With the release of NCAA March Madness 2004 on the Xbox and PlayStation 2, EA Sports has finished out its crop of sports titles for the year. The developers have carried a number of NBA Live 2004's great new features over to the college game, but they've been careful to differentiate March Madness from the pro game by using appropriate pacing and strategy. While March Madness 2004 does a good job at capturing the feel of college basketball, a general lack of polish keeps it just a little short of greatness.
March Madness 2004 doesn't have the world's greatest player models.
March Madness 2004 does an outstanding job with sound. Many of the major team's fight songs are included in the game, and, as you compete, the crowd plays a major role. The array of chants you'll hear and the dynamic cheering and booing add a lot to the game's atmosphere. The experienced broadcast team of Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale handle the announcing in March Madness 2004, and they do an excellent job with varied and interesting commentary. However, it's worth noting that some people can't stand Vitale's effusive personality. If you're one of these people, March Madness won't do anything to change your mind about Dickie V.
Though the developers have done a great job at modeling most of the major college basketball venues, which include entertaining pregame and midgame cutscenes, March Madness 2004's graphics are somewhat of a letdown, especially for those who have played NBA Live 2004. The player models, in particular, suffer from an overall lack of detail. It's almost as if the artists spent more time on the mascots (who look pretty good) than on trying to make the players look a little less generic. The cheerleaders in the cutscenes also look rather primitive. These issues are somewhat less problematic in the Xbox version of the game, which sports much cleaner lines and edges than the PS2 version.
Animation also suffers a bit in March Madness 2004. General movement and dribbling juke moves appear to be missing a few frames of animation. This is a problem that is exacerbated on the PS2, which also has some minor frame rate issues. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the game suffers from a fairly noticeable ice skating problem--with players appearing to slide around the court instead of walking around it. On the plus side, the dunk and layup animations look pretty good, and the inclusion of 10-man motion capture does wonders for the overall look of the half-court sets. When the defense drops back in a zone, players have their hands held out to the sides and wait to deflect passes into the seams. Players on offense make cuts with their hands up for a pass, and they also fight through picks. Players jostling in the post have an especially wide array of animations, as the defender either fronts the offensive player or plays behind him.
The inclusion of 10-man motion capture also means that NBA Live 2004's slick trapping animations are included in March Madness 2004. The traps aren't quite as effective against the computer in this game, however, as the players are usually pretty smart about passing the ball out of danger.
Aside from the animations, the developers were thoughtful enough to include NBA Live 2004's other great innovations, including the separation of the dunk and shoot buttons and the pro hop button. Because you can force your player to attempt a dunk or layup no matter what the circumstances, you'll never deal with the maddening problem of having your man attempt a two-foot jump shot. The pro hop button also works the same way that it does in Live. If you're facing-up the basket and are dribbling toward it, your player will pick up the ball and execute a jump stop to try and free up for a dunk or midrange jump shot. If your back is to the basket while in the post, the button will execute a quick drop-step, which also terminates your dribble. As in NBA Live, the pro hop can push your opponent backward and reward you with a cheap dunk.
Overall, March Madness 2004 does a pretty good job at capturing the essence of the college game and keeps itself from feeling too much like NBA Live in different clothes. A lot of this has to do with the way the computer plays defense. In March Madness, you'll face a number of different looks over the course of the game, including a variety of soft zones, trapping zones, full-court presses, and standard man-to-man defenses. Assuming that you play against a team with a competent defense, you'll find that the computer is prolific at jumping into the passing lanes for steals and getting turnovers off of deflections. The AI is fairly intelligent at knowing when to employ various defenses, so, if you find yourself pulling ahead in the score, you'll suddenly face a full-court press. Fall behind and you'll see half-court zones that collapse into the post to prevent easy baskets. A momentum meter also appears in the corner, next to the scoreboard, but it seems to function somewhat strangely by awarding full momentum to one team or the other after just a couple of consecutive baskets.
The developers have still done a good job at capturing the feel of the college game.
You'll have an array of plays at your disposal by using March Madness' playbook, which includes a good variety of motion, triangle, stagger, and zone-busting sets. Unfortunately, it can be a bit of an adventure to get these plays to actually work. For some strange reason, when you call a play, your teammates don't always get into their proper alignments. If they do, they sometimes fail to make the appropriate cuts, or they'll run off of screens to try and get open. Fortunately, your players do a good job at moving around--even if you don't call a play. The basic plays, like screen-and-roll and post up, also work well, and you can adjust the standard set your players typically run against man or zone defenses from the coaching strategy menu.