Will the madness never end?
If you appreciate good coaching, teamwork and fundamentals, forget the NBA and start flipping through college ball games. You'll still find plenty of insane And 1 mix tape highlights from time to time, but by and large, the college game is all about playing the game the way it was meant to be played.
So it's a little disconcerting that EA's March Madness series has stopped differentiating itself from EA's NBA Live series. The latest, NCAA March Madness 2005, features the same engine, menus and gameplay as its NBA counterpart, but wearing dorm clothing. If you've played any EA basketball game in the past two years, you've already played this one.
There are a few gameplay changes since last year, at least. Like NBA Live 2005, March Madness 2005 has dialed back the efficacy of the pro hop button, rendering it almost useless unless you're collecting charging violations. Freestyle control is back again and is even more effective than before, allowing you to shake defenders with just about anyone on the court. Freestyle Air has also been imported from Live, which allows you to tip-in rebounds and change shots in mid-air.
Perhaps the best new feature is the Floor General approach to playcalling. This takes the classic D-pad control a step further by letting you choose from any of six play sets on the fly, and possibly many more plays depending upon how you run each set. You might call 1-4 High and pass off to the shooting guard after he wraps through a few screens, or you might pass off earlier to the power forward and run a pick and roll with the center down on the block. The variety is excellent and the system brings playcalling to life.
It should come as little surprise, then, that the bulk of the gameplay is pretty solid. The combination of Freestyle control with the Floor General leads to a more active half-court game than you'll find in other basketball games and captures the spirit of college teamwork admirably.
But not all spirits are friendly, and in March Madness 2005 you'll be haunted by players who tend to slide around with far too much momentum, fast breaks that are halted as your teammates stop at the wings rather than cut to the hoop, and the ridiculously common blocked shots; big men will literally fly down from the free-throw line to block easy lay-ups.
The most aggravating flaw is the fact that your shots still seem to make or miss at random, while the CPU has a penchant for nailing shots if they're taken in the flow of a play, even if contested perfectly. Small, weak teams like Dayton or Florida International will run some basic play and drain threes like Ray Allen even if you've got five hands in the shooter's face, while your point guard miraculously blows two open lay-ups. I'd like to see the algorithms used to determine my fate, please.
While simply porting the Live engine smacks of general programming laziness, March Madness 2005 does a decent job injecting the formula with college flavor. The new Arena Pulse singles out the 25 toughest places to play, including such nightmarish holes as Kentucky's Rupp Arena and Indiana's Assembly Hall. If you're the away team and the crowd gets pumped up, the screen will shake and tremble chaotically. It's a cool idea, but should have applied in some form or another to every arena. Just because Hass Pavilion isn't as big as the Smith Center doesn't mean Cal fans can't be loud and crazy, too.
Only one new mode steps onto the court with last year's Season, Tournament, Rivalry and Mascot modes. Thanks to a presumably prosperous donation from a certain car manufacturer, the "Pontiac College Classics" let you relive memorable moments from college-hoops history, such as Laetner's legendary last-second heave and Jordan's first documented heroics as a Tar Heel. It's not nearly as thrilling as it sounds - replaying 45 seconds of a game isn't necessarily worth the load times - but provides a nice trip down memory lane nonetheless.
Most of your time will be spent in Dynasty mode, which again borrows liberally from the last March Madness and the current Live in its design and flow. Your little PDA rings incessantly over the course of a season to update you about Injury Reports, Recruiting and even NCAA violations, which crop up surprisingly often thanks to the new team discipline feature.
This appeared in NCAA Football 2005 and meets with pretty bad results here. Your players will skip class or something pretty frequently, so you'll have to spend discipline points to suspend them from games and straighten them out. If you don't do this harshly enough, the NCAA will get on your case and threaten to bump you out of your conference, which is pretty ludicrous. Since you have to spend a diminishing number of points disciplining guys, you can run out before the season expires and get screwed because your star forward decided to get into a bar fight. It's just not any fun and the whole system should be reworked, if not ditched entirely.
Recruiting is fairly deep, but the game constantly insists you're not doing enough even if you've targeted four guys and spammed the hell out of them with packages and invites. I also take issue with the fact that the top 25 rankings are totally broken and sway unfairly towards the more prestigious teams regardless of records or schedules. My Cal Bears didn't get ranked until they were 17-0, while crummier teams like Stanford (11-5) and Gonzaga (12-6) sat happily in the top 20 for the entire season. Go ahead and ream the football team, but please lay off my digital basketball Bears, okay?
You can always forgo the single-player and play online in both the PS2 and Xbox versions. March Madness 2005 features news, leaderboards and stats, but otherwise is pretty straightforward.
I mentioned in my Live 2005 review that the graphics were starting to look old, and the extra month or so between that release and this one definitely wasn't spent tweaking the visuals. The player animations are very good, but the player models themselves lack definition and detail. The arenas are filled with pancake people, flat, dull fan sprites that make it look like an original Playstation game. Once again the Xbox outpaces the other versions by a hair, but if you want good graphics, this isn't the basketball game you're looking for.
While you're busy seeing no evil, do yourself a favor and turn off the sound so that you don't hear any, either. A handful of pop songs have been recorded by marching bands to aid the game's atmosphere, but the constant looping during menus will drive you to turn "em off within about an hour. You'll probably do the same during the games, because the commentary team of Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale is atrocious, just repeating stupid lines over and over again.
NCAA March Madness 2005 is a good example of why releasing new versions of sports games every single year isn't such a great idea. Small tweaks like the Floor General and Freestyle Air make it a smoother all-around product than March Madness 2004, but the margin is so slight that owners of last year's game shouldn't feel compelled to buy this one, too. The bubble is starting to break.