NCAA March Madness 2005 Review (Xbox)
As one of the forgotten children in the EA Sports lineup, “March Madness” struggles to find it’s way in the shadows cast by it’s big brothers “NBA Live” and “NCAA Football”. While college basketball is a hugely popular sport, it seems as if this series can’t establish an identity of it’s own.
With a radical new play-calling system, and a Dynasty Mode that combines the best from both its siblings, is this the year that “March Madness” steps into the limelight and becomes an equal partner?
The in-game presentation is perhaps the best I've seen in an EA game, and is starting to approach the fantastic presentation the "ESPN" games have been providing lately. The stat overlays, score display, and injury cut-scenes all feel as if they've been culled from some mythical "EA Sports Network". Though they don't look like any current broadcast, you wouldn't be surprised to see this on TV. Though brief, they finally added a halftime show this year, which really adds to the presentation, as Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale discuss the first half, and select an outstanding play of the half. Though the presentation has been greatly improved, the pace of the game doesn't suffer, as the cut-scenes are few and far between, and the play stoppages move quickly to get you back into the action.
The stadiums and player models are unexceptional. I like the "cartoony" look of the players, but they are generic and unrealistic. For those looking for exact replicas and complete realism, the graphics in "March Madness" will certainly disappoint. The animation is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have some of the most stunning animations I've seen in a basketball videogame. The players can move with fluidity, make incredible mid-air adjustments, and react to contact well. On the other hand, you see those brilliant, but canned, animations again and again and watch a lot of ice-skating in between them.
One feature borrowed from "NCAA Football 2005" is the "Arena Pulse", a way to represent the home court advantage that certain teams get from their fans. With the "Cameron Crazies" topping the list, you’ll get special effects when playing in one of the "Top 25 Toughest Places to Play”. As the crowd goes wild, the screen will shake on free throws, getting the ball up court, and on inbounds and tip-offs. It settles down in the half court, and if you make plays as the visitor, you can take the crowd out of it. This is in the section on presentation for a reason, however. While it’s a great dose of atmosphere, it really doesn’t seem to affect the gameplay very much. The play proceeds as normal while the screen shakes and the crowd roars. If it’s affecting the players’ abilities, I’m not seeing that in action. Even if you’re not playing in one of the “Top 25 Hardest Places to Play”, the crowd sound is excellent, and follows the action well. The only problem with the sound for me is that the balance is skewed to the crowd and the booth. While I understand that the overwhelming crowd noise is realistic, I’d like to hear a thunderous dunk when I make one, or hear the squeak of the shoes on the floor. For me, that’s part of the excitement, and it’s missing in this game.
Another addition borrowed from EA's college football title is the "Pontiac Classic Scenarios". Recreating ten of the great games in college basketball history, these scenarios ask you to duplicate the outcome. While the “NCAA Football” versions served as a bite-sized alternative to playing a full game, too many here require you to play from the opening tip or provide only a few seconds on the clock to get the winning bucket. The scenarios will be fun for those who love the history of college basketball, as you'll unlock some of the great teams of the past and relive some great moments, but the mode is a bit of a failure as a gaming alternative without some more variation in the scenarios.
Unfortunately, "Arena Pulse" and "Pontiac Classic Scenarios" were not the only things borrowed from "NCAA Football 2005", as there are also some significant frame rate issues on the Xbox. Especially around mid-court on fast breaks, you will see some skipping as the game lags. It's not limited to that, however, as I've even seen stuttering when in practice mode with a single player in an empty gym. I'm not usually one to notice slight frame rate drops, but when games start to stutter enough to affect timing, it's a problem. It doesn't plague the game as a whole, but it's sure to aggravate some gamers.
This year's big new feature is the "Floor General". This is a new play-calling control system, and it's stunning. One thing basketball videogames have lacked over the years is an effective play-calling method. Whether it's due to the general importance of play-calling in basketball or the difficulty of allowing an interface that allows a call without disrupting a free-flowing game, the lack of a good play-calling system has ensured that most basketball videogames are played as an up-and-down fast-break based game. "Floor General" allows the player to push up on the D-Pad on both offense and defense to show a small menu of three plays, and up again to show three more. Once an offensive play is selected, you can click in the right thumb stick to see icons under the players, indicating the pass/dribble options. For once, it's easy to call a decent selection of plays on the fly, and get an easy on-screen reminder of the steps to start it. The only real flaw in this system is that while the “Floor General” promises plays with multiple options, a deep playbook, and the ability to execute well it still takes practice to learn each play. And the practice mode provided is utterly useless, as it only allows one player at a time. With no way to see the multiple options, or practice running the complex plays provided, "Floor General" really just allows for spacing setups, and offers a clue on your starting options. With a decent practice mode that just allowed for all five players on the court at the same time, "Floor General" could have been truly revolutionary. As it is, it's good, but it's also a bit more flash than real substance.
One minor adjustment that really shines is the new Time Out menu. When a time out is called, a screen pops up with the score and time remaining. It’s the start of a simple, elegant addition that really streamlines the game. From this menu, you can directly call a play or make subs; although you'll have only 30 seconds to get it done. Although subs are usually decided on and ready to go before a timeout in real life, it's difficult in a videogame sometimes to plan ahead for the next "T.O."
In general, "March Madness 2005" should win some sort of award for "Best Use of D-Pad in a Videogame". Besides "Floor General", the D-pad can call for simple isolation plays, "pick and rolls", double teams, intentional fouls and more. It's extremely flexible and intuitive. In-bounding is also affected by the D-Pad by allowing you to choose the player calling for the inbound pass. Unlike other games, however, this is context-sensitive. You are not selecting the center or small Forward, but instead the best free throw shooter, ball handler, 3-point shooter, or the player closest to the basket. It's another example of how minor changes can make a big difference.
EA continues the control system introduced in last year's NBA title, as shooting is split between two buttons: one is for a lay-up or dunk, and the other is for jump shooting. Giving more control to the player is always a good thing, and it presents a particular challenge in the college game. You'll be rewarded for knowing your team well, as the wildly varying talent in the college game means that you'll need to know the capabilities of the player when choosing the type of shot. Using the dunk/lay-up button in a certain spot will result in a strong move to the hoop by one player, while the other throws up a desperation circus shot because it’s out of his range.
For those worried about the fast break issues in this year's "NBA Live" transferring to the college game, rest assured: you can run a break. It'll be hard to play an up-and-down, Loyola Marymount-styled track meet, as the players still stop to get the pass a bit too much, but you can definitely get out on the break to capitalize on rebounds and turnovers.
The AI plays a solid game even at the default difficulty. They work the ball around on offense, and take what's being offered. Though there's a bit of a lack of a mid-range game, they will definitely adjust based on the defense you offer, shooting you out of a 2-3 zone or abusing mismatches in a man-to-man. On defense, they will intelligently double-team, send you to the line to prevent the easy basket, and the late game AI is about the best I've seen in a basketball game. Timeouts and intentional fouls are used well when they are trying to close the gap, and they will slow the pace and pass up open shots in order to burn clock if they are trying to grind out the last minute or two.
One minor complaint involves the ball physics. In both passing and shooting, the ball doesn't feel like an independent entity, but rather a set of canned animations. Passes make it or get picked off, shots drop or bounce out; but what you won't see is the ball bouncing off a few different players in traffic and they all try to get to it, or the ball rattling around on the rim and getting a kind (or unkind) roll. Another area that may simply require slider adjustment is the number of steals and blocks. They seem a bit too frequent out of the box, but they don’t completely unbalance the game. The problem with steals is that you’re just not getting called for the reach that often – it's that there’s little penalty to jamming away on the steal button. Fouls are not often called here, and If you’ve been freed from the worry of a foul call, you can be more aggressive, which will in turn lead to more steals.
Team discipline is a huge part of this year's game - perhaps as important as recruiting. When starting a new year of “Dynasty” mode, you'll need to budget your points between discipline and recruiting, and the default is an even split. Right from the beginning of “Dynasty”, the game is telling you the relative importance of this new addition. A few times a month, you'll receive a report of a player who needs to be dealt with. The violations range from problems with GPA to massive payments from boosters. In order to keep NCAA interest in your program low, you'll need to use the discipline points you've budgeted on suspensions - ranging from a single game to a full season. You'll need to respond appropriately, as being too lenient can lead to NCAA sanctions, or your conference no longer wanting to be associated with you. It's an interesting new addition, and provides a good compliment to your year-round recruiting. While looking for new players to fill your roster, you also need to keep the current ones in line. It’s going to lead to some divided opinion: you’ll either love it or hate it. While I’d like to see it improve, it really adds a lot to the “Dynasty”, and keeps things interesting during the season.
Besides keeping your charges in line, you’ll also spend time on the recruiting trail; as this year, recruiting goes on year-round. During the season, you'll be looking at prospects and making contact with them. In fact, you’ll even receive e-mails from alumni, high school coaches and others who want to help guide a recruit your way. Using the points not budgeted for discipline, you'll be able to scout the player, send information, watch their games, or invite them to see your team. The points needed to buy each of these interventions depend on how close the recruit is, and if they are in a recruiting "pipeline". By the end of the season, many of the top prospects nationwide will have committed, and the first week of the offseason will involve getting those players to sign. After that, you'll have the chance to play the "EA Roundball Classic", an East-West high school All-Star game. This will give you an opportunity to directly evaluate some of the best players still available, and you will then have a five-week recruiting period after that to fill out your roster.
In general, the “Dynasty” interface is clean and smooth. It’s obvious that EA has made some adjustments to help those who like to simulate large stretches of the season, as you’ll often be prompted to intervene when you need to. You can jump in at halftime of a game in progress, and you’ll be asked if you want to stop the "sim" if disciplinary action needs to be taken. You'll also hear a ring from your PDA as you receive emails from your staff, the school's Athletic Director, and the NCAA itself. While you can ignore the ringing PDA, it’s a tip that something important has happened, and you should probably check and see what’s up.
One concern from last year's game was the lack of highly touted freshmen in the game’s default roster. With some help from members of our Forum at OperationSports.com, I checked for a lot of freshmen, and the rosters appear to be much more accurate this year. In other checks against real life, however, “March Madness 2005” definitely has some strikes against it. The schedules are random, all pre-season tournaments (aside from EA’s own “Maui Invitational”) are missing, and while there are an impressive 324 schools available, there are still a few Division I schools that are not in the game.
One thing missing from this year’s “Dynasty” is the ability to export players to “NBA Live 2005”. Whether it’s due to the decreasing number of college players picked in the first round, or a technical limitation, it’s a crying shame that it’s gone. I know a number of gamers enjoy developing a player from college freshman to professional Hall-of-Famer, and unfortunately, this option isn’t available anymore.
This is the first year “March Madness” is available on Xbox Live, and it offers the standard set of EA online gaming options; the standard Optimatch and Quick Match, and there are also lobbies for various skill levels and tournaments.
As with any freshman effort, there are bound to be growing pains, and "March Madness 2005" sure has them. The game that seems so smooth offline is a twitchy, uncontrollable online mess. The framerate is horrible, there is often severe lag, ranked games don't use fatigue at all, and the game speed is much faster than the online game. It's almost unplayable. Besides the considerable performance issues, there's a major control problem: muting the microphone moves to a click of the left thumbstick. EA normally assigns muting to the right thumbstick click, but "Floor General" uses that command to display it's diagrams. They chose to move the mute function to just about the worst place possible. The same thumbstick you move your players with also mutes the microphone...
I still think "March Madness 2005" presents an excellent offline game. But if you're looking at it mainly for online play, cut this score in half. "March Madness 2005" presents neither a polished nor fully realized online game.
While there are flaws here and there, "March Madness 2005" is a very enjoyable game. I was pleasantly surprised, especially by the great on-the-court play. I had expected a deep “Dynasty” mode, but found myself constantly drawn back to exhibition mode for “one more game”.