March Madness 2005 Hands-On

EA's college basketball game appears to have taken a few cues from the college football series.

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We had an opportunity to try out the latest version of March Madness 2005 on the Xbox at Electronic Arts' latest press event. While the build we saw at E3 looked quite similar to last year's game, the newest version we've seen shows a great deal of improvement. The first thing we noticed was the presence of a noise meter in the top right corner, which was similar to the crowd noise feature in NCAA Football 2005. The cryptic momentum meter from last year's game appears to be gone, so it looks like the noise meter will be its more intuitively sensible replacement. Also like the college football game, the top 25 "toughest" arenas in the country will be ranked. In our game, we played as the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Michigan State Spartans. The latter's gym is currently ranked as the fourth toughest place to play.

Also revamped is a new playcalling system. On either offense or defense you can tap up on the D pad to bring up a menu of three set plays (that correspond to the other three directions on the D pad). Tapping up a second time will bring up a second set of three plays, thus making for a total of six different quick plays you can call. As you make your playcall, your point guard will execute an animation, such as tapping his head, raising a fist or finger, or slapping the floor (when on defense). This animation is a nice, little touch, adding a subtle layer of realism to the game.

We also noticed that a new time-out interface has been added. When you call time-out in March Madness 2005 you'll see a translucent interface overlay centered on one of the team huddles. From here, each coach can choose to call a play as a 30-second timer runs down. Like the on-court playcalling animations, the time-out interface is a subtle improvement, but it does add to the overall ambience of the game.

The actual gameplay in March Madness 2005 feels much improved over its predecessor already because it shares a few elements with the new NBA Live. These elements include better defense against the pro hop and user control over tip-ins and put-back dunks. We also noticed that the game has the same new animations as Live 2005, such as additional collision animations, post-entry passes, and steals. The referees are also more apt to call fouls when players are jostling and attempting to swat shots in the low block, which represents a welcome change from most basketball games--where the whistle almost never sounds off.

Other new features that we didn't get to try out ourselves included 50 different classic NCAA teams, as well as a number of college classics games. You'll be able to relive such famous moments in college basketball history as Christian Laettner's miraculous shot against Kentucky or the Duke-UNLV championship matchup of the early '90s. Dynasty mode has also been beefed-up with year-round recruiting. You'll be able to scout and recruit players while playing through your season, and you can attempt to develop recruiting pipelines from basketball hotbeds. Claim high-level recruits from the same school over a period of years and your ability to recruit later students from that area will be enhanced.

The developers claim that March Madness 2005 is just a few weeks away from alpha, so there's still tweaking to do in some areas. Our opponent hit a suspicious number of four-point plays, for example. Despite one or two rough edges, we left EA's press event quite impressed with the direction the series is taking and quite enthused by the level of improvement over last year's game. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more information on March Madness 2005 as it becomes available.

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