Aside from the likes of NBA Jam and NBA Street, I have little interest in basketball games. For all I know, NCAA 08 March Madness, the latest EA college basketball game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, might be the best basketball game ever created. But honestly, I'm a Canadian gaming writer. They send me American College Basketball. They never send me hockey. What's going on here? It's a like a developer that decides to send Ben JRPGs while throwing away its stock of rhythm games.
In the interest of science, I figured it was worth tackling the game just to see what it's like to play something completely new to me. Sure, March Madness 2008 features a ton of new modes, a buffed up dynasty mode, online play with new online leagues, over 400 teams, ESPN integration, and a ton more, but I simply wanted to see if I could have fun. I played a single game and decided to judge it solely on that single game: after all, with little outside knowledge of the sport, the single game should be enough to determine whether or not it would be worth playing again.
Selecting "Play Now" put me in a match as the Miami Hurricanes against the Kentucky Wildcats. Upon getting the game set up, a "mini-game" prompt popped up to offer a sub-goal to accomplish in addition to beating the Wildcats: "score 19 points or more in 40 seconds and boost your team intensity meter." A neat feature, I thought, and moved on. The loading screen quickly appeared, allowing me to shoot baskets while the game loaded. Another neat feature.
Actually getting into the game proved a little daunting. The typical control demo that most EA games have during the loading was absent, so it took a while to learn the basics. Passing and shooting worked fine, but setting up a pick proved more difficult. In fact, I never really got a feel for it, and as such, the key game became trying. Not helping matters was the sheer frequency with which fouls were called, which made me hesitant to try for a steal. However, I did learn how to manipulate one of the new features: team intensity. Controlling the crowd and the team with this feature felt more natural than it does in Madden, and soon I had the crowd standing and roaring with every move I made.
The graphics were sharp: the hardwood floor shined and gradually dulled, getting slippery and squeaky with the player's sweat. The sounds and motions of the crowd were equally impressive; each good play gave me a surge of enjoyment, and when the chanting in unison started, it was really something. Perhaps it's the lack of glass separating the players from the crowd, but there was something more pronounced about the crowd's interaction than the hockey games I play.
Though the audience had me going, I was down at the half and ultimately lost the game. If there was a really nice tutorial—which there isn't—then I could see myself, and other non-basketball fans, really getting into this. As it stands, though, the game isn't all that inviting to newcomers. EA's hockey, golf, and football franchises all have fairly welcoming beginner experiences, but I found myself shut out of the basketball world after a game: I wouldn't play again. It's a pretty safe bet to say that this game remains only for the fans.
This post came out of Frank contacting me to complain that EA, for some odd reason, keeps sending him the oddest games. He's a Canadian! Send him the hockey! He then asked if college basketball was really that big in the States. Having spent a few years attending the University of Kentucky I was taken aback. "Games are like holidays in Kentucky," I told him. "The bars fill, everyone wears the team colors… it's pretty intense."
After that, it was his turn to be amazed. We both thought it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on a game completely alien to him and see what he thought. When he remarked that there is no glass separating the crowd and the court as if it were breaking news, I knew we were going to read something special.
It's okay Frank, both sides of the border still love bacon. Even if your bacon is wrong.