- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

The fan experience isn't the easiest thing to recreate in a video game. Tailgating, beer, peanuts none of those can be found on the PlayStation 2 or Xbox. But college sports, more so than their pro counterparts, are all about atmosphere. There's nothing in the NBA like the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium, shaking the arena with their stomps and chanting in unison. And that can be recreated for a console game and should be.
That's one of the many reasons it's such a pleasure to play Sega's NCAA College Basketball 2K3, available on all three consoles. You still don't get the hot dogs, but fight songs blare in the background and fans wave signs and scream "brick" when the visiting team shoots free throws. They grow louder when the home team does well and silent when it falls behind; one person will shout "brick," for instance, instead of the entire crowd. And the home team can ride the crowd and a momentum meter to victory.
And for those who prefer their college basketball on TV, NCAA 2K3 provides a perfect replication thanks to Sega's recent deal with ESPN, a partnership that has proved advantageous for both companies. (Remember how bad the ESPN-licensed games used to be?) The game features the "SportsCenter" music throughout, and its game highlights, scores and stats are presented in the style of the cable network.
While the game looks great except in the rare, fuzzy closeups of the crowd it plays even better for one, simple reason: NCAA 2K3 doesn't devolve into a race. Unlike the titles produced by EA Sports and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft and Sony, the fastbreak isn't the entire game. There's strategy here; the computer plays with deliberation and much of the time you have to drop into your offense set and find a way to break down a zone. The AI proves superior, too. Dribble penetration, while possible, isn't easy, and the game never becomes a dunkathon.
Not everything's perfect, though. The thumbstick passing, which is the initial setting, isn't all that accurate, though it's an easy change to the more direct icon passing. Also, NCAA 2K3 complicates free throws by requiring you to center your aim on the target with the triggers and then pressing a third button to shoot.
It's pretty clear Sega couldn't get the rights to use the names of several of the 300-plus schools, but those schools are included anyway to keep conferences intact, unlike in EA Sports' March Madness. For instance, Baltimore's Loyola College becomes Maryland College.
Moreover, rights issues meant uniforms are close but not quite accurate, some arenas can't be named or even used (Maryland clearly plays at Comcast Center, but the game still refers to it as Cole Field House) and most of the team logos are just a little bit off. Of course, players don't have names because of NCAA rules. However, the game provides a list of names to select that the announcers will say during play. Not coincidentally, you can choose first names like "Tahj" and last names like "Holden."
The centerpiece of the game is the Legacy Mode, perhaps the most in-depth multiple season mode for a college game. Sega includes the obvious: polls, RPI ratings, real schedules and conference tournaments. But NCAA 2K3 throws in some neat stuff, especially in recruiting. For instance, you begin to scout potential recruits midway through the season, then attend (read: play) high school all-star games to get a better look.
At the end of each season, players leave because of graduation or the lure of NBA dollars, and you fill the holes on the roster by calling and visiting high school seniors through a simple but involved process that's too complicated to get into here.
Perhaps the only flaw in the Legacy Mode is the failure to account for history and tradition. In other words, teams recruit based only on the previous year, which means one bad season begets another and vice-versa. Hence, it's possible North Carolina never becomes an elite school again on the game, and it's also possible that through one great season a basketball nobody like Air Force can propel itself into a national power.
Still, the Legacy Mode will provide lasting appeal for NCAA 2K3, the only college basketball game available for Xbox and GameCube, as will the online capabilities of the game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Add to that the wonderful presentation, and you get an experience unmatched by any other college basketball game in NCAA 2K3.
NBA Inside Drive 2003
Only one thing keeps Microsoft's NBA title for Xbox from keeping pace with the competition: a flawed consecutive seasons mode. First, the mode is static. In other words, each time you play, the same players always get better and always get worse, significantly reducing the replay value.
Secondly, the game doesn't account for the Larry Bird exception, which allows NBA teams to sign their own free agents without regard to the salary cap. So when you build your dynasty and your players become stars, you can't afford to keep the team together. If you think the Lakers have little surrounding Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, imagine the team without the ability to use the exemption. The Lakers never become good again on the game, at least not until Bryant retires.
The game plays about as well as any of the other available NBA titles if you just want to sit around and press buttons with a couple of friends. But the flaws with the consecutive seasons mode mean there's little to keep bringing you back otherwise.


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