New hoop games give fans home court edge

March 21, 2002|By Jason Forrest and Patricia Fanning

If watching the NCAA basketball tournament isn't enough in this maddest of Marches, you can get into the game yourself with a PlayStation 2 video console. We assigned lifelong gamer Jason Forrest, 18, and his mom, assistant sports editor Patricia Fanning, to try the latest versions of two competing NCAA tournament titles. Here's what they found:

Die-hard Tar Heels fans can relate to the designer who put a North Carolina player on the cover of Final Four 2002, the latest college hoops offering from Sony's 989 Sports division. A safe bet in years past, Carolina blue turned out to be the wrong color for this year's annual NCAA tournament frenzy.

Sony's main competitor, EA Sports, did better in its bracket. Powerhouse Duke decorates NCAA March Madness 2002. Just put aside the time warp factor - its player on the cover, Shane Battier, graduated and is playing in the NBA.

Neither game picked Maryland for the cover, so it's what's inside the box that counts.

Our shootout vote goes to March Madness, but read on for details.

Overall play

NCAA March Madness offers great graphics, fast-paced action and several modes of game play that re-create the excitement of the NCAA tournament. You can get into the game right away by selecting the "play now" option, or delve more deeply into the controls to create your own school or tournament.

Final Four offers a greater variety of play modes, allowing you to create your own dynasty, start a season, begin a career as a coach, or use a simple exhibition mode to square off against your friends. But these extensive game-play options are Sony's only edge over the competition. March Madness has a more exciting in-game atmosphere and better mechanics, which allow you to lose yourself in the action.

Game action

In March Madness, you can set defensive and offensive plays from the convenient in-game menu and choose what defense to run. A real plus for gaining quick mastery of the controller is an on-screen schematic showing which buttons to press to pull off preset moves such as pump fakes, crossovers or fadeaway jumpers.

Final Four's options include setting the overall level of difficulty, player fatigue, and how often fouls occur. One of its best features is an auto-pass system that adds finesse to your offense.

However, Sony doesn't simulate the game experience as well as EA Sports. The pace seems slow and the audio is distracting. When the team is in transition down the court, the dribbling sounds like a bongo drum.

Sometimes March Madness goes over the top in presentation - it's possible to shatter the backboard glass in almost every game. While this doesn't affect game play, it does get trite. And the springy players have supernatural leaping ability. On some dunks they seem to soar 10 feet into the air, summoning visions of Disney's "Flubber" flicks.

Final Four's in-game play also lacks sophistication, with moves on court that seem choppy and unfinished. When you try to shoot, the shot meter gets in the way. Not to worry: nobody goes cold. Beyond the perimeter and in the paint, almost every shot lands in the basket, creating unrealistic, high-scoring games.

With two teen-agers at the controllers, both hustling on defense, one recent contest ended up 105-102. This is not supposed to be the NBA!

Look and feel

Neither game offers graphics that are as realistic as other current sports simulations we've tried. Final Four's players look particularly blocky and strangely smoothed out at the joints.

March Madness has more realistic action, as the point guards accumulate assists and the big men rise for layups. But neither title lets you pretend the matchup is the real thing, shying away from depicting the actual college players who are dominating TV screens this month.

For instance, No. 35 on the Maryland roster looks nothing like Lonny Baxter. Some players even appear with gray patches in their hair, making them look about 40 - maybe the developers recycled their NBA models.

In March Madness, no-name announcers call the games, while Final Four offers the voices of Eddie Doucette and Billy Packer. "Looking for the trifecta! Squaring for three!" they shout. Both soundtracks do convincing jobs of re-creating a noisy arena, with chanting cheerleaders and fans who whoop it up behind the basket during free throws.

March Madness and Final Four cost $49.95 each and require a memory expansion card, usually sold for about $35.

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