Now that the NBA strike's finally over, casual sports fans will probably forego college basketball as their primary source of hoops entertainment. However, for poll-watching die-hards who view college basketball as a religion, and the NCAA tournament as judgment day, EA Sports has dropped its newest installment into the mix: NCAA March Madness 99. While the game has enough features to keep avid college fans interested, its sluggish gameplay speed won't win over many new converts.
At the start, this game has so much to offer that it's hard not to get excited. Aside from the game's meat and potatoes - its fully customizable 64-team NCAA tournament mode - there's a dynasty mode that allows you to play multiple seasons and recruit new talent. A practice mode helps you learn offensive plays and hone playing skills, while a three-point shoot-out mode lets up to eight players hurl the rock from long range. Most interestingly, EA Sports has "narrowed the gender gap" by including the women's NCAA Sweet Sixteen portion of their tournament. While there aren't enough teams or unique features to consider it a women's college basketball sim on its own merits, it definitely adds value to the game (kudos to EA Sports for being the first to try). Another great feature preserved from last year's version is the momentum meter, which gives the team that's "in the zone" during a game a slight boost in stats. This feature accurately portrays how college teams gain and lose confidence as they get hot or start shooting bricks.
Yes, from coaching plays to multiple poll rankings, this game offers plenty to work with. Unfortunately, things begin to go south once you actually start playing.
Don't blame it on the graphics or AI. The stadium floors and various animations are done well, although some of the dunks are a bit too "hammy" for college-level play. For the most part, computer opponents are sharp, such as an open shooter stepping back behind the arc when his team's down three late in a game (this writer was impressed the first time he saw it) or a point guard milking the clock. There's an unrealistic glitch during inbound plays under the basket: Sometimes the computer will play the inbound pass too far from the baseline, creating a wide-open lane to score. Also, players tend to bunch up during transitional fast breaks, which doesn't look all too realistic. Still, most of the time the computer does a good job of accurately portraying the sport - especially the half-court game.
The same can't be said for the game's play speed. It's understandable that the game's slower paced than the NBA, but this consistent slowdown is a bit too much to take over the course of a tournament. The slowdown is most noticeable at some of the higher-view camera angles, such as the Classic Cam, or when the game's loading up a new sound. It looks like synchronized jogging out on the floor, and when player fatigue sets in, it just exaggerates the slow-poke gameplay. This game speed hardly compares to real-life college, and many players will find themselves using speed bursts repeatedly to try to make up for it.
While the audio gets a boost from plenty of DJ-mixed beats and college fight songs, the in-game audio seems rather sparse, probably because of a lack of an announcer now standard in so many NBA titles. From a features standpoint, it would've been a plus for EA Sports to have added preseason and non-conference tourneys in the tournament/dynasty modes, similar to a feature Fox Sports offered in its Nintendo 64 college hoops game.
In the end, NCAA March Madness 99 is the most complete college hoops sim available, but the game's slow-paced gameplay is a black mark on its record. If you're a serious fan, it's possibly a flaw you can live with, thanks to all the game's features, but for casual gamers looking for a hoops game to get their blood pumping, this game probably won't make the cut.