NCAA March Madness 08 is a frustrating game because it really should have been good. The developer got a lot right, such as a new low-post game, an improved interface, and online leagues. But for every improvement, there seems to be a problem to cancel it out. And it's not just small problems, either. The gameplay is incredibly sluggish, the ball physics are off, teams don't have their real schedules, and the frame rate is downright terrible on the PlayStation 3. March Madness 08 is still worth a look, but hardcore hoops fans probably won't be able to look past the game's many faults to enjoy what it does well.
The biggest change to the gameplay this year is that low-post play has been totally revamped. And while it's by no means flawless, it represents the best post play in any basketball game to date. By moving the right analog stick in conjunction with the left analog stick, you've now got a wide array of moves available to you, both on offense and defense when in the paint. The controls are easy to learn and, more importantly, they're useful. You'll actually want to work the ball down low to take advantage of a mismatch (which the game highlights with a huge circle around the player), rather than try to run a fast break every time you snag a rebound. The controls are just as satisfying on defense because they really make it feel like you're engaged in a one-on-one battle with the ball handler. The only problem on D is that if you're controlling a perimeter player, you're not likely to be able to switch to your center before the offensive player makes his move when the ball gets passed into the paint.
It's too bad that the rest of the gameplay didn't see the same improvement. Using the right analog stick to perform spins and crossovers still works great, but the rest of the controls often feel sluggish and unresponsive. For example, when you pump fake to get a defender in the air, you'll find yourself unable to move for a short period. Most of the sluggishness can be attributed to the overall pace of play, which has been slowed way down in an effort to encourage players to take the time to use the new post moves, but you almost feel like you're playing underwater. You can speed things up with a slider, and while that helps some, it makes the weird ball physics (a problem at any speed) even more pronounced. The issue can best be described as "sometimes the ball does whatever the heck it wants." A pass that should go to a wide-open player might suddenly decide to go to the defender, or it'll sometimes go faster than it should, appearing to almost teleport. Occasionally, it will decide that it hates gravity and will fly all the way to the ceiling of the arena.
While there are lots of options and gameplay sliders, changing the default settings doesn't seem to have much effect on a lot of the problems. Even with user blocks turned all the way up, you'll be hard-pressed to get more than a few blocks during the course of a full 40-minute game. Steals are incredibly frustrating because it seems like, at least half the time, your player simply pokes the ball out of bounds, pokes it away and doesn't try to pick it up, or picks the ball up then steps out of bounds. You can call a limited number of plays on the fly, but there aren't very many to choose from and your players don't move around a whole lot on their own.
The fact that there doesn't seem to be any way to display player names or numbers below the player is another issue. Unless you enjoy chucking up three-pointers with your brick-laying power forward or non-shooting center, you'll have to memorize every player's number and position, then check the players' jerseys to find out who you're controlling. Users playing on a non-high-definition screen really get the short end of the stick here because it's nearly impossible to read jersey numbers on a standard-definition display. While it may seem that the number of negatives outweighs the positives with regards to the gameplay, there's still fun to be had--you just have to be willing to look the other way when bad stuff happens.
Most of the changes that have been made to the dynasty mode--where you have complete control over the basketball program of your choosing--are cosmetic, but they go a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable. The overall look and feel is reminiscent of NCAA Football 08. Not only are the menus more attractive, but they're easier to navigate. All the latest news on team rankings, scores, player awards, upsets, and more is available on the main screen. It just takes one button press to check out alumni challenges, recruiting, stats, and other administrative options. Recruiting involves little more than picking a few good players and then selecting a few scouting options every week. But the ability to search for players by their home state, position, ability, height, and even interest in your school is nice and really streamlines the process.
It's too bad, then, that there are a few major issues that really hurt the mode's values for hardcore fans. Once again, teams don't have their real schedules, and while you can customize them to an extent, you can't get them exactly right. EA has all the NCAA license rights, so it's puzzling that this happened again. There also doesn't appear to be any way to change the length of simulated games, which will be a larger issue for those who enjoy a realistic simulation. This means that unless you're playing 15 to 20 minute halves, your statistics simply aren't going to mesh with everyone else's. Not only is this annoying, but it makes it nearly impossible to get a player named an All-American and it makes some of the alumni goals, such as getting a quadruple-double or scoring 100 points, unattainable. It's a shame that a few, seemingly easy-to-correct problems bring an otherwise solid mode down.
March Madness 08's presentation hasn't changed a whole lot since last year. The player models are still top-notch, and there are lots of great-looking animations, though the transition from one to the next is often poor. The visuals are able to convey a lot of personality thanks to rowdy, sign-holding fans, cheerleaders, mascots, and even players that can interact with them from time to time. It never gets old seeing one of your players run off the court to dance with the cheerleaders after a big play. As has been the case with many of EA's sports games, PS3 owners get hosed when it comes to the visuals. Not only is there a lot more aliasing in the PS3 version, but the frame rate is pitiful--stuttering and stammering from the opening tip to the final buzzer. It's a huge problem, and one that makes the game significantly less enjoyable.
Other than the addition of Erin Andrews (voice only) as a generally competent sideline reporter, the audio is unchanged. If you hate Dick Vitale in real life, you'll hate him here, but he and Brad Nessler do a solid job of calling the action. There are occasionally some long bits of silence, and from time to time, the duo will blurt out something that has nothing to do with what's actually happening on the court. But generally, Vitale and Nessler are on-point, as well as a key part of the game's ability to recreate the atmosphere of a college basketball game.
You can't argue with the results of EA's focus on revamping 08's post play, and some people will really dig the inclusion of a large number of classic teams (with short shorts), but it's really a shame the developer didn't spend a little more time addressing the little nagging issues. These are what's keeping the game from reaching its full potential. If you're the forgiving type, not worried about real schedules or accurate statistics, and willing to look past a few annoying gameplay quirks, you'll probably have a good time with the game, but it's hard to recommend to hardcore hoopsters.