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March Madness 2003 Review

August 24, 2003 Columns No Comments



Review: NCAA March Madness 2003

by Dean Austin

 
Title: NCAA March Madness 2003
Publisher: EA Sports
Platform: Playstation 2
Score (out of 10): 7


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In many ways the sport of college basketball has been an after thought in the very successful business of sports video and computer games. Other than the heyday of Sega Sports circa 93-96 most college basketball games give the impression that they are their NBA’s poorer cousin. And in all candor this is also true of EA’s latest entry NCAA March Madness 2003. However the seeds of a great game have been planted and the 2003 version has a lot to recommend it.

Part of the problem is the rest of the EA Sports lineup. It’s very difficult to look at any of the EA sports franchises without comparing them to their brethren. The recent NCAA College Football for example is even better than the venerable Madden Football. In March Madness 2003 echoes of the college football product start to peak through. This is a good thing.

First up of all things is a little piece of chrome; college students chanting EA’s slogan of “if it’s in the game; it’s in the game.” One particularly funny one is from Indiana where the guy appears to be channeling Carrot Top. Sure it’s not going to make you decide to buy the product, or not if you loathe Carrot Top, but little touches are what add that something extra to a solid product.


The seeds of a great game have been planted and the 2003 version has a lot to recommend it.

Jumping straight into a game, March Madness is very easy to get into. An appropriately named Play Now brings up a select screen with a match up of two of the 160+ schools that are in the game. It’s here that the first uneasiness pops in. A nifty feature allows you to pick a team and select their rival. The problem is that some of the rivals are a little questionable. I at least understand the logic, even if I disagree, of Arizona’s basketball rival being listed as UCLA over Arizona State, but Boise State having a rival of Alabama strikes me as more than a little odd. Charleston with Sacramento State and Ohio State with Ohio also seem peculiar.

There are a number of different options that can be set including the skill level, half length and the camera view. The latter is surprisingly important as the comfort level of the playing view is crucial to steals and blocks. The nice thing about these levels is that most players should be able to win the NCAA Championship on the lower levels and then have the challenge of winning at the All-American skill setting.

For all of us that hate looking at manuals the basic controls are highlighted during the opening screen. At least in the beginning the important ones to note are pass, shoot and turbo on offense and steal, rebound/block and calling of formations on defense. My own personal preference is for a 2-3 zone with a big center playing for the block. Sure you can get killed from the outside if a team is on fire, but it’s pretty effective otherwise.

Graphically March Madness can be quite beautiful at times. The courts are works of art, the University of San Francisco with its Golden Gate Bridge in particular and the crowd animations really add to the atmosphere. The player animations are adequate but one area where a few more for diversity wouldn’t hurt. Control is easy and intuitive. Pretty quickly you’ll be knocking down the trey, turbo bursting into a huge slam dunk, calling the pick and roll and playing tough defense.

The now traditional cross hairs for a free throw are implemented flawlessly. The horizontal and vertical sliders move more quickly if you are a poor free throw shooter making it harder to hit the sweet spot. I didn’t notice a difference in the sliders depending on the time of the game, the fatigue of the player or whether it was a clutch situation. It would be nice to see that nuance added.

Dickie V and Brad Nessler provide the commentary. No one conveys the excitement of the college game like Vitale and here he’s full of quips and one-liners as you would expect. It would be nice if the voice AI was a little smarter. “Another rejection! What is this, the high school prom?” is very funny but not when it’s the first blocked shot of the game. It can’t be all that hard to put filters in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Nessler compliments the V-ster very well. It’s a nice combination and a little more work in the studio with scripts will make this feature a home run, or at least a three point play.

The heart of the game is the dynasty mode. This is what gets the blood flowing. Can you take an also ran and turn it into a national power? For the purpose of my dynasty I chose the Chippewas of Central Michigan. Not exactly chopped liver, as Creighton found out this past March, but far enough out of the mainstream that building them into a contender would be a challenge.


No one conveys the excitement of the college game like Vitale.

I started off 12-0 beating the likes of Notre Dame and Syracuse on the way to a MAC Championship and a 26-6 record prior to the NCAA Tournament. The bad news was that I was still only ranked 88th in the country. The team’s original rating had been so low that even with the constant winning, the Chippewas were unable to climb high in the polls. Worse still at the end of the year four of my players were All-Americans including the player of the year, my junior center who then didn’t go pro. This seems wrong. I understand that a team from the mid majors even with a gaudy record will not get overwhelming respect but a 13th seed in the NCAA Tournament and 88th overall for the 26-6 MAC Champion seems more than a little bizarre.

At the end of the season the best part of the dynasty mode kicks in. Now you get to play the recruiting game. To the best of my knowledge this was first pioneered by Jerry Albright some years ago in an obscure GTE college basketball title but it remains basically the same today. You have a certain number of recruiting points and can expend it on whichever players that you want. Obviously players who want to play for you or want to stay and play locally are better bets than the blue chip recruit from across the country but you get to make the decision. Be careful, even with a couple of shooting guards on the roster I used surplus points during recruiting on a couple of local guys that were interested and ended up with a couple of players I didn’t need. Lesson learned.

EA’s March Madness is a good game, you might even say a very good game, but it isn’t a great game. At each stage of this review you see it. This feature is good but . . . Or that really rocks but . . . It’s awfully close to getting there but is not quite there. However as I said at the beginning, the seeds have been planted for such greatness. Another year of work, especially using the superb NCAA College Football as a template could turn this franchise from a “nice title to pick up” to “I need this the first day it comes out!” Either way, if you are a college basketball fan (and if not what the heck are you doing here?) and a video game enthusiast, this is one for you.

EA’s NCAA March Madness 2003 gets a Hoopville 7 out of 10.

     

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