NCAA March Madness 2004 Review (Xbox)
EA’s “March Madness” has had an interesting history. The game has never had the popularity of EA’s “Madden”, “Live” or “NHL” series. It hasn’t had the consistent success of “NCAA Football”. But it also isn’t considered a failure like EA’s “Knockout Kings”, “Rugby” or “Triple Play” (before it became the solid “MVP Baseball”) series. Before last year, ““March Madness”” had the advantage of having little competition; with the exception of the poor “Final Four” series. Due to the lack of competition, EA released years of mediocre college basketball games.
Just like with football, baseball, and pro basketball, Sega released a game, “NCAA Basketball 2k3”, which immediately presented EA with legitimate competition. While the game was nowhere close to being perfect, it had many basic things that “March Madness” didn’t. For years, fans of “March Madness” have been asking EA to include every NCAA team, authentic arenas, enhanced “Dynasty” mode and realistic play sets. Every year, EA has ignored this, and continued to release essentially the same game. “NCAA Basketball 2k3” showed that a college basketball game could have every Division One team, authentic arenas, and a deep fantasy mode and it appears that EA finally took notice.
After attending E3, I was totally in shock. I played about twenty sports games and with the exception of “ESPN NFL Football”, “March Madness” impressed me the most. The game now included authentic arenas, every D-1 team, and actually felt like college basketball instead of a college version of “NBA Live”. Needless to say, I was really looking forward to the release of “March Madness”.
The biggest change graphically is due the addition of real arenas to the game. While there seem to be only about 30-40 authentic arenas in the game, all of the major programs have them, and the arenas are all well done. I was particularly impressed with the job done on Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Kansas’s Allen Field House and Maryland’s Comcast Center.
The player models are exactly the same as this year’s version of “NBA Live”, so if you like them in “Live” you’ll love them in “March Madness”. However, “March Madness” does a poor job of matching the physical appearance of the real-life players. Due to NCAA rules, “March Madness” isn’t allowed to use the name or the exact physical appearance of current college basketball players, but there are instances where darker skinned players in real life are light skinned in this game. Other games don’t seem to have this problem, and there’s no reason why “March Madness” should.
Dick Vitale is the color commentator - and that’s good or bad news depending on whom you are. Some people find Dick Vitale’s voice synonymous with college basketball, and love having Dickie V’s commentary as a part of the game. Others consider him a loud-mouth bandwagon jumper who adds nothing but noise to the game. Regardless, Vitale’s commentary in “March Madness” sounds like another case of an announcer not spending enough time in the recording booth. Vitale’s commentary really adds nothing to the game, and results in nothing more than him shouting catchphrases when big plays happen. Brad Nessler does a solid job on the play-by-play, but he was even better in “NCAA Football 2004”.
Basketball video games all have their own feel, and all EA basketball games typically play the same. Every year, “March Madness” has played like a college version of EA’s other basketball game, “NBA Live”. This year is no exception. The two games play an identical style of basketball with two differences. First, the lack of offensive rebounds is not as apparent as in “Live”. While the amount of offensive rebounds is not perfect, and can be erratic at times, they actually exist (unlike in “Live”) and occur without adjusting sliders. Second, the changes to this year’s “Live” engine (the same one used for “March Madness”) made the game resemble college basketball more than pro basketball. The pressure and many of the animations give “March Madness” an authentic college basketball feel.
All of the positives and negatives of the new “Live” engine are present in “March Madness”. The off-the-ball movement, the ten-man motion capture, and the great foul and shooting animations are all in “March Madness”, and really help the game feel realistic. However, the skating, the super fast passing, the double-teaming of every post player and the lack of a mid-range game without slider adjustments are also present. The skating is there, but it’s not as big of a problem as it seems. There’s still plenty of player control, and you can start and stop player movement with ease. Even though the mid-range game can be improved with some slider adjustments, the improvement is still not significant enough. EA needs to recognize that players take a large majority of their shots from mid-range, and the focus should not entirely be on threes and post play. Unfortunately, there’s also a lack of individual team tendencies. College basketball is a sport where teams play quite differently from one another. Kentucky and Duke rely heavily on three-point shots; while Maryland and Connecticut rely on motion and post play. This doesn’t seem to be the case in “March Madness”. In six games against Kentucky and Duke; only one time did either the Wildcats or Blue Devils focus on outside shots and three pointers. The problem appears to be the fact that “March Madness” uses the same professional play sets as “Live”. That is a huge mistake; as the college game involves more player and ball movement than the pro game. There aren’t many college teams that run inside triangle, sideline triangle or isolation sets, so there’s no other reason why “March Madness” would include them in the game.
“Dynasty” and “Season” modes are sub par when compared to their competition. Recruiting, for example, is simply frustrating. Those who follow college basketball know that recruiting takes place during the entire season. However, in “March Madness”, recruiting only takes place after the season is over and is limited to five weeks. Recruiting is one of the main reasons people demand a “Dynasty” mode in a college basketball game - and in “March Madness”, this feature is far too lacking. However, there is a great addition to the “Dynasty” mode - the ability to play or watch the EA Roundball Classic. This game features the top high school recruits each year. Watching or playing this game gives a coach the ability to see recruits play before the signing period begins. Training Camp is another positive addition – coaches can choose where you training time in certain skills will be assigned. This time can increase or decrease your teams’ attributes depending on how much time you have allotted towards a skill. The “Awards” section is also well done. After simulating several seasons, many of the top players in college basketball were named Player of the Year and to All-American teams. There were also a few unexpected players named as award winners but every player named had the stats to back their selection up. Still, “March Madness’” simulation engine is far from perfect. In six simulated seasons and Austin Peay was ranked in the top five toward the end of the season. The worst part about this was that Austin Peay had 2 losses in both of those seasons. Now, as unlikely as it is that a mid-major would be ranked in the top five; a mid-major would never be ranked in the top five with two losses. “March Madness” has had a problem with their top 25 rankings in past years, and unfortunately, this year is no different.
There are other peculiarities in “March Madness”, as well. First, the failure to include many of the star freshmen in the game is inexcusable. With players leaving college for the NBA earlier than ever, freshmen play a more important role in college basketball than ever before. The fact that “March Madness” just left some of them out simply shows a lack of dedication. On top of this, the game only allows you to play a game with the team you have selected. So if you want to watch the National Championship game or scout another team, you’re out of luck.
“March Madness” has been in the same rut for the pat few years. The game improves on some fronts and lags behind on others. The problem is that the game’s improvements aren’t coming as quickly as the competition’s are and it’s causing “March Madness” to come up short. Well, there’s always next year…