NCAA March Madness 2003 Review

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Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports


Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

NCAA March Madness 2003 is a marked improvement over previous college basketball games. While flawed, the gameplay is solid, and the inclusion of a dynasty mode adds a wonderful new dimension. This game isn't up to the standards EA Sports has set in its other sports franchises, but is definitely worth renting, so you can see if it satisfies the college hoops junkie in you.

Rating:
Solomon Dirigible


This year's edition of EA Sports' March Madness college basketball game is a leap forward from last year's rushed, disappointing version. It falls short, however, of the high bar set by EA Sports' other franchises – most notably, NCAA Football 2003. This year's installment includes a dynasty mode (which is fast becoming a must-have for team sports games), somewhat improved commentary, and the addition of EA's "freestyle control," which promises greater control in ball-handling on the part of the player. Overall, NCAA March Madness 2003 remains a few notches below its gridiron counterpart, but offers an enjoyable experience for the diehard college hoops fan.

One of the features that made NCAA Football 2003 a breakthrough game was the fantastic commentary. The sheer number of individual lines recorded by the announcers ensured that the commentary never became repetitive or dull. Sadly, while March Madness 2003 does include Dick Vitale, the most recognizable voice in college sports, joined in the booth by Brad Nessler, the commentary seems disjointed and is often repetitive. In addition to limited individual sound bytes, the commentators refer to the players only as "he" or "the player", missing out on the opportunity to add a great deal of realism to the game by including the specific names. Understanding that, due to NCAA rules, actual player names cannot be used from the outset, there is no reason that this hoops game could not have followed the pigskin's example and recorded the names of "generic" players to be used once entered by the player. The commentary also lacks banter between the two announcers, instead consisting of two guys who take turns throwing out phrases. All of this hinders the game's effort to create a realistic atmosphere.

Speaking of atmosphere, while the game does offer all the NCAA Division I schools, it does not offer school-specific arenas. The graphics on the floor change according to who the home team is, but the stands all look exactly the same. So, while the placing of a small section of student bleachers directly behind the basket is accurate for Cameron Indoor Stadium, the home of my beloved Duke Blue Devils, that same section is present in the University of Michigan's Crisler Center, which, being a much larger arena, has a far larger section of bleachers behind the baskets. There is also size difference between stadiums. Gonzaga plays in a small gym, seating fewer than 5,000 fans, while the Dean Dome down at UNC seats nearly 30,000. However, if you play in each of these stadiums, the only difference you'll notice is in the graphics on the floor.

Remember the customizable coach option in NCAA Football? You won't find that here, either. In fact, if you're hoping to catch a glimpse of a digital Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino, you're out of luck. Whereas Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno were recognizable on the football field, you may see a generic tall, lanky, gray-haired, racially nondescript collection of polygons patrolling the sidelines in front of your team's bench…just pacing. There are no cut scenes of the coach looking upset, excited, or demonstrating any emotion. Any cut scene to the coach will show him walking slowly in front of his bench, perhaps lightly clapping his hands. The bottom line is that if the game won't let you create your own coach, it could at least provide you with a reasonable likeness of the coach of your favorite team. Unfortunately, the visual inaccuracies affect more than just coaches.

Some of the players are, simply put, wrong. Being a Duke fan, I'll use the Blue Devil team as an example. The large senior center, a 6'10" player wearing #41, is presumably Matt Christensen, who finished his final year of eligibility with last year's loss to Indiana in the NCAA tournament. For some reason, he's gained an extra year of eligibility in the videogame world. Two of Duke's star freshman players, guard J.J. Reddick and forward Shavlik Randolph, are white in the real world, yet black in the video game. While these errors are correctable, thanks to a typical interface that allows you to alter player characteristics in a detailed manner, they're still irritating. There are also more subtle problems, such as tattoos that don't exist in real life, hairstyles that don't match the players' real-life locks, and accessories like headbands and armbands that don't match the players who are wearing them in the videogame. It may sound as though I'm picking at minutiae, but these discrepancies are easily fixed, and a game advertised as an accurate college basketball sim should correctly portray college basketball players.

The game's interface also seems flawed, with menus that are difficult to navigate and slow to load. It can take a fair amount of back-tracking and button-mashing to get to where you want to go. That said, there are some nice built-in and customizable features. For example, the game will automatically save a selection of line-ups for you. This prevents you from having to substitute each player individually if you want to go with a big-man lineup, or a three-point shooting lineup. In the closing moments of a blowout, you can simply select to substitute your 12th man lineup to put in the guys at the end of the bench, rather than having to take out each player one at a time. This definitely saves time.

Another time-saving feature of NCAA March Madness 2003 is your ability call plays on the fly. You can open menus to select four offensive plays and assign them to each of the four directions on the control pad to call them as you bring the ball up the court. The only problem is that if you want to run more than the four plays, you'll have to pause the game to change the assigned plays. There is a tremendous variety, but only being able to select from four at a time is daunting. This wouldn't be a noticeable problem were it not for the fact that you can select from eight defensive sets, by either single-tapping or double-tapping the directional pad. One wonders why they couldn't have at least doubled the number of offensive plays you can choose by employing a similar system. Still, the ability to choose plays as you bring the ball up the court is a great feature.

The new, freestyle control is probably the single-largest improvement over all past basketball games. Basically, you use the left analog control stick to guide the player's movements around the court, and, on offense, the right analog stick to control the ball. If the ball is in the player's left hand, jerking the control stick to the right will switch it to his right hand. If you want to do a spin move, you can press the right analog stick forward as you're running forward. Your player will execute a textbook spin move like Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and maintain his forward momentum to the basket. You can combine directions as well, so that making a "J" shape with the analog stick will have your player take the ball behind his back. The control scheme takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder how you lived without the freedom of control it allows. It really does put the dribbling moves in the hands of the gamer. You can also use the freestyle control system to execute low-post moves, like a fade-away jump shot or a drop-step. Once you do get close to the basket, though, your players will go through one of a number of predetermined animations, giving little in the way of direct control. Essentially, if you run towards the basket and press the shoot button, your player will take off to dunk or lay the ball up using a prerecorded move. You end up watching the move, rather than performing it. It would be nice if there were an option to make a power move to the rim or a finesse move around the defenders once you got close to the rim. As it is, though, the game falls victim to the innate creativity of the sport it tries to present, and does a fair job of showing off dunks and lay-ups, despite the difficulties involved.

The single biggest improvement in this year's game is the addition of a dynasty mode, in which you can build a program from scratch and manage your team through an off-season recruiting feature. The recruiting is similar to NCAA Football 2003 – you are given a number of points to spend in your recruiting efforts. After advancing to the off-season, you'll have to look at the players who are leaving your team. One feature unique to March Madness 2003 is the EA Sports Roundball Classic. This is an exhibition game played in the Spring between East and West high school All-American teams. You can elect to control either side in the game, and it helps you get to know the top available talent. It's a nice addition, and adds a unique touch to the recruiting process. After completing the Roundball Classic, you advance to a slightly different recruiting interface from the one you're used to from NCAA Football. Overall, it's the same idea – you can see scouting reports about each player, elect to have a head coach visit or call, leave those duties to an assistant, or a combination thereof. The more points you spend, the greater the chance you'll impress your prospect with your commitment to his career. Of course, the better your team and coaching record, the better the prospects interested in joining your program will be. Once you've spent your allotted recruiting points for a given week, you advance to the following week (of the total of five) and see who joins your program. An interest-meter monitors how excited a given prospect is about coming to your school. After you finish recruiting, you'll cut and redshirt players, before beginning the new season by customizing your schedule.

Overall, March Madness 2003 is a huge leap forward for college basketball games. The addition of the dynasty mode and the freestyle control up the ante considerably for college basketball games. The disappointing commentary, awkward menu interfaces, and errors in player and coach appearances do not directly affect the gameplay, but seem lacking when compared to the high standards EA has set with NCAA Football 2003. While it's not perfect, a true fan of college basketball could certainly enjoy this game. Rent it, and see for yourself.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 13, 2003 1:50 PM.

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