Its Tourney Time, Baby!
There's 12 seconds left, and your college team has the ball trailing by a point. You never dreamed that all those hours you practiced playing high school basketball video games would finally land you at the Big Dance. If you make this shot, your school will hoist up the championship banner, and you will be the hero of the day. You hear the student section chanting -"Go Bears! Go Bears!" You turn and see the alumni section, knowing that a victory here could generate enough donations to build that new arena. The band plays the fight song. Now its up to you to call the play and make the shot.
Welcome to March Madness '98, EA's latest college basketball game. EA went all out on providing every detail in this one, and the result is college basketball at its finest.
For starters, the game has all 107 Men's Division 1A teams, with complete rosters. The teams are ranked 1-107 in offense, defense, and overall. Although there are no real player names in the game (due to a bunch of NCAA legal mumbo jumbo), the players have the same uniform numbers as in real life. Thus, with a little knowledge of college basketball, you can figure out exactly who's who. You can also create players, and give your favorite school that 7'1" center they need to make a run for the championship! In addition, EA also added 9 top women's teams, a new innovation for the video game ranks. Every team has their own home gym, and many have their school's real fight songs, too.
March Madness '98 has three modes - exhibition, season, and tournament. In exhibition, you can play any two teams against each other. This is best for two player head to head play. For one player action, or two players on the same team, I suggest season or tourney mode. In a season, you take one team through thirty games. Then, if you scored high enough in the polls (all 107 teams are ranked after each game) you advance to the Big Dance - the NCAA tournament. In tournament mode, you jump past the 30 season games. During a season, the game keeps stats in numerous categories for all teams and players. You can also create a custom tournament, choosing exactly which teams play and what their seeds are. Thus, you can mimic team for team the real NCAA tourney.
In addition to offering 116 different teams, March Madness '98 has 40 set plays (27 offensive and 13 defensive) that you can call in a moments notice using the R2 button. The defensive formations prove to be both useful and fun, as you can experiment with man and zone formations, and even call for intentional fouls, without having to stop the flow of the game. The offensive plays take a little practice if you want to execute them correctly. Once you figure out a few of the easier ones, though, they add a lot to the game.
One very cool innovative feature of the game is the momentum bar. At any time during a game, one team has the momentum, which is shown in the upper right hand corner with a bar. The team with momentum tends to play a little better, and the more momentum you have, the better you play. Momentum changes when one team makes a basket (more for a 3 pointer or a dunk), gets a clutch defensive stop, gets fouled, etc. You can cut down your opponents momentum by calling a time out or slowing down the pace of the game. The momentum bar does a good job of capturing the college basketball atmosphere, by providing home court advantages and making the crowd part of the game (they cheer and chant louder when you have the momentum).
The game's graphics are not great, but they're decent. The layout is similar to the NBA Live games, with a five on five game going from one corner of your screen diagonally up to the opposite corner. The team with the ball always goes up, which causes a slight problem when the ball changes hands. For example, if you steal the ball, the whole screen rotates 180 degrees to adjust. This can be very disorienting, but you get used to it after a while.
The play control also takes a little getting used to. With the exception of the give and go pass option, which allows you to control a player off the ball in the one player mode, the game offers no special abilities. You can dribble, pass, shoot, jump, steal, etc., but its just the basics. If you get near the basket, you can sometimes dunk, but there's only a few different dunks, so they get old quickly. Getting used to the controls, however, allows you to focus on the game's stronger points, like play calling and substitution strategies.
My only other complaint about this game is that it takes an unusually long time to load. While the game flows nicely, I often found myself frusturated at having to wait 3-5 minutes while the system "compiles team rosters" for each game. In the end, though, I think EA did a good job of sticking by their motto - if its in the game of college hoops - its in this game.