There are a few times of year that are simply special to a sports fan. One of those times is the month of March, where college hoops rule the sports world. EA has always tried to capitalize on the NCAA Tournament with their March Madness series. Fans of the game will appreciate that EA decided to bring the franchise to the PS2. But fans and newcomers alike will be annoyed with the effort, which can be best described as one step forward and two steps back. Yes, you get the tournament and any team you can think of, but unfortunately the buck seems to stop there.
Presentation/Graphics : 70
Compared to EA's other serious basketball title, NBA Live 2002, March Madness 2002 shares many similarities. The player and court models have a definite Live look to them, but unfortunately I found the detail of the players to be better done in Live than Madness. The quality of the player graphics really depends on the camera being used, and as you zoom in closer you're treated to decent looking skin and hair textures. There are only four cameras in the game. Depending on the camera being used, you can adjust the zoom. I prefer to play with a camera viewing the action up and down the court. Sadly, this view is fixed with respect to the zoom. Many times you won't be able view players near the sidelines. And if you use one of the side-to-side views, you'll encounter problems picking up passing lanes.
The animations in March Madness 2002 are diverse. Aside from the usual shot animations, players dive for the ball during loose ball situations. Many times they end up on their belly or butt after the scramble. The downside is that the action is way too fast. There is no speed option for the game, so the game plays incredibly quickly. Steals occur in the blink of an eye, players run awkwardly, and in general frames of animation just seem skipped. There's also an animation for broken backboard glass. This sequence is overplayed as you can expect to see the backboard shatter nearly every game.
Presentation/Audio : 80
The audio is tough to analyze in the game. Flat out, the commentary is boring. Consisting of bland play-by-play, it adds nothing of value to the game. If you turn down the poor announcer, you'll hear some pretty good crowd noise. To me, the NCAA series set the standard for exceptional sound atmospheres. Madness faithfully recreates that sense with its use of crowd chants and fight songs. There are several dozen fight songs in the game, and the chants from the crowd are varied and correct for a given situation. The sound deserves credit for the ambient noise.
Interface/Options : 40
Rewind back to 2000. Recall the ire of fans as EA shipped many games that lacked the features of their PSX versions. You'd think that EA would have learned its lesson, but sadly they've stiffed gamers once again. Far and away the biggest short sight is the lack of a season mode in the game. I can forego a dynasty mode, but to leave out a season mode is unspeakable. The game modes number two - a single game exhibition mode and the NCAA tournament. The game's length is fixed to a maximum of 6 games if you get to the championship game. I'd love to play a game that encompasses the regular season, conference championships, and the tournament. The tournament is the reward for a good season, and to leave a season mode out of the game diminishes the value of the game.
Besides the lack of game modes, the other features are also lacking. The camera options are few, and AI adjustments are non-existent. About the only option that directly affects the play on the court is a slider for fouls. Even when set to the maximum, however, fouling is rare. And because of the lack of a season mode, the stat tracking is minimal. At least you can set the game length for your games and a sim game length for the other teams in the tournament. If you play with 10-minute halves and set the sim length to 10 minutes, then the rest of the games should have stats resembling yours. By contrast, if you set the sim length to 20 minutes, other teams may have double your stats. Still, it's a bit meaningless as there are no conference awards for best players or All-American selections based on performance.
Gameplay : 40
Admittedly, the gameplay score is affected by the lack of a season mode. But even if you leave that out (hey, just like EA did), there are some gameplay issues. At least there are some positive aspects of the game. First and foremost, Madness has realistic rebounding stats. The last two versions of Live on the PS2 have been afflicted with an offensive rebounding bug. In Madness, the defense routinely gets the ball if it bounces off the rim. However, you never get the sense that it's because of your skill. Rebounding seems to be automated by the CPU. I've tried to box out and time a jump, but usually another one of my players gets the ball. And when he does, he jumps with Superman style leaps. Still, the bias towards defensive rebounds is a good one. EA should implement this model into the next release of Live.
The transition game is also one of the best in console basketball. I actually like the gameplay of Live as well as adore NBA2K1, but those titles lack a decent fastbreak. Depending on the difficulty level, Madness offers plenty of fastbreak chances. Another positive is that you have to watch the passing lanes. AI players are adept at intercepting passes. If you're sitting at the top of the arc and want to pass to your center, you have to assure yourself the passing lane is clear. This part of the game also represents some of the best in gaming.
But every coin has another side, and that side is a disappointment. I started playing the game on the second easiest sophomore level. After getting familiar with the pace of the game and the controls, I whipped up on some teams as Kansas. I then flipped the difficulty up a notch to junior. I was still holding my own and found the game fairly easy, with numerous wins both in the tournament and in single games. But then again, I was playing with perennial powerhouse KU. Remembering my experience with March Madness 2001 on the PSX, I recalled how even the senior level was easy. So I stepped the game up a notch and began a game as Colorado State. My weaker team was matched up against Illinois. What happened wasn't good. While I didn't crush the Illini, I did win. Upsets happen, but even after a rematch or two my poorly ranked team was able to handle the top 10 Illinois.
One reason the game is so easy is the passive AI defense. While the AI team does sometimes apply a press, they usually give up once you reach half court. Then they kind of sit back and react to your movements. You can stand at the three-point line unpressured. The players don't bite at fakes at the senior level, but you can pump once or twice, take a break, and nail a three. Another way to exploit the defense is to position your guard at the arc and wait for your center or power forward to make certain moves in the paint. You begin to recognize when a simple pass to a big man results in an alley-oop (even when you don't call for one). The problem is that opposing centers and forwards often play between you and your big man. Another negative is the lack of a midrange game. All my points seem to come from the perimeter or under the basket. The defense does converge if you make a move to set up a midrange jumper. You learn that the swarming defense can be avoided if you step out a few feet.
As mentioned earlier, fouls happen rarely. You can swat at an opponent dozens of times on each possession and never get called. While you don't come away with a steal each time, the lack of fouls means the behavior is not punished. Another disappointment is fatigue model. Players on both sides stay fresh through the whole game.
Finally, late game AI must be addressed. I've had one game where the late game AI was somewhat decent. There must be a logic gate in the intentional foul code, as opponents won't try to blatantly foul you until you've crossed midcourt. In addition, I suspect some cheating AI as the CPU team's ability to hit three pointers increases as the time left decreases. But then the AI does a bonehead thing like back a center down until he's right under the basket and not take a shot. Instead, the center runs out to the three point line for an errant shot.
Replay Value : 20
My run at the game was longer than just going through the tournament, but I imagine most gamers will shelve the title after winning the national championship. There's just no incentive to keep playing the game. The lack of a season mode is a killer. It also doesn't help that you can beat top teams on the highest difficulty level.
Overall : 40
Why settle for a poorly developed basketball game when there are better games out there? I had high hopes for March Madness 2002, but my hopes were quickly dashed. The game is easy to beat and short in replay value. This is one disappointing effort.