Review: NCAA March Madness 2004 (PS2)

So it’s that time of year again. The Super Bowl has come and gone. The first noises of Spring Training are starting to rear their ugly, overpaid heads. Only 3,000 games left until the NBA and NHL begin their playoffs (not to mention the other 3,000 games which make up the playoffs themselves) so what’s the sports fan to do in the meantime?

College hoops, baby!

Is there anything in American sport culture as exciting as the day the brackets come out for March Madness? The Super Bowl pales in comparison; they may get more viewers, but by that point most of the real sports fans have been replaced by people who want to see what commercials are on this year (sadly, I flipped over to Ocean’s Eleven during the halftime show and missed the “¦ erm “¦ show.’ I’ve seen the stills though, so no need to send any more to me.). By contrast, almost every college basketball fan in the country gets into March Madness, even if their own team didn’t make it. With sixty-four teams to choose from, EVERYBODY can find somebody to support. My thing is rooting for the 16th seeds. One of these years one of them is going to win. It just has to happen. It almost did in 1989, when Princeton led Georgetown at the half and ended just 3 points shy of sending the tournament favorites home. Almost every year a 15th seed knocks off a 2 seed. 12th seeds so regularly beat 5-seeds that teams groan when they get seeded fifth now. Anything and everything can happen. The entire country starts out with a stake in that tournament. The only thing comparable is the World Cup tournament, and only then because of the sheer scope of it. The level of fanaticism between an NCAA alumnus and a Cup-team is roughly equivalent from what I’ve seen. (Mexico fans notwithstanding. I certainly hope the 100,000 or so decent fans at that game beat the crap out of the ones chanting Osama.’ Hell, you guys WON 4-0. Why are you bitching?)

I don’t know if anybody has done a study, but I’m sure that as the illinois gambling guide at Bestuscasinos.org alludes to, it woul appear that more gambling money changes hands over the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament than any other sporting event in the world. People who won’t play rock-paper-scissors for fear of angering their deity drop 5 bucks on a tourney pool without blinking. My personal favorites are the pools where you draw teams and your payoff is based by how far your teams go. I once won 10 bucks in such a pool, and I would’ve won 5 more if Laettner hadn’t hit that friggin 12-footer to beat Kentucky. Jerk.

So this game gets a free pass, right? Wrong. I love this game of college basketball so much that I can’t tolerate video versions that screw it up. Their crappy Final Four 2002 game is one of the reasons I haven’t touched a 989 game in two years. The exclusion of a lot of the Divison 1 teams; including my alma mater, Wichita State; from the EA games has been a big sticking point with me since they started the franchise.

Game: NCAA March Madness 2004
Platform: PS2
Developer/Distributor: EA Sports
First noticed errata: Calling Wichita State’s arena “Levitt Arena.” Sadly, the name was changed during the renovation of the last year. It is now “Charles Koch Arena.”

MODES

You know the modes by this point: Exhibition (otherwise known in the EA world as “Play Now”), Season, and Dynasty. The only real innovation I could see was the “purchasing” of trainers and coaches to give your team a lift throughout the season, but at some point this switches over from realism to delving into the old EA cheat codes. Thank you, drive through.

Modes Rating: 5.0/10

GRAPHICS

The graphics are typical EA. That is to say that they’re good, but I’ve seen better. Realistic faces are still a concept lost on the EA Sports team, but the on-court animation is good, especially the transition from normal maneuvering to the special moves on offense.

They also appear to have went to some length to get the school arenas right. Levitt (Charles Koch) Arena did, in fact, look like Levitt. Not quite perfectly Levitt, but close enough for Pentium processing.

One glaring problem: During certain “¦ ahem “¦ parts of the game (I’ll cover this gripe in the Balance section) computer-controlled defensive players would, once again, defy Einsteinian physics and perform a causality violation in close to the basket. It wasn’t bad enough that I had to play against it, but apparently somebody at EA though that it would be okay’ to do this if the player actually moved instead of just vetoing my shot outright. The result just looked ugly, which added insult to the injury of five missed lay-ups in a row.

Otherwise, collision detection was good, and held up well during the replays, which is where a lot of graphical engines cough it up. Fair play to EA for their graphics.

Graphics Rating: 6.5/10

SOUND

I’ve never been annoyed by Dick Vitale’s commentary on T.V. Why did I get annoyed with it here? Probably because it was just a little TOO over-the-top for him. It seemed like he was forcing it a bit. That’s the only thing I can gripe about the commentary engine, though. It stayed pretty fresh; sounded pretty realistic. I especially liked Vitale’s dumb-ass pointed comments at the start of the game. Stuff like “this team doesn’t have a chance tonight.” Mind you, this was coming off of a game where I spanked KU by over 20.

Game sounds are good. Sneaker squeaks, rim clangs, ball bounces, crowd noise fluctuations are all realistic and don’t distract at all. Smooth. Maybe not spectacular, but smooth.

Sound Rating: 7.0/10

CONTROL

Oy. Where do I start? First of all, the controls have been tweaked a bit this year to maximize the available controls of the typical gamepad. The most prominent addition is that of the dunk/lay-up button and the power dribble/pro-hop’ button. I have to say that these two buttons are very nice to have, especially for those of us that have grown used to screaming at the TV every time we pressed Shoot to try and dunk and instead got a 2-foot jumper that rimmed out.

The Power Dribble/Pro-Hop button is another nice button. Kind of an auto-slash that helps you cut through holes in defenders when you’re close in to the basket. I don’t know how many people are like me in this regard, but one of the most frustrating things playing video basketball for me was to get my center in five feet from the basket and run into a brick wall of collision control; a wall that apparently didn’t exist for the computer-controlled team. This evens the field a bit and it’s appreciated.

The Freestyle’ controls through the right thumb stick are also kind of nice, giving you some special move options without having to remember any more buttons. Left-Right is crossover or crossover fake (depending on which hand the ball is in) and Up is a spin. Also very nice for slicing through defenders.

HOWEVER “¦ for every good thing with the offensive controls there’s a bad thing with the rest of the scheme. Namely, I’ve found that defense is something best left for the computer to play. Getting steals by controlling the defender yourself was next to impossible partly because it wouldn’t let you get your hand in there and party because you couldn’t remember exactly how to dive for the ball after you knocked it loose.

Also, in general maneuverability, the game is too sensitive on the stock setting. Now, there is a slider where you can speed it up and slow it down, but I found that slowing down was almost necessary to accomplish decent defense with a human-controlled defender. Way too often I tried to move slightly and ended up overshooting and giving the ballhandler a free seam to the basket, that is on those times where the computer didn’t just take that seam anyway.

True story, the one trick that I came up with to improve my defense dramatically was this: Every defensive trip up the floor, I’d immediately take control of the Center and keep it there until the ball changed possession. Seriously. I let the computer handle all of the steals and such; I just stood around for the rebound or the random block. While it’s nice that you can trust your computer teammates in a sports game for once, it’s not very fun playing Center when you want to play Guard. Trust me on this.

Collision detection, like I said in the Graphics section, was good for the most part. Bounces of missed shots were realistic and it was one of the easiest games to rebound that I’ve seen. The take the charge’ button is nice, if a bit confusing to find the first few times playing (and I have a little problem with the need for this button, since you should be set’ already if you’re NOT MOVING). The game didn’t seem to be lopsided in doling out fouls either, and that’s a good thing, especially with charging fouls.

Just above average on this. If defending were easier, this would hit 7.0 easily.

Control Rating: 6.0/10

REPLAYABILITY

This, like the modes section, suffers from a lack of innovation. The gameplay may be a little bit improved, but only a little, and there’s virtually no change in the game modes themselves. Therefore, there’s little reason to pick this game up in the first place, let alone again, unless you’re a hoops fan.

Replayability Rating: 5.0/10

BALANCE

Generally, EA games are pretty good at difficulty settings. They sometimes tend to be a bit on the hard side throughout the setting ranges, but since most sports gamers have been playing sports games with basically the same controls for their entire gaming lives, this can be forgiven if not completely overlooked.

However, one thing that I will NOT tolerate is computer cheating, and I fear that the EA Sports folks are guilty of this. My theory is that, after putting in the new offensive moves (dunk, pro-hop, freestyle) they discovered that it was WAAAY too easy for human players to score on computer-controlled players. Well, rather than just make the computer play a little better base defense, somebody instituted the fix of, Hey, I’ll just make the Center warp over to the basket from wherever he is and swat the ball at the lay-up. That’s realistic!’ Folks, I’ve watched a lot of hoop. I’ve PLAYED a lot of hoop. NOBODY, not on the playground, in Rupp Arena, or the friggin’ FleetCenter blocks five lay-ups in a row. Not without having a couple of them counted as goaltending, at least.

What made this an obvious cheat was the rather chintzy warp of the defender over to my guy performing the lay-up. He suddenly went from being four/five feet out of position to right on top of the play AND in the air, ready to swat.

Also, mid-major fans, forget about getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in Season or Dynasty mode unless you’ve either won your Conference tournament, or beaten up a couple of top ten teams along the way. I simulated three seasons in Dynasty mode. In each instance, I won over 20 games during the regular season, easily getting the first seed in the MVC tournament. In each instance, WSU ended up losing the tournament (hold your comments about art imitating life, please) and in all three instances, even with 25 wins, WSU was excluded from the NCAA Tournament, even after beating seemingly perennially ranked Creighton ($!@#$ Kyle Korver) TWICE during the regular season.

I’m sorry, no.

Balance Rating: 5.0/10

ORIGINALITY

It’s a college hoops game and nothing more. I could give a point for the Sporting News covers in Season/Dynasty mode, but that was already done with NCAA Football 2004.

This seems to be a trend in this review, but you had to know with the cookie-cutter feel of the EA Sports games of late, this was going to happen eventually. I’m sorry EA, but I’m just bored enough to not be able to forgive the foibles.

Originality Rating: 5.0/10

ADDICTIVENESS

I could put this game down. Seriously, it wasn’t that hard. Skinemax was a bigger draw to me Friday night than playing this game, and as has been adequately demonstrated in this review, I LOVE college hoops. I tried simulating seasons in Dynasty mode, but got frustrated quickly when I found out that 25 wins don’t mean squat when you’re in a mid-major. I tried playing through in Season mode and had a little more fun, but only because I cheated by using my Center defense trick. This isn’t crack to me. I even put myself in the game and had my dream season and I wasn’t lit up at all. There’s just something wrong with that.

Addictiveness Rating: 4.5/10

APPEAL FACTOR

Like I’ve said before, a game is good if it can own its niche, it’s exceptional if it can transcend it. There is no transcending going on here. It’s a straight-up sports game with a tried-and-reused Dynasty mode. The only thing that saves this rating from the Mendoza line is the fact that EA Sports finally got off their asses and included ALL of the NCAA Division 1 teams in their game. Of course, reading what I wrote above, you get the feeling that this was done grudgingly at best. From Missouri Valley alumni everywhere, I’d like to say thank you, and screw you.

Appeal Rating: 5.5/10

MISCELLANEOUS

This game just didn’t do it for me. Anybody who’s read me for any length of time knows the depth of my obsession with my favorite teams, and it was a bit of a chore reviewing this game.

Don’t get me wrong. EA got two things right with the pro-hop and dunk buttons (once I got accustomed to them); but the difficulty defending, even at the lower settings, is just frustrating. Moreso is the Dynasty mode. I’m not sure what was more frustrating, getting 20+ wins three seasons in a row and not getting at at-large bid, or having a team that could rack up 20+ wins each season and almost automatically losing in the conference tournament to a team with a losing record. And it’s not like EA was just going out of its way to model Wichita State’s inability to win the MVC tournament. I didn’t see Creighton or Southern Illinois winning those tournaments either. It was the Evansvilles and Drakes of the conference that somehow got hot and get into the Big Dance with 16-ish wins while two or three 20-win teams are left sitting at home.

I suppose I should be a little forgiving to EA. After all they are the LAST of the three big NCAA basketball game manufacturers to include all of the D-1 teams, so they have a little bit to learn about the dynamics of your mid’ and lower’ tier conferences. So, to be fair, I won’t dock them any (more) points for that.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5.0/10

Modes: 5.0/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Sound: 7.0/10
Control: 6.0/10
Replayability: 5.0/10
Balance: 5.0/10
Originality: 5.0/10
Addictiveness: 4.5/10
Appeal Factor: 5.5/10
Miscellaneous: 5.0/10
Average Rating: 5.5/10