NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Editionseems like it’s a bit of an experiment for EA Sports. It’s the first downloadable game from the publisher that uses the same game engine as a full retail release. March Madness is essentially an identical game as the disc version, but it costs 15 bucks and you can only play as the 64 teams who made the NCAA tournament. It’s basically a way for people to play through March Madness for themselves and take the crown with their favorite school (supposing it made the bracket).
March Madness Edition is built on the same game engine as NBA Live; a first for the series. It’s a good thing too as that helped the game to quicken its pace from the slow and prodding speed of March Madness 08. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to improve, but the series is finally beginning to hit its stride in a few of the core areas of the sport.The first, and most evident improvement for me, is the fast break. Players do a much better job of recognizing when their momentum needs to carry through a catch animation and no longer break stride as has been the case in the past. There’s also better range when using the lay-up button close to the basket. You’ll now see a wider variety of shot animations, most of which were clearly pulled straight from NBA Live 09. The gameplay incorporates other NBA Live nuances (like the overly dominant pick-and-roll control) but also tries its best to not forget its college roots.
It’s just a shame that the features focused around the authenticity of the college game don’t exactly hit their mark. There are two that impact gameplay: tempo and coach interaction. There are three types of tempo that are applied to every team in the game: up-tempo, balanced and half-court. If you successfully keep the tempo of the game within your desired range then your players get an attribute boost. Their shots start to fall a bit easier, passes are crisper, and other aspects of the game fall into place if you play your game. Tempo is displayed through a meter that pops up on the screen, so you’re constantly reminded of how to adjust your game.
I found that the up-tempo play style was the most conducive to my skills. The tempo meter did a decent job of making its adjustments slight enough so one slow possession wouldn’t kill my bonus entirely. There are also coaching tips that are displayed in a picture-in-picture box at the start of nearly every possession. Between that and the meter, there’s never a question of how you adjust your speed of play. It can be frustrating to watch your attribute bonus fade at the end of the game when the pace of the game is inherently slower. These frustrations were exacerbated when grappling for a lead during the last few minutes of a game. Of course it’s going to be slower, yet my coach was still yelling at me to push the ball even when it didn’t make sense to do so. Likewise, when playing with a huge lead your coach won’t stop yelling to adjust your pace.
The coaching options go a bit deeper and now give players the ability to designate three points of focus for a game. There are no bonuses tied to following the guidelines, but more often than not if you follow through on your goals, you’ll get the win.
One thing that absolutely, positively needs to be removed from NCAA is the shooting mechanic which isn’t tied to the timing of your button press at all. A three year old can walk and hold the shoot button and have the same chance of making it as me. Is that really fair or skill-based in any way?
It’s a shame that EA Sports didn’t build out the experience of the March Madness Edition to be more than it is. Why not allow players to join in an online version of the tournament (or, heck, have any online interaction of any kind) and play games when they want? Sure, you’re only paying 15 bucks for a good looking downloadable game, but there should be a few more features than simply playing through the tournament by your lonesome.
Graphically March Madness Edition looks identical to NCAA Basketball 09. Player models are frail as ever and the crowd looks just as solid as before with different animations playing throughout. There are some new overlays that have to do with bracket updates as teams progress, but there’s nothing in the way of new animation systems or effects.
The audio is driven by Dick Vitale, Brad Nessler and Erin Andrews (who really needs to have her own player model) who spout off insightful quips whenever possible. They’re forced to be fairly nondescript thanks to the lack of player names, but they do the best they can given the limitations. Crowd noise pumps along with the action and you’ll hear chants and cheers throughout. “Warm up the buses” gets extremely annoying after awhile but all in all the audio serves the sport well.
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