Reviewed: January 30, 2008
Released: December 11, 2007
While professional sports are busy raking in the big bucks, it is college ball that really brings emotion onto to the court. Far from the primping and preening of the pro ballers, the college kids battle it out with little more than pride on the line. OK, I might be sugar coating it a bit…but in theory college kids get nothing out of their game except a good education, a healthy dose of pride and admiration, and a chance to make it in the big leagues.
EA Sports has had great success with their NCAA titles over the years, and returns to the collegiate courts once again with NCAA March Madness 08 for the PS3.
EA has been struggling in the basketball world for a number of years now – culminating in last year’s NBA Live debacle, which had customers signing patch petitions and writing class-action letters citing horrendous gameplay. NCAA March Madness 08 doesn’t quite make the mistakes of its forefather, and is a definite step forward – but still comes up lacking when compared to the competition.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first – EA has significantly improved the post play, adding a bit more depth to the mid-range play and taking some of the focus off the showboating. Players now struggle for position in the post, catch the light lobs, and double around for lay-up and hook shots much more realistically than the fast break dunkathons of years past.
That’s not to say that dunking is completely gone – it just is not the focus. I mean, any warm blooded American gamer will tell you that there is no greater thrill than using the right analog stick to juke an opponent and then drive for a glass-rattling slam, or use the single-button alley-op callout from 10 feet. True, NCAA has its fair share of over-the-top NBA Street style moments, but they do not distract from the core gameplay of college ball.
EA once again returns with the incredible Lock-Down Stick, allowing players to lock-on and apply directional defensive pressure to ball handlers in a bit of a cat-and-mouse stand down. It was hands-down the best addition to any basketball title when it debuted a year or so back, and it still hold some mystique by adding a minigame of sorts to the mechanics of boxing-in a player.
The gameplay is generally solid, but a number of negative factors pop up consistently enough to be bothersome. The biggest of these issues is the fact that the ball seems to move at a slightly faster rate than the players, resulting in an almost surreal experience where characters seem to be moving in slow motion, but the ball bounces as normal. This results in an experience that leaves the controller feeling slow and unresponsive, and the players herking and jerking this way and that as they plod down the floor.
I did find that the options sliders can be adjusted to make the game respond significantly better, most notably the “speed” setting, which speeds everything up, including the ball. However, considering that instead of having 10 incredibly sluggish players and one naturally moving ball, you end up with 10 naturally moving players and 1 incredibly fast ball, the choice is a no-brainer.
The game features the standard 300-plus schools from the previous iterations, and features a good deal of courts to make most gamers feel at home with their favorite team. Again, some of the smaller schools seem to get generic field houses with logos plastered on the court, the developers simply don’t have the time to render 300 courts in their entirety.
As mentioned earlier in the review, the real elephant in the room with March Madness 08 is the inconsistent quality of the visual presentation, and the disappointing gameplay issues that arise as a direct result.
The worst offenders are obviously the poorly executed animation sequences, which take away from the fluidity that the EA game traditionally pride themselves on. Other issues, like excessive jaggies and lackluster texturing were all likewise witnessed in the infancy of the Xbox 360, and have since been worked out – but with the history of jaggies on last-gen’s PS2 (which never were resolved completely, despite Sony’s early claims) we will have to cross our fingers.
That is not to say that the March Madness doesn’t have its moments. EA Sports has finally addressed their oft-laughable paper-doll crowd animations, as March Madness 08 finally has independently animated spectators that feature more than the two rigid positions (sitting, standing). Now we see students actually waving hands, clapping, and cheering. It might not match the quality we traditionally see with the 2K series, but it is infinitely better than EA has ever shipped.
Another bright point are the courts and arenas, which look much more vibrant and awe inspiring than the muddy grey courts of years past. EA has done a great job capturing the colors and reflections of classic hoops locations – like my own Alma Mater, Michigan State’s Jack Breslin Center, which had me reminiscing about my own experiences in the Jack’s house. The sad things is, the immaculate quality of the courts only serves to make the puppet-like player animations, rampant character clipping, and random player drop-out out all the more noticeable.
Although EA flubbed up a bit on the visuals, they really deliver with an outstanding audio package. Featuring timely play-by-play from Brad Nessler, informative color commentary from Dick Vitale, and on-floor updates from Erin Andrews – March Madness embraces EA’s newfound ESPN partnership.
A big part of college ball is the crowd, and EA once again nails the college atmosphere perfectly with some of the best crowd samples to date, all in amazing Dolby surround. There is nothing like the swell of the crowd after an especially pleasing dunk, and March Madness 08 delivers that feeling better than any release to date.
And as always, all of the show squeaks, dribbles, and rim-ringing effects are here in spades, and all sound just as authentic as if you really were out on the hardwood.
The nice thing about sports titles is that their value is not measured in mere hours or days, but rather in months and years. And college sports in particular deliver the biggest bang for the buck simply based on the fact that there are dozens of schools to choose from and play.
Overall, March Madness delivers a solid array of play modes and options, including Dynasty, Tournament, Season, and Quick Play, as well as an impressive online mode. The game includes real-time integration with ESPN, including a live ticker and the ability to listen to ESPN radio during gameplay.
Once you look past the obvious flaws, NCAA March Madness 08 is a fairly solid and serviceable title that even the most hardened of sports gamers can find enjoyment in – at least once they tune the settings to their likings. I would have preferred to have the game be playable right out of the box, but as long as it can be manipulated into shape, then I am happy.
In the long run, NCAA March Madness 08 could stand a bit of tweaking before its next release. It’s definitely not the best game on the NCAA court, but it is worthy of a second look.