Thanks to Greg Oden's season-ending knee injury, one battle between March Madness 08 and College Hoops 2K8 has already been settled: Kevin Durant was the better choice for cover athlete. Of course, the real contest takes place on the court. EA gave us some hands-on time with March Madness 08 to see how the game is shaping up for its sophomore season on the current generation.
Anyone who played last year's Xbox 360 game will remember that the frame rate was a serious issue, which legitimately hurt how the game played. That doesn't look like it will be a problem this year--the game is running at 60 frames per second on the 360. PlayStation 3 owners will have to make do with 30 frames per second, but EA promises it will be nice and smooth, which is what matters anyway. To further enhance the presentation and add to the game's already great college atmosphere, 25 more authentic arenas have been added, giving the game more than 50 true-to-life stadiums. Of course, these arenas are filled with rowdy student sections, pep bands, cheerleaders, and even mascots. It didn't take long for the mascots to make their presence felt either. Just a minute into our showdown against UNC, the Tarheels' mascot turned his back to the court and pretended to moon our squad, just like Randy Moss in Green Bay. Another way EA hopes to re-create the college basketball atmosphere is by further integrating the ESPN brand. This means we'll be getting detailed insight from sideline reporter Erin Andrews. It's only her voice, but that's why you like her anyway, right?
March Madness 08's gameplay has also seen a lot of change. More to the point, EA is hoping to bring a more realistic representation of real college basketball to the table this year. The most noticeable change is that the game has been slowed down, giving the game a more deliberate pace that's consistent with the real sport. The developer is also hoping you'll willingly slow down the pace of play on your own. Why? It's because of the new post-play mechanics.
It seems like every year developers promise more robust play in the paint, but they seldom make good on the promise. But from our brief time with 08, it looks as if EA is poised to deliver. It's all really quite simple. On offense, you move a player (with or without the ball) down to the low post with the left analog stick. Then you jockey for position with the right analog stick. A flick of the stick is all it takes to go from backing the defender down to spinning around and getting behind him in position for a lob or an offensive board. Once you've got the ball, you use the two sticks together to back your defender down and either go around or shoot over him. Because the artificial intelligence will take your player's skill ratings, position, and distance from the basket into account, shot selection should be realistic. Our big men didn't settle for fall-away jumpers: They threw up nice-looking hooks when they were a few feet away and threw down big-time dunks when they were close to the rim.
This new control scheme applies to defense as well. In fact, we enjoyed playing defense in the post more than we did playing offense. If you know your opponent is trying to get the ball to his center, you can flick the right analog stick to move in front of him in an effort to deny him the ball. This works great if you're as tall as or taller than the man you're guarding, but if he has a size advantage, you'll want to flick the stick again to box him out. Once in position, you can move the right stick left or right to shadow his movement and keep him from getting around you. Thanks to all-new motion capture moves that had two players actually playing each other rather than a single person playing against an imaginary defender, the battle for the post looks realistic. You'll see pushing and shoving, as well as players reacting realistically to being bumped.
The new post-play mechanics also change how the rest of the game is played. Because we felt like we had more control over what our big men would do in the paint, we were more willing to feed the ball inside. Our opponent recognized this and began to double-team our center. This strategy was effective, but it also meant someone on the perimeter was left unguarded. We began kicking the ball out to our guards for some easy three-pointers, which eventually caused the other team to stop double-teaming our center. Another way the game encourages you to run plays and use the new post controls is by being more aggressive toward lazy passing. In the past, you could pass the ball around the perimeter to your heart's content. Eventually, you'd find someone open or a defender would fall for a pump fake and you could drive to the hoop. This is not the case anymore. The AI will quickly recognize this tactic and jump all over a lazy, telegraphed pass. We know--it happened to us several times.
Fans of dynasty mode will be pleased to know that it too received a lot of attention this off-season. For starters, the entire interface has been redone and is a lot more user-friendly. It's very similar to what was found in NCAA Football 08. From your homepage, you can view key matchups, polls, national and local stories, bracketology, and more. Recruiting has been improved, and it's now easier to sift through the thousands of prospects to find the players you need. This is a good thing because your athletic director and your alumni will give you recruiting challenges, such as signing your state's Mr. Basketball then rewarding you if you do so. Another feature that has made its way from NCAA Football (and Live 08) is gamecast. Rather than just putting a final score onscreen when you sim a game, you're now shown a complete breakdown of what's happening on the court as it takes place. You can view player stats, shot charts, team stats, change a few coaching options, and even interrupt the sim to play the rest of the game yourself. If that's too much detail for you, you're able to speed up the gamecast significantly or skip it entirely and let the CPU sim things the old-fashioned way.
Online play is yet another area that has seen improvement over its predecessor. We didn't get all the details on how it will work, but we did find out that you'll be able to participate in online leagues. There won't be any online March Madness tournament, but the inclusion of leagues is a step in the right direction.
College basketball's history is filled with great teams and great players--many of whom are in March Madness 08. You can play as a large number of classic teams, such as the '68 Bruins, '76 Hoosiers, Larry Bird's '79 Indiana State squad, Magic's '79 Michigan State team, and even such recent champions as the '03 Syracuse Orangemen. There aren't any player names and there's a limit to how short the shorts get (maybe that's a good thing), but you can customize the player names if you so desire. If you really want to play as the best of the best, you'll want to check out the all-time teams, which feature the top 12 players in a school's entire history. There looks to be plenty of ways to revisit the past of college hoops here.
Our time with March Madness 08 was brief, but the game looks promising. The developer was quick to point out that the animation's rough edges still needed cleaning up and the AI still needed tweaking but assured us that all of these issues would be fixed in time for the game's fall release. We'll have more on the game as its release draws closer.