness uses; however, the game has improved also off the court. The year's biggest game feature additions include Floor General play calling (a sort of hot routes for set plays), an arena pulse and a dynasty mode that includes in-season recruiting and player violations.
March Madness 2005 Screens(10)
College basketball video games date back at least to the early 1990s, when Nintendo released its college basketball game, NCAA Basketball, on the Super Nintendo. The game's most memorable trait was the fact you could select what type of dunk you wanted by pressing shoot plus one of the four D-Pad buttons. During most of the PSX years, March Madness was the only gig, as 989 Sports dabbled around with a college basketball game but never regularly released it. This year, only two PS2 college basketball games were released, Madness and ESPN Videogames' College Hoops 2k5.
College basketball is probably the hardest sport to develop when you consider the sheer number of teams in Division I men's basketball (326) and how varied their playing styles are. Programming such diversity is the most challenging part, as that individuality - among conferences and their teams - is what makes college basketball great.
Presentation/Graphics : 90
The graphics engine has a distinct NBA Live-feel to it - that's good. More so than last year, March Madness tried to be accurate with the player's looks. You will see Illinois' standout point guard Dee Brown with a headband and cornrows. Salim Stoudamire, Arizona's precocious shooting guard, is a lefty. That extra detail gives the game a needed realism boost, especially since a player's skin color was off in previous games.
The stadiums are not completely authentic, although strides were made to be as real as possible. Duke's Cameron Indoors (or Coach K Stadium, whatever) has the seats close to the floor, while Michigan State's stadium has a "NCAA 2000 National Championship" logo running horizontally out of bounds. The crowd is 2-D character, except for the cheerleaders and the mascot, but they are active. They will jump up and down during the game and wave signs.
The animation has little flaws, but the game has some missing animations when grabbing rebounds as you'll see a player teleport to different spots on the court. There are also some clipping issues, in regards to players running through each other like they were ghosts. Given that most of the games are either ESPN Videogames or EA Sports, the issue of graphical quality is less of a concern. What is more important is accuracy, with players, stadiums and coaches. In this area, March Madness does a solid job but not as good as NBA Live or Madden.
Presentation/Audio : 78
Dick Vitale is a college basketball icon. If he came to my school for a game (I highly doubt it), I would love to meet him and rub his bald head. I'd even help hold him up if he wanted to crowd surf. But in March Madness, Vitale is reduced to a cliché throwing analyst. What makes Vitale respect throughout the industry, aside from his gimmicky "that's awesome baby!" calls, is the fact that he deeply understands the game based on his coaching experience at the University of Detroit and the Detroit Pistons. But you get none of that in the game. His partner, Brad Nessler, does an adequate job with the play by play.
What makes college basketball stand out from the other sports is the atmosphere. To a certain extent, March Madness captures that intensity and emotion, as crowds will fill the stadium up with noise for a big game. However, the crowd noise has little intelligence - a lingering problem from last year. While the crowd will cheer after a dunk and boo after a loss, they will also heartily chant for their team in the closing minute of a blowout loss. I understand team loyalty but I attribute such applause to a lack of crowd intelligence.
Interface/Options : 87
The interface has a distinct college feel to it, even more than EA's NCAA Football where cut scenes of the virtual players shoot across the screen. In March Madness, cutout snap shots flash across the screen: a guy with a black afro with a "Best Team in Kentucky"; team mascots; and stadium shots. Like the Madden series, March Madness has a PDA system to help organize the many tasks and menu screens of Dynasty mode. This feature helps out greatly, given the inclusion of in-season recruiting. A big part of the PDA is reading messages/e-mail from recruits, athletic directors, etc.; however, the text size is about 7 points, which makes a college student like me feel like a grandmother.
If you dive into Dynasty mode, most of your attention will be spent with in-season recruiting. You send packages, phone, e-mail, invite to games and offer scholarship to recruits. You are given not a weekly but rather one large sum of recruiting points at the beginning of the year. You have to decide whether you want to go for broke early or wait until later on. That said, there is another recruiting period in the post-season.
It's a growing trend among sports games to beef up their Dynasty modes with a barrage of micromanagement. You can alter percentages of how much time you want to spend practicing offense, defense or shooting. You tell your assistant coaches what to do and when. In that regard, you get a good scope of how much depth a college basketball operation has. However, I think sports games would be wise to offer a "heavy" and "lite" version of the Dynasty modes, presumably one where you can focus on playing the games, the other where you're more of a GM-type. As I said above, I spent a large chunk of my time recruiting, probably too much. Maybe there is an auto recruiting or CPU recruiting ability but I wasn't able to find it (by the way, March Madness has a Kleenex-thick instruction manual).
The game modes include: Online; Dynasty; Season; Tournament; Rivalry; Practice; and Mascot games. Yes, mascot games. Also new this year is the Pontiac College Classics, which are nothing new if you play NCAA Football. But if you don't, the college classics are famous games or plays (Jordan's '84 National Championship shot; Tyus Edney's full-court dribble drive in UCLA's 1995 championship year) you can replay.
Gameplay : 84
I think the main difference between ESPN College Hoops and March Madness is one succeeds in single player mode, while the other triumphs with multi-player. March Madness dominates in the latter.
You will find that most college teams adhere to their real-life styles. Rick Pitino's Louisville team will pick you up full court, while Michigan State will try to bruise you in a slow-paced game. Where the game loses its college feel is in the half-court. The college game relies more on set plays than the professional game. In March Madness, you still get quite a bit of one-on-one play. If you're familiar with NBA Live, you will notice a lot of pro hop and Freestyle usage.
The higher levels of difficulty disappointed me. Instead of more intelligent play or crisper passing, the main difference was the CPU shooting a higher percentage. That is one of the best and worst things about March Madness: the shooting. Basketball pundits everywhere are saying how bad the current state of basketball is because today's players do not know how to shoot. You'd never guess that by playing this game. Every game is like you're 1985 Villanova facing off against Georgetown in the NCAA Championship (the Wildcats shot 79 percent on field goals not from the charity stripe). To sum up a game of March Madness: swish. To give you perspective on how easy the shooting can be, my favorite video game college basketball player, Duke's J.J. Redick, hit 15 three-pointers in one 20-minute game (10 minute halves).
Such offensive swarm is enjoyable in a multi-player game where it's fun to keep the scoring flowing like a keg at a frat party. But when defensive stops are limited to blocked shots, the game can be frustrated when you're playing against the CPU. You wonder: How can I stop them?
And so, in terms of visceral enjoyment, March Madness ranks quite high when you mix the offensive sprees with the blaring crowd. But as you play the game more, you search for some kind of depth that is not there. On the plus side, the gameplay is easy to grasp and feels smoother than ESPN College Hoops. Put another way players cut faster, jump higher and run faster in March Madness.
The two touted additions to this year's game had little impact. The Arena Pulse, which is taken straight out of NCAA Football's Stadium Meter, has little effect on the game. Sure, free throw shooting is more difficult and calling set plays might be hard, but the only impact appears to be the screen shakes when it gets too loud. Player ratings fall up and down based on the momentum, but a quick timeout takes care of that. The Floor General feature amounts to a feature that has been available for many years - on-the-fly playcalling. It's nice to be able to switch to a man to a zone offense, or defense for that matter, but it's not the revolutionary feature that Kansas coach Bill Self calls it in an in-game tutorial.
Replay Value : 86
The in-season recruiting, while two years behind the competition, is thorough, as is the rest of the Dynasty mode. The game is more appealing in the short run, but has just as longevity as NBA Live's gameplay. Every college game because of its short shelf life of players and tradition will hold the interest of most sports gamers. Unlike the professional sports games, March Madness does not have a strong selection of mini-games (think Madden's Training Camp or Live's All-Star Weekend).
Overall : 79
I gave NCAA Football the exact overall score. I think both college games have a fundamental system that works. The recruiting systems are addicting and there is enough glitz and glamour to establish a college environment. The gameplay, in both of EA's college games, needs some more work, especially with A.I. but are fun experiences nonetheless. I do think that ESPN College Hoops - for the second year in a row -- is a superior game.