NCAA March Madness 06 Review (Xbox)
EA’s March Madness series has always had something missing. Whether it was a limitation on the number of players you can name, real-life arenas or lack of teams; there was always something that held this series back from becoming a true contender for the top college basketball video game. After a quick look, it seemed as if many of the major problems with the series had been fixed. Will the game hold up after a closer look? Let’s see.
Regarding the player models, nothing has changed this year. March Madness 06 has always used the NBA Live graphics engine, but for some reason this year, the developers are not using the most recent version. The player models are muscular and well defined in NBA Live 06, but not in March Madness 06. This isn’t a major complaint, but I would like to see the developers use the latest version of the engine. However, one plus is that the create-a-player allows you to edit any face in order to make the players look closer to their real-life counterparts.
EA has done a great job with replicating the arenas of top schools like North Carolina and Kansas. Small details, such as the correct placement of banners and scoreboards, are included, and fans of many of the bigger programs are going to be happy. While I can excuse using generic arenas for smaller schools such as LaSalle, I find it inexcusable to use generic arenas for teams in major conferences like North Carolina State and Clemson. While I appreciate the detail used in recreating the arenas of the most popular teams, it is sad that EA has not worked hard to create more authentic arenas.
One word describes the crowd in March Madness 06 -loud. EA did a wonderful job re-creating the sound and energy of a big college basketball game. You really feel the difference between hosting a home game and going into enemy territory as the away team. This is all because of the superb sound quality.
My thoughts on the in-game commentary aren’t as glowing. I’ve said this before about Dick Vitale, and I’ll say it again: either you love him or you hate him. I am not a big fan of "Dicky V", and therefore I’m not a big fan of the commentary. Still my dislike of Vitale isn’t the only reason I dislike the commentary. It's very repetitive at times, and many times both Vitale and the play by play man, Brad Nessler, will go on long rants about subjects that are unrelated to the on-court action. These rants also cause Vitale and Nessler to ignore big plays on the court.
As I said earlier, March Madness 06 uses the NBA Live engine, so the game definitely has a similar feel to EA’s NBA effort. With that said, this game does have a college feel to it, as well. You will see a lot more off-ball movement and the use of more screens by the CPU. Speaking of screens, this is the first basketball game that I’ve ever played that has picks that result in three different ways. The player setting the pick will either set a solid pick, a pick that has no effect on the opponent, or he will be run over by the person he was attempting to pick. It's small things like this that make the great games stand out from the average games. Also, a few of the issues that I’ve seen in other EA basketball games are toned down in March Madness 06. The offensive rebounding and "skating" problems in NBA Live 06 are not as apparent in March Madness 06.
The biggest feature EA is touting this year is the “Lockdown Stick.” By pressing down on the right analog stick, your player will closely defend his opponent. This is one of the rare new gameplay features by EA that can’t be overused. Using the stick will not automatically lead to more turnovers unless you learn how to defend and when to take your chances. Obviously, using the “Lockdown Stick” with senior leaders or defensive specialists will lead to better results, but overusing the stick can lead to many easy baskets by your opponents. I would love to see EA add this feature to the NBA Live series.
Gameplay wise, there isn’t much for me to complain about. There are only two issues that I have with the on-court part of the game. First, there are no auto subs in the game. EA’s reason behind removing auto subs appears to be to encourage people to use the timeout feature. During each timeout, you are given thirty seconds to make substitutions and to call a play. It’s a great feature, and one I think should be included in every basketball game - but I would still like to have an option to use auto subs. Finally, the fast breaks seem to be a step slow. While it is still possible to successfully run a fast break, there are times when the defenders catch up when they shouldn’t. Bottom line? If you like the EA style of basketball (fast paced with a little bit of "skating"), then I’m sure you will like March Madness 06.
In some ways, Dynasty Mode has also greatly improved. Gameplan scheduling gives you the option of sending your scouts out to observe upcoming opponents. The scouts provide reports with your opponents’ statistical leaders, strengths and weaknesses. This is a feature that further immerses you in the game and makes you feel like an actual basketball coach. Looking at the foundation for the Dynasty Mode, it appears that EA has borrowed heavily from its NCAA Football series. Recruiting is very similar to NCAA Football, and that's a good thing. The recruiting interface is simple and user-friendly. Each week, you decide whether to send a recruit a recruiting package, send a scout to watch them play, personally visit the recruit, invite him to a game or offer a scholarship. The awards section has also been expanded and now features weekly awards. On its surface, the Dynasty Mode looks pretty good.
The problem is once you dig a little deeper; you will find some big problems with the Dynasty Mode. I’ll start with a small thing: Scheduling. First, EA refuses to put in real schedules. Also, the simulated schedules are really out of whack. The game will schedule games on consecutive nights, which is something that never happens in real life. The scheduling quirks will also cause a week and sometimes two to pass in between games. Once again, EA refuses to include a multiplayer dynasty mode that allows you to play games with teams other then your own. This is mainly a personal issue, but I’m sure there are other people out there that hate having to play with only one team during a season. EA did include a multiplayer season mode, but it limits you to eight teams, and you are limited to using only those teams in any game.
The biggest problem that I’ve seen is a progression glitch that occurs after the first year of a dynasty. After the training session in your second year, most players' overall ratings drop instead of rise. Some are insignificant drops of one or two points, but I’ve seen some that are 10 points or more. This is a big glitch, because it can affect the balance of most teams. In some cases, freshman will have higher ratings then fourth-year seniors because of this. Thankfully, this glitch only occurs after the first year.
The game is slightly different online because of a lack of sliders. The game plays unrealistically fast, and there isn’t a way to slow down the game's pace. Also, there were very few people on Xbox Live during the times I logged on, so it made it very difficult to arrange a game. Finally, I’ve read a few reports that mentioned March Madness 06 having a big problem with lag. I didn’t experience any problems with lag during the few games I played.
I have to give credit where credit is due. With a few slider tweaks, March Madness 06 plays a darn good game of basketball. The major issues are off-the-court bugs and features that should have been included. These problems are incredibly frustrating because they take away some of the enjoyment and playability of the game. In the end, EA has produced a solid college basketball game this year - and that couldn’t be said in the past.