PS2 Review - 'NCAA March Madness 2004'

by Hank on Jan. 7, 2004 @ 2:03 a.m. PST

NCAA March Madness 2004 storms the court with new schools, improved gameplay, and an incredibly deep Dynasty Mode. Dick Vitale, the voice of college hoops, takes you through the sport's strategy and drama all the way to the "Big Dance" like no one else can. The unique, fast-paced game comes to life with players applying pressure D, diving on loose balls, and throwing it down against rival schools.

Genre : Sports
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: November 17, 2003

Buy 'NCAA MARCH MADNESS 2004': Xbox | PlayStation 2

In college, there are several things that students do: drink, study like there's no tomorrow, and show their enormous college pride. The massive cheering and stomping that occurs at home team sports events can be compared to a monstrous earthquake. When an incredible athletic feat transpires, the Richter scale may be unable to measure the caliber of the ensuing commotion. Yes, all of this excitement can be found at a local college basketball game.

NCAA March Madness is a college basketball game with over 320 schools from which to choose. It's the third game of the EA franchise on the PS2, and the game play has improved in several key areas, but with this installment, does EA maintain its reputation for being the #1 selling college basketball franchise?

If you have played the older NCAA basketball games, you will notice that this title's game play has been completely revamped. I have personally played last year's NCAA, and I noticed a major problem: it was way too easy to take the rock to the hole, making the game feel totally unrealistic. For example, you never had to wait for an opening to pass the ball, and regardless of the accuracy of the pass, your teammate would still get it. This, my friends, is the area that was revamped. Not only is it harder to score, but you can't just randomly throw up a pass and hope that it will reach your teammate. Lurking hands will be swinging around in the air, hoping to deflect the pass and lead to a fast break, perhaps the second most embarrassing way to get scored on (the first is breaking the opponents' ankles by beating them to the hole). While the developers have completely changed the easiest sports games into the most advanced and incredibly complicated games to pick up, the plus side is that the games have a lot more replay value.

The available modes for the game are: Season, Dynasty, Mascot, Rivalry, Tournament, Practice, and lastly, Online. The main mode of play is either Season or Dynasty. In Season mode, you play only one season of games, while in Dynasty, you play through 10 years. I would personally choose Dynasty because you have more options and control over your team. You get to set your schedule, train, cut players, recruit before the season starts, and even partake in a session of roundball classic, where you play with the best 20 high school seniors for fun and possibly even recruit them. There is also a "Play now" option, which lets you dive right into a game without any fuss or planning.

The developers have implemented something similar to Madden's Progression to this game as well. In Madden, the player progresses in two fields during the year in regular season and training in the off-season. In NCAA, I have only noticed improvements when you train the team in the off-season. Training for NCAA is very different from Madden's training. If you played Madden 2004, you will know that in order to train your team in the off-season, you have to train them yourself. In NCAA, you preset your team's training conditions, and it is completely automated, although I really wish that you could take the player into practice yourself. Another thing I would have loved to see is the team practicing when it does not have any games for which to prepare. In real life, these college players' lives revolve around basketball, and they are constantly practicing to improve and ensure victory over school rivals.

To cope with the school rivalries, the developers have implemented two separate modes: mascot and rival matches. The mascot matches are probably one of the most interesting to watch, but that's not necessarily a good thing. It looks like dolls are out on the basketball court trying to bust out their moves against one another. How would you react to seeing Stanford's entire team dressed up as trees, facing off against Syracuse's team, dressed up as orange M&Ms (Orangemen)? You just can't help but think that it looks so wrong. If you are with me on this, you should head over to the rivalry matches, where EA has set up a decent amount of rivalry-filled matchups, like UCLA vs. USC, Stanford vs. Cal, and many more. The only setback is that some schools are complicated and don't have just one rival, and these other matches were not implemented. While it would have been nice, all the possible rivalries among so many schools would have been quite the hassle.

I attend UC Santa Barbara so naturally, my first task at hand was to find my team. Imagine my surprise when I found UC Santa Bill instead, but apparently, the NCAA doesn't have permission to use some school names and mascots, and my school was among this bunch. Because of this, some schools won't have mascots, correct names, and sometimes, aren't even placed in the correct league. I guess licensing issues are always a pain to deal with, and I truly hope that they get more into their next installment.

The in-game play is truly impressive. The game is not the easiest one to pick up, and you will need to learn and understand the key configurations and memorize them. Unlike the older NCAA games, schooling or breaking the opponent's ankle is quite hard (juke, faking out, getting beat). To control the ball, EA has implemented the Freestyle controls, and something this good is not developed overnight so I wonder how long this idea has been hiding up their sleeves. Freestyle is done by using the right analog stick, and it feels like the ball is really in your hand. Move the right analog stick from left to right to dribble from your left hand to the right hand for a cross over, hit forward to spin, and lastly, you can do a delay on holding the ball on a certain hand. Other moves that are important to offense are the low post moves, which let you back down as well as pull off the fade away jump shots.

Offense isn't the only place that the Freestyle is in use; EA has also implemented this on the defensive side. You can use the Freestyle to steal, defensive crouch, hands up, and lastly, off-ball switch. This makes stealing the ball a lot easier, and you don't need to use many of the other keys, unless you prefer them. Another important thing to learn is to change defense formations by hitting the four directions on the digital pad. Formations usually range from double team all the way to full court press.

The basketball courts are pretty detailed, and I don't know if the courts were modeled after their real-life counterparts, but the Syracuse court is simply stunning. As for the teams for which the NCAA doesn't have licensing rights, I couldn't find any noticeable differences to set one court apart from another. The best way to see the stadium is to go through the four different views: baseline low, press box, baseline high, and sideline. The one I personally prefer is the default view, baseline low, because it gives you the perspective necessary to win games. The graphics of the characters are nice but far from awing. Since I don't follow the NCAA that closely, I can't really say that the character faces match the players, but overall, the graphics are nice.

The music in the game isn't all that great but extremely well thought-out. As we college students know, wherever there is a game, there is a band. Rather than having any of the upbeat music you hear in their other franchise titles, the developers used band music, which is very fitting for the game. Another sound that fits the game quite well is the cheering from the crowd. We know how hectic the home games are, and boy did they implement that well. The only sound portion that I am really annoyed with is the voice of an overly enthusiastic announcer; his comments are off the wall and don't fit the situations very well.

Overall, this game is really well planned and definitely a game that you college basketball fans should try. It has very advanced controls that you must try to understand and learn by heart. The game also addresses the issue that basketball games weren't as challenging or realistic as they should have been. It seems this year is just EA's turning point in video games, and I'm giddy just thinking about what EA has in store for us in their next installment. Go play the game, and remember: offense wins games, defense wins championships.

Score: 9.0/10

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