Stay in school.
While NBA fans kick back to highlights of LeBron and Carmello playing like seasoned vets even though neither can legally drink yet, fans of the college game caní¢â‚¬â„¢t help but feel a little gypped. Year after year, good players bolt to the NBA like John Madden to a free buffet at Sizzler, swayed by huge salaries, instant ad contracts and a lifetime of Escalades and MTV Crib specials.
But despite this mass migration, the NCAA trudges on. Basketball fans still appreciate the work ethic of college ballplayers, and even though ití¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to know anyoneí¢â‚¬â„¢s name since they go pro so quickly, you can always just root for your alma mater and root against Duke, or in my case, Stanford.
Video game basketball follows a similar rule. In the past, weí¢â‚¬â„¢ve all rooted for EAí¢â‚¬â„¢s March Madness games because they were really the only decent thing out there. Though thereí¢â‚¬â„¢s more competition these days, NCAA March Madness 2004 still gets an automatic bid with its gameplay and depth, though a few hitches and an overall lack of polish keep it from the national title.
Much of March Madness 2004 has been lifted right out of EAí¢â‚¬â„¢s NBA Live 2004í¢â‚¬Â¦which is a good thing. The control is exactly the same, including the right analog stick Freestyle moves, the two different shoot and layup/dunk buttons and the insanely useful pro hop button. They all work more or less just like in Live, though the Freestyling isní¢â‚¬â„¢t as smooth. The pro hop is a great idea on paper, allowing your player to pick up his dribble for a quick two step drive to the basket, but leads to an unnerving number of easy layup and dunks.
Otherwise, NCAA March Madness 2004 differentiates itself from Live by way of its college game playbooks and defense. You can choose from a nice assortment of plays on the fly, which youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll need to use at the higher difficulty levels where the AI starts throwing all kinds of nasty zones at you. Penetrating the lane isní¢â‚¬â„¢t always a cinch despite the pro hop button, which is very much true to the college game. Youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll often have to swing the ball around the perimeter for a while before you spot an opening.
Careful with that swinging, though, because the AI plays the passing lanes ruthlessly. Passes are picked and shots are blocked often by both the CPU and the player. The press is particularly vicious; the CPU tends to throw bad passes when trying to break it, which can lead to some insane scoring runs. It makes for a more frantic game, but when four of your five starters are All-Defensive team in your conference, ití¢â‚¬â„¢s a little suspect.
The rest of the gameplay is handled decently, although offensive rebounding gets annoying as players tend to go for the dunk follow instead of just trying to grab the ball. But when things get moving, it all flows well enough.
Part of the reason it works out is that March Madness rips a page out of NBA Live again with its 10-man motion capture. Players really move around on the court; incidental animations, such as two forwards jostling for position on the low block, give the game a jolt.
That jolt might be mistaken for a frame hiccup, unfortunately, especially if youí¢â‚¬â„¢re playing the PS2 version. The graphics just arení¢â‚¬â„¢t very smooth. Player models are overly blocky and the faces are primitive. While dunk and layup animations look good, players slide around a lot; presumably some frames were dropped while converting Live into March Madness. The Xbox version solves some of the problems with cleaner lines and a steadier framerate, but neither version looks very good at all.
They both sound okay thanks to tons of fight songs and great ambient crowd noises like chants and cheers. Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale call the shots, which is either good or bad depending heavily on how you feel about Dickey V. Even fans of the guy will probably get irritated because of the repetition: í¢â‚¬Å“The college game, baby! Thereí¢â‚¬â„¢s nothiní¢â‚¬â„¢ like it, baby! These kids play hard, baby! You gotta love it, baby!í¢â‚¬? We know, Dick, we bought the game. I think heí¢â‚¬â„¢s starting to sound a bit like Special Ed from Crank Yankers.
But while NCAA March Madness 2004 drops the ball in its delivery, it picks it up again in its breadth of modes and depth. One new mode, Mascot game, turns all of your players into the team mascot; five Cal Bears versus five Stanford Trees! Nice try, albeit kinda lame. Rivalry games are also here, providing a quick way to play a Big Game.
The bulk of the single-player is found in Dynasty mode, which is very similar to what youí¢â‚¬â„¢ll find in EAí¢â‚¬â„¢s own NCAA Football 2004. You can play as any Division I team (theyí¢â‚¬â„¢re all here) through a bunch of seasons. You can get stats on the whole NCAA, set coaching strategies and training sessions for your team, tweak your roster endlessly and during the off-season sign and recruit high school players to replace your star forward who just went pro.
If you doní¢â‚¬â„¢t have a favorite school or have always dreamt of starting your own, you can Create-A-School and import it into Dynasty. The choices are rather plain, but ití¢â‚¬â„¢s a cool addition for those who either flunked out of college or have yet to go.
Be warned, however, that the PS2 loading times are rough, particularly during Dynasty as you switch between different menu options or load and save games. Before playing a game, March Madness will simulate all other games up to that point, which can take literally two minutes if, say, your team had a two-week break between games. The Xbox is a bit faster here, but get used to unintended bathroom breaks either way.
The PS2 version is online, which works well enough provided you find a good opponent with a fast connection. Xbox owners have yet another reason to send hate mail to EA since the green machine isní¢â‚¬â„¢t online at all.
NCAA March Madness 2004 definitely feels like a college game, from its customizable front end (based on your favorite school) to the video tips provided by real college coaches. However, it doesní¢â‚¬â„¢t feel like a very polished game. More attention to the graphics and gameplay issues would secure its place as the preeminent college basketball game. Right now, though, ití¢â‚¬â„¢s still on the bubble.