Few sporting events inspire as much passion as March Madness, a magical time of year when sports fans from across the country tune in to watch Cinderellas and powerhouses alike make the final sprint for glory in one of the most exciting tournaments in sports: the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. For six years now, EA Sports has been attempting to capture that very special sort of lightning in a bottle--or, at least, in a video game-- through the publisher's NCAA March Madness series of games. We've been spending some time with the latest version in the series, NCAA March Madness 06, and even though college hoops doesn't start for a couple of months, this game has already got us thinking about cutting down the nets in 2006.
March Madness 06, just as in previous versions of the game, features plenty to do from the get-go. Of course, you can expect to take up games in your standard exhibition, rivalry, practice, and season modes, but the real meat of any college hoops game is the dynasty, where you dig in as your favorite school's coach and lead your team to greatness (and, if you're lucky, you'll gain a few national titles along the way). While those modes are good for dabblers, it's in dynasty mode in MM 06 that the most rabid hoops fans will want to spend the majority of their time. Luckily, there's plenty to keep you occupied here, so let's break it down for you.
Once you enter dynasty mode for the first time, you'll need to choose the school you wish to control, set your game preferences (for things like half length, skill level, and dynasty length), give your virtual Bobby Knight a name of his own, and then move on to setting your schedule. Your conference opponents are locked in, but you can make adjustments for any non-con game on your schedule, which is a great way to up your strength of schedule from the outset, but it can also be a great way to begin the season with a hefty losing streak if you're not careful. With your slate of opponents set, it's time to handle some important preseason business, such as cutting or redshirting players, altering your coaching strategy, or checking up on your program standards (which breaks down your NCAA sanctions, or lack thereof).
The most important decision you'll make before the season begins is how you allocate your team budget among three important areas: recruiting, discipline, and game plan. How you distribute your budget will determine how many points you have to spend in those three areas of your team. The more recruiting points you have, the more opportunities you'll have for scouting and recruiting talent; the more discipline points, the better you'll be able to keep that pesky NCAA infractions board off your back; and the more game plan points you have, the better you can prepare for upcoming games on your schedule. Game planning is a new feature in MM 06, and we'll discuss it a bit more later on. In our experience with the game so far, discipline is still a problem with players, and it's not uncommon to have to suspend multiple players throughout a season--which just doesn't seem in line with what we've seen in the real world. As such, you'll be busy fighting a volatile battle between maintaining team order, trying to win with your starters on the bench, and trying to keep Big Brother at the NCAA pleased with your discipline approach.
You'll be playing games soon enough, but before the season begins you'll have one more opportunity to get the most out of your players by sending them to training camp. Here, you can assign points to a number of different hoops fundamentals, such as shooting, defense, offense, and conditioning, and then take a look at how your training regimen improved members of your team. From there, it's hoops time!
Plan Your Game
Unless you severely jacked with your schedule in the preseason, your first handful of games should be a nice warm-up to get you used to your team's abilities (like their strengths and weaknesses), and it's also a good way to acclimate yourself to some of the tweaks in the MM 06 control scheme. Primary among these are the inclusion of the lockdown stick, a preview of which you can check out here. You'll want to be well and truly prepared for your opponents once your conference schedule rolls around, as that's when the pollsters start really paying attention and your team goes into the running for the NCAA tourney.
In order for you to get the most out of each matchup, MM 06 features a game plan feature that lets you analyze your opponent along three different lines: playbook, team, and player. Playbook and team breakdowns include primary offensive and defensive sets, as well as stats on a number of team aspects like average points per game, field goal percentage, and assists per game. When it comes to player analysis, you not only get information on your foe's best three-point shooter, best scorer, best passer, as well as top defenders, but also you get advice about which players on your own team to stick in that guy's face. If you follow the advice given in the game plan feature, you have a better shot at winning the game. But, as any coach will tell you, a good plan begins and ends with the players on the court. Even the best laid plans fall apart if you can't execute them on the hardwood. Furthermore, scouting a team with a game plan costs valuable points, so you won't want to use this feature in your season opener but rather save it for crucial make-or-break games.
Speaking of points, by winning games over the course of the season, you'll earn dynasty points, which you can spend in a number of different ways. First, you can choose to slot some extra training in, either for an individual player or for the entire team. To give you that extra bit of advantage, you can spend your dynasty points on coaches for specific areas of your team's game. For example, a passing coach will help you better distribute the ball on the floor; a conditioning coach will increase your team's stamina rating; and a rebounding coach will help your team under the basket. All of these coaches add points to specific team ratings, and their services can be purchased for as short a time as one game to as long as the entire season. You earn dynasty points by winning games, and presumably you can carry your dynasty points over from season to season, which will help you to keep a streak of success going well into your career.
Recruiting new talent is part of the job of any college coach, and that's no less true in MM 06, where you'll need to keep your recruiting hat on year-round. By accessing your PDA--which acts as your central command center for all incoming messages--you can get tips on talent interested in your school. From there it's up to you to woo those players to your club with a number of methods at your disposal, like scouting the player, sending him school information packets, inviting him to games, or attending his games to get a better look at him. Just as in EA Sports' other college sports game, NCAA Football 06, MM 06 features pipeline states for recruiting purposes, which is where you'll generally find the most interested talent. You can organize your talent searches along a number of different lines--from state-by-state prospects to the national top 100 players. You can also keep track of current targets and analyze the most interested ones from week to week. Each recruiting action you take, however, depletes your season recruiting-points budget, so you'll want to be careful not to spend too much too early before you even have scholarships to offer.
When it comes to the action on the floor, MM 06 runs at a moderate pace, reflecting the generally slower tempo of the college game. Player models in the PS2 build we played looked serviceable and the frame rate held together pretty well, too, only dipping noticeably during possession changes when the camera swung around. There seems to be a lot of new coverage animations for players, which fits well with the game's emphasis on defense and the lockdown stick, and we liked seeing animations of players sticking their hands up and getting in their opponents' faces. Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale share the booth and they are both welcome returns, sharing insight on the game that is accurate to the action more often than not.
We like what we've seen so far of the gameplay, including the senior leader feature which puts an emphasis on the floor leaders: the seniors on each team. By controlling your elder leaders, you can dictate the action on the floor by example, instead of just calling plays. Play full court defense with your senior, and the rest of the team will follow suit, for example. Be sure and check out the MM 06 media page for for more on the senior leader feature.
It may only be September, but we're already thinking of the start of college basketball. We're excited to see how the new defensive-control wrinkles in MM 06 contribute to the overall quality of gameplay. You can expect more on the game soon, including a full review, when it's released in early October.