Throughout the PlayStation era, EA Sports' NCAA March Madness series dominated its respective genre with tight controls, intelligent AI, cool college-specific trimmings, and ample modes of play. In its first PlayStation 2 outing, the gameplay system, although not without its flaws, and much of the college-specific presentation made it over unscathed. However, without the season and franchise modes, which are conspicuously missing from this year's version, NCAA March Madness 2002 on the PS2 loses much of its value in terms of the single-player experience.
The game features two primary modes of play: tournament and exhibition. The tournament mode is fully customizable, so you'll be able to create your own tournament matchups from a pool of more than 150 division I-A squads available in the game. Creating custom tournaments is certainly amusing, but in previous college hoops games, the tournament mode has served simply as an ancillary option to a full-featured season or dynasty mode. The lack of a season mode really hurts the single-player experience in March Madness 2002. Single exhibition games are relatively fun with friends, but you will definitely miss the ability to fight for a tournament spot in the regular season and playing in league games--especially if you're a veteran of the March Madness series.
On the court, March Madness 2002 shares much of its control scheme and gameplay style with its NBA counterpart on the PlayStation 2. Like the PS2 version of NBA Live 2002, the analog controls are a little slippery--the players almost slide around as if they were playing on ice, and in the paint, they unrealistically bounce off one another like bunched-up little electric football players scampering aimlessly. However, having said that, there are some subtle improvements--like new animation routines--that make the gameplay in March Madness 2002 a bit more intuitive and subsequently more entertaining than its NBA counterpart.
For starters, EA Sports has exaggerated the rebounding, jumping, and passing animations. The players jump higher for rebounds, which leads to a much more balanced rebounding system than the hopelessly ineffective one found in NBA Live. Additionally, March Madness 2002 includes sleek wraparound passes, and players will frequently dive on the floor for loose balls. All of these new animation routines combine for a faster pace and will give you greater control over the game when compared with the NBA Live series on the PS2.
The game's AI also seems a bit smarter in March Madness 2002. AI-controlled offensive players will take advantage of defensive breakdowns by driving the ball to the hole when the defensive player is out of position. The computer-controlled teams will also pass the ball around to find the open man and will go into the post from time to time to try to get easy baskets. The AI isn't quite as intelligent on the defensive side of the ball, however, as they still have a tendency to fall for the pump fake all too frequently. Even on the harder difficulty levels, it is easy to pump-fake the defensive player into the air and drive to the basket from the wings.
March Madness 2002 shares its game engine with the PS2 version of NBA Live 2002, so naturally the game's visuals are virtually identical to those of its NBA counterpart. The player models are nearly as robust and detailed as those of the NBA game, even if they lack some of the more player-specific textures. It's certainly disappointing that not many of the players in the game look remotely like their real-life counterparts in terms of facial textures, but the game does let you edit any player in the game, which is somewhat of a consolation. Like in NBA Live 2002, there are only a handful of arena models, and they are not based on the actual courts. So, in March Madness 2002, you won't see the utterly cramped confines of Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium or the sea of red at Maryland's Cole Field House. Still, in technical terms, the courts in March Madness 2002 are nicely designed, with real-time shadows and reflections for each of the individual players, parqueted floors, team-specific markings on the courts, animated crowds, and destructible backboards that realistically shatter into pieces.
In the audio department, March Madness 2002 is mostly impressive. The game features a wide array of fight songs from many of the top schools. Additionally, the crowds can become loud and boisterous, much like in any actual college hoops matchup. The crowd noise is also tied in to the game's momentum meter, which increases as the home team strings together a series of impressive plays. However, despite all its gifts in the audio department, the commentary is a bit bland and features only a one-man commentating team. The announcer calls the game action rather accurately, but the lack of a colorman stultifies the commentary, rendering it rather monotonous.
NCAA March Madness 2002 improves in gameplay terms upon its NBA counterpart, but even as a first-year effort, the options and features available in the game are rather paltry. Still, fans of NCAA basketball looking to primarily play exhibition games against friends might consider giving it a closer look. Those of you seeking a more robust and lengthy single-player experience might be better served to wait for next year's version or look to the several NBA games available on the PlayStation 2.