Almost awesome, baby.
Forget about the World Series. Forget about the Olympics. Forget about the Super Bowl. When it comes to heart pounding, edge-of-your-seat, adrenaline flowing competition, March Madness is the granddaddy of them all. It's a magical time when 40 college basketball teams from around the country face off against one another in a month-long tournament bracket, all leading up to that famed event, the Final Four. Dreams of championships are dashed as the tournament progresses, leaving only the best team the opportunity to take the ceremonial scissors and cut the nets down. Unlike their professional counterparts, college basketball players have something to prove, and unlike the NBA, NCAA Basketball is about pure coaching and teamwork, and not about which team has the higher salary cap.
Back for another digitized tournament is the granddaddy of the video game sports arena: EA Sports. EA's latest installment of their March Madness series, NCAA March Madness 2000, improves upon EA's previous titles and outranks all other college hoops games. It has detailed graphics, tweaked control, and the loud-mouthed commentary of Dick Vitale. But for all March Madness 2000 has going for it, there are certain elements in the game which make it less of an "Awesome, Baby!" experience, and more of an "Okay, Baby!" one.
March Madness 2000 impresses most with its incredible depth. There are a ton of gameplay modes: Exhibition, Quickstart, Tournament, Dynasty mode, and even Women's Sweet 16 (a feature first introduced in Madness '99). In Tournament, the number of teams has been increased by 50. These teams are added from the IVY, MEAC, SWAC, and the West Coast and Southern conferences (translation: you can now play with such college greats as Dartmouth and Yale - oh my!). In total, there are over 200 teams, each of which has individualized playbooks and fight songs.
March Madness 2000 works as both an in-depth basketball sim and as a no-brainer, pick up and play game. Gameplay modes Quickstart, Exhibition, and Tournament are all easy to get into and play. Dynasty mode is for the more serious sports videogame fan. It's nearly identical to EA's dynasty mode in NCAA Football 2000, giving you the ability to stay with a team for several seasons, recruit players, and even redshirt them. During the actual games you can either play straight up or use the coaching options such as substitutions and play choosing, which opens March Madness 2000 into the arena of sim and expands the replay value. The level of realism is really up to you.
The graphics are excellent. Players move with nice fluidity thanks to many of the motion-captured images, and the glossy and bright look of the courts gives the game added realism. Graphically things get a little hairy when more than five players are next to each other, but for the most part the jerkiness in these instances isn't very noticeable. The only area I noticed where the designers got lazy is in the rendering of the fans and the players on the benches. Both look like cardboard cutouts. Better animation of moves such as alley-oops and certain dunks would have been appreciated, but on the whole, the graphics are fine.
On the audio front, the game features excellent atmospheric sound effects (the blowing of the whistle, the crowd chants) and the commentary of Dick Vitale. Unfortunately, it seems that Dick must be charging a high royalty for his voice-overs, because there are at most 20-30 lines of his dialogue in the game. This equates to "repetition city, baby!" during games. And to the dismay of many Vitale fans, his trademark "Awesome Baby!" is recited once in a blue moon.
The actual gameplay of March Madness 2000 is generally realistic.Players can be controlled with incredible precision thanks to the multitude of moves (including pump fakes, jab steps, spin moves), and the newly added dynamic ball control. Dynamic ball control is activated by pressing R2 along with combinations of other buttons. This lets you pull off killer moves such as the sidestep dribble and the shoulder fake crossover. The only problem I found is in regards to switching players on defense. For some reason when I tried to switch to the control of the player next to the defender with the ball, there was usually a lag in response. This lag sometimes let the offense score an easy bucket.
The AI isn't very tough. In fact, it's not really hard at all except on the senior setting, where the computer actually sticks to your players and uses many of the slick dribble and spin moves.
The problem with the gameplay in March Madness 2000 is that it favors the offense. Players seem to nail every three pointer they take. This means that points can be scored incredibly fast, and the only real defense you have to worry about is stealing. This can be corrected by changing the shot difficulty meter in the options. By doing this, shooting becomes more realistic, and offense is balanced out by defense.
But why have a shot difficulty setting in the first place? March Madness 2000 is a basketball sim, and therefore the elements of the game should behave as closely as possible to real life. There should only be one difficulty setting for shooting. The challenge of the game should be in successfully rotating the ball around the court, faking out opponents, and driving to the hole. This option is the equivalent of putting a bat corking feature in a baseball sim.
There are a couple of other minor gameplay problems. For one, it would be nice to be able to control dunks and lay-ups. They are done randomly, according to the position and height of a player. Also, once one team starts hitting a large number of shots, the team's momentum meter rises, giving the players more speed. Although cool, this feature would better belong in an arcade NBA Jam type basketball game. And finally, as great as it is that EA includes a Women's Sweet 16 tournament, the gameplay isn't realistic. In the tournament the women shoot jump shots as though they are men (by jumping up and holding for a second, then releasing) unlike their actual shooting style in real life (releasing the ball as they shoot).
But for all its faults, NCAA March Madness 2000 is still a solid addition to EA's college ball series. The new dynamic ball control along with the enhanced dynasty mode and 50 new teams make the game worth purchasing for college ball fans. So sit back and fire-up your own tourney - just remember to get your Vitale fix from the tube.