There's finally a challenger to NCAA March Madness, the perennial console game blessed with the overexcited ramblings of color commentator Dick Vitale, the former Detroit Mercy and Pistons coach. Though his schtick soon becomes wearying, it does help the game's aura after all, Dicky V. is synonymous with college basketball broadcasts.
The game play of Madness is nearly identical to EA's NBA Live: A right joystick flick affords freestyle moves and crossover dribbles, plus an on-the-fly play menu that's easy to pull up. This is important because, while it's easy to get dunks and layups on fast breaks, the ability to break down your man with a dribble move in the half-court offense is compensated for by the defense's quick help, making unmolested drives to the basket far rarer than in NBA Live. Consequently, you'll find yourself seeking specific offensive sets such as the motion, baseline or high post to attack particular zone defenses, and vice versa.
Player recruiting in "Dynasty Mode" on Madness is odd, with in-season pursuit of incoming freshmen and a separate post-season session where you can exceed your scholarship allotment. This unrealistic crutch makes assembling a championship squad too easy.
A more demanding recruiting simulation is just one of the things that make me recommend ESPN's new College Hoops 2K5 over March Madness. The magic begins with the front end. It's extremely difficult to find a camera angle in Madness that doesn't leave the players Smurf-size, making your player's moves or a loose ball on the floor hard to see. With basically the same array of game moves or jukes, College Hoops not only boasts bigger players and better camera views, but a more authentic feel. Madness requires a lot of fiddling with the sliders to even up the play and you still end up with an extraordinary number of blocked shots and uncontested dunks.
Rebounding, too, is much more live and athletic in College Hoops, created by the defenders' near flawless box-outs, which make offensive rebounds more a matter of luck than skill. The game also features a surprisingly cool "lead" passing button so you can set up a man cutting to the basket, rather than throw it to where he's standing, allowing the defense to recover.
Given EA Sports' long tradition, it's surprising how much cooler ESPN College Hoops 2K5 plays, from the intuitive and lifelike game play to the more effective recruiting and dynasty play. There's no contesting the winner.