Reviewed: October 30, 2005
Released: October 11, 2005
As a loyal resident of Michigan, and a Michigan State University alumnus, I tend to either get really lucky or really unlucky with sports games. I feel compelled to always pick the home team – unless of course that home team’s colors happen to be maize and blue – but doing so either totally makes, or totally breaks, my experience with any given sports game.
In football and baseball, I’m doomed. Whether it’s the NCAA, NFL or MLB, I am screwed. Only recently has Michigan State begun to show any real gridiron promise, and the Lions and Tigers…well, you get the picture. And again, you won’t find me dressing like a wolverine.
Now, basketball and hockey, that’s a very different story. With the Spartans, Pistons and Redwings, all near the top of their leagues, Michigan could not have a better showing. Pick these teams, and I generally get the better end of the bargain, although online competition will generally avoid you like the plague.
So, when EA’s NCAA March Madness 06 hit the Game Chronicles' office, I snatched it up.
This is my first experience with EA’s NCAA March Madness 06 series, and I was quite impressed with both the level of gameplay and the interesting gameplay innovations they have integrated into their game.
The most exciting feature would definitely have to be the Lockdown Stick – which effectively makes playing defense every bit as fun as playing offense. The premise is simple, but the effect is awesome; when on defense, you have the option of boxing in the ball handler by pulling down on the left stick. Your defender will square up on the offensive player and contain him within a visible cone of control. It is now the offense’s duty to shake your control by posting up, rolling out, or even passing. Your job is to keep the tight coverage, shifting left and right to thwart any movement and block any passing lanes. The triggers can be used to either attempt a poke in for a steal, or to stand down to draw the charging foul.
But that’s not to say that playing the Lockdown is a walk in the park – you will need to anticipate the offensive players movements correctly, or risk being left standing in his dust as he dumps an easy bucket.
The Lockdown Stick is a pure work of art; finally giving gamers a true feeling of control over the defensive side of the action and making the game a bit more aggressive. Activision and Black Ops employed a similar “Box-In” system with their highly underrated Street Hoops title a few years back, but it was nowhere near as intuitive or enjoyable as EA’s Lockdown Stick.
Another major element – one that isn’t so intuitive – is the Floor General play-calling feature. In Floor General, the D-Pad is assigned half-dozen or so offensive and defensive plays, which can be called up on the fly. The offensive plays are obvious enough, but the defensive plays are where the game really changes things up by allowing you to pick specific trapping areas in which to push the ball handler.
NCAA March Madness 06 also showcases a unique feature called Senior Leadership, in which a team member – generally a big fella – will help set the pace of the game based upon his performance. It’s a bit of a twist on 2K’s momentum, but with an individual focus player; if he is having a rocking day, the whole team gets amped-up and suddenly everyone is playing better. Big guy leadership has always been a factor in basketball – from Magic Johnson at MSU, to Ewing at Georgetown, to Shaq at LSU – so it’s only natural to have it in a video game.
NCAA March Madness 06 features over 300 college teams from across the nation. Although I generally choose the Michigan State Spartans (for obvious reasons), it is always nice to see some of the smaller local universities represented – Michigan had quite a few, and I am sure your state does, too. With that many schools, it is shouldn’t come as a surprise that the developers couldn’t get every arena in the game. Most of the bigger universities are present, but many of the smaller schools are relegated to generic arenas.
NCAA March Madness 06 also features the requisite Dynasty mode, complete with team scouting, player recruiting – heck, you even get to disciplining your own team’s players for off-court debauchery. But really, unless you are a geeked-up about simulating season after season, you will find more than enough play in the NCAA Tournaments.
The real low point for NCAA March Madness 06 would have to be the absolutely atrocious quality of the graphics. Really, unless I was a new development studio just breaking into the business, I would be utterly embarrassed to release a game that looked like this – especially a game that is sure to have such a broad appeal.
The players’ animations are so robotic, so animatronic, you’d think you were playing with action figures. There is little continuity between animations, and you’ll often notice the players suddenly snapping from running animation to shooting animation with little in between to connect the two. Your team’s players all run down the court with the same “pass it to me” over the shoulder rubberneck pose, and somehow fall into formation under the basket without tripping over each other. It just doesn’t look very natural.
The courts are dull and muted, and the audience is an appalling mess of pixilated, two-dimensional, cookie-cutter sprites, of which random sections of bleachers will bop up and down as if being controlled by levers in the background. If NCAA March Madness 06 is anything, it’s a very ugly game of basketball. SEGA’s 2K5 titles looked better than this, heck – their 2K2 versions are still better than this.
No surprise, Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler head up the announcing duties, and they do a fairly good job of keeping the play-by-play interesting, even if there are a few too many repeated lines of dialogue for my tastes. The first time I heard the duo making a crack about a players’ haircut, I thought it was pretty funny – by the forth or fifth time, it became irritating.
And what about these long-winded stories in a video game? In one of my early games, Nessler asks Vitale about his coaching days, and I’m not joking when I say that Vitale literally went on a four or five minute discourse on how he had been fired, and how he was at home watching soap operas and his wife was getting sick of him and… oh my God, this man just kept rambling on and on – and it isn’t humorous, or even interesting, information he’s prattling on about.
If I ever run into Vitale on the street, I think the first thing I will do is tell him he needs to “take a timeout to regroup!”…yeah, right before I sock him one. Just kidding…just kidding.
The sounds on the court are quite impressive, with all the squeaks and squawks, thunks and grunts you would expect from a hardwood game. The crowd noise is deafening, and one can’t but get a swell of excitement when the crowd begins a full court chant or starts stomping the bleachers. And once the marching band starts rocking out their favorite school’s song, well – it’s on baby!
The background music is comprised of an interesting list of tunes – both new and old – arranged for and played by a marching band. While this was at first a bit unsettling, I soon found myself bopping along with songs like Funky Town or Hip to Be Square…that is, until my wife walked in.
With over 300 teams and a variety of play modes to choose from, NCAA March Madness has unlimited appeal.
Playing as a local team is a blast. Being able to take that same local team to the Final Four is an exhilarating. Actually winning the National Championship with them is downright elating. But to do that, you are going to have to spend hours on the court learning the ins and outs of the Lockdown Stick and Floor General play calling – which isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to accomplish. NCAA March Madness 06 is one tough game to master, and that alone adds a ton of longevity.
As for the Xbox Live play – the competition is definitely pretty stiff, and the online bugginess doesn’t help matters much. But, having the ability to pit your alma mater up against a buddy’s is second to none – as long as you come out on top, that is.
This was my first experience with EA’s collegiate hoops series, and overall I am left with mixed feelings. While I was really impressed with the implementation of the Lockdown Stick and Floor General play calling, I was turned off by the sub-par graphics, robotic animations and otherwise glitchy visuals. I hate to judge a game so heavily on visuals, but what we have here just looks unfinished, unpolished and otherwise incomplete – and that immediately sets a sour mood and leaves me nitpicking all of the game’s shortcomings.
It is very enjoyable game of basketball, and mastering the Lockdown Stick will truly make you feel like a superstar. This is the first time I have had so much fun playing defense, and the satisfaction of standing down a player, perfectly timing the steal, and then racing the ball down court for the dunk, is second to none.