NCAA March Madness 06 Hands-On

We put the full-court press on EA's upcoming college hoops game and its new lockdown defense feature.

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We got a chance to get hands-on with Electronic Arts' upcoming college basketball game, NCAA March Madness 06, at EA's summer press event. The primary new feature in the game is the lockdown stick, which lets you get more physical and press up against the ball handler while you play defense. The feature sounds a lot like regular freestyle defense at first, but in practice, the new lockdown stick gives the game an entirely new feel. To activate the lockdown, you simply press up against the ball handler and push down on the right analog stick. This will "stick" your defender right up on the offensive player--you'll see the defender body up against his man and press with his forearm into the back of the ball handler. Once engaged, the ball handler can no longer directly move forward. He's shunted off in either direction. The defender in lockdown must still use the left analog stick and try to stay in front of the ball handler as he changes direction, spins, and otherwise attempts to get free.

As the defender, you can also press on the left trigger to try to draw a charge if you get in front of the offensive player or use the right trigger to try to poke the ball away. The steal animation is context sensitive, so if you're in front of the ball handler, you'll come over the top with a swipe, but if you're trailing your man, you'll attempt a wraparound poke from behind. Currently the game still needs more balance tweaks, but we did see a good variation in the number of times we were able to successfully steal the ball or draw a charge, as opposed to getting whistled for a defensive foul. In some cases, the referee won't call anything if you try to flop for a charge, leaving the ball handler free to drive.

The practical effect of locking down the ball handler is that you can call a trap (using your defensive floor general play-calling mode) and shunt the ball right into the trapping zones. We tried this a couple of times and succeeded in generating turnovers. As far as breaking out of a lockdown, you can do this in a number of ways, such as seesawing back and forth, stepping back away from the pressure, or just passing the ball out of there. The developers also noted that if you're getting pressed in the backcourt, you'll be able to call up a big man to set a pick for you; a successful one should level the defender to the floor, just as in the real college game. If you find yourself trapped by a second defender, you'll be able to try to step through the double team and free yourself up.

The addition of the lockdown feature has brought other changes that give March Madness 06 a dramatically different look and feel from years past, and from its NBA cousin. The main thing we noticed is that the game seems to play significantly slower. Player movement speed is palpably lower than in NBA Live and past versions of March Madness. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen, but from our playtesting, there's much more of a tactical feel than in most other basketball games. Also, a whole new family of animations have been added to accommodate the lockdown feature, based on two- and three-man motion capture. The interaction between the ball handler and the defender looks much more realistic and natural now. The developers noted that they're trying to parlay all this new animation into more moves, such as the ability to do a pick and handoff between two offensive players, a play that will be accessible through the floor general play-calling feature.

Aside from the lockdown feature, we asked about (but unfortunately didn't get to see) what other tweaks have been made to the game. The dynasty mode is being enhanced to include "tournament anticipation," so as your season begins to get into conference play, you'll be kept up to date on the status of your team as it relates to others around the country. Are you a mortal lock for the tournament? Or are you on the bubble and need to step it up? These are questions that will receive more explicit attention as you play through a season in the new dynasty mode.

A new wrinkle involving coaching strategy will also be included. You can spend dynasty points on special game plans and scouting reports before each game you play during the season. After the game is played, you will then be graded on how well your team executed the game plan and will get other feedback on your play. This new feature will be especially handy during conference play, when you see certain teams more than once.

NCAA March Madness 06 is currently slated to ship this fall for the Xbox and PlayStation 2. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more info on the game as it becomes available.

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