ESPN College Hoops, formerly known as College Basketball 2k3, signifies the second attempt at mastering the NCAA basketball game by the Sega Sports company on the Playstation 2. Last year's game failed to generate the same exciting gameplay as its acclaimed sister NBA game, then called NBA 2k3. ESPN added a beefed up Legacy mode, which includes in-season recruiting, and combined with another year of experience on the PS2. Read on to find out if that will push this game into the upper tier.
Presentation/Graphics : 74
Fans of the ESPN Basketball series will be familiar with the looks of this college basketball game. The same vertical-looking player models and narrow court don ESPN College. The aesthetics here differ from EA Sports' March Madness, which looks better because of the intense detail of the graphics. The models are not bad, but ESPN College has bland graphics throughout as faces have less structure and bodies have fewer contours. Obviously, one has to concede that NBA player models must look better because designers can map specific faces (college games cannot use specific names because of amateur rules, so most times accurate face mapping is not done), but the faces seem generic. This gives the game a simple look. It's clean, but unimpressive. The same basic design applies also to the stadiums and fans.
Where the game works visually is in its ESPN presentation. The stat boxes and team comparison pop-up screens all have a familiar look to them. The presentation does lack the flashiness that ESPN Basketball has: the logos and screens are the same ones ESPN used a few years ago.
Presentation/Audio : 78
The crowd cheers with passion, but with little astuteness. In a close game, you won't notice the constant cheering or jeering. You will notice in a 45-point blowout when the losing team's crowd still applauds like it's that 1992 Duke versus Kentucky game. This lack of crowd AI is apparent in other games, but at least in EA Sports' NCAA Football, the crowd will leave the stadium if the home team is being blown out. The crowd noise seems to also be bi-partisan, as the cheers almost always dwarf any boos. That lack of one-sidedness erodes the passion that college sports has built its strong fan base around. The crowd also has a very limited fight song/chant list.
The play-by-play duo of Jay Bilas and Mike Patrick provide familiar voices. I find them much more effective than March Madness' Dick Vitale-led announcing group because Bilas actually comments on the game. Vitale tends to rely on his gimmicky one-liners, while Bilas, although less rah-rah, sheds useful insight. Because of the ESPN presentation, the music comes mainly from the Sportscenter jukebox. Again, I prefer the songs of school fight songs as played in the EA Sports games.
Interface/Options : 90
Finally, a game company listened to urging fans who have long wanted in-season recruiting. I think the recruiting format shines as the game's strongest attribute. The interface is not as intuitive as NCAA Football's as you must scroll through various menu screens to see pertinent information: who you have recruited, how many points you have allocated to them, and where they are from. That stated, the interface does allow to easily sort players by position, height, talent and area. The problem, however, is that your past recruiting and the current are not seamless.
The system works well. During the regular season, you try to get prospects to commit early by offering scholarship, inviting them to home games and sending assistant coaches to their high school or junior college games. You can even play the high school game yourself if you want to test out the recruit first hand. After the regular season, recruiting ends during postseason play, but starts again with the more traditional, off-season format used in the EA Sports games. There, you have head/assistant coach calls and visits that will sway recruits one way or the other. The in-season recruiting aids in giving you a leg up on other schools for recruits. Unlike the EA Sports college games, you can see the recruits' attributes during the recruiting process. You also have the flexibility to recruit an almost infinite number of players (well above 40) and narrow your search. If a recruit is interested enough, you are still given another opportunity whether to sign the recruit.
ESPN College also has a slam dunk challenge, which varies in its entertainment. The effort and innovation is there, but the fun burns out quickly as the contest mainly is a button-mashing event. For years, I have lobbied to get this in a basketball game, but I found it's not that exciting. I would have liked to see the dunk contest incorporated into the season mode where in real life, the contest occurs during the Final Four weekend.
The game also has an impressive number of game sliders, which range from 3-point tendency to blocked shots. The number of tweakable sliders exceeds 20. The game loses points in the difficulty level area. True, ESPN College has three levels: Starter, All-Conference and All-American, but the latter two levels differ little. To get a true challenge, skilled gamers will have to alter the sliders greatly and that presents problems as the CPU then falls back on blatant cheating (missed dunks, high accuracy on three pointers).
Gameplay : 84
ESPN College feels like a lesser-refined ESPN Basketball. This shows with the player animations when scorers drive to the hoop. In ESPN College, the fancy mid-air animations are not seen. The passing system does not have the touch or lead ability that ESPN Basketball has. Overall, the gameplay does not accurately represent college basketball, but it's the closest any video game has ever come.
The game succeeds in its realism and depth. By that I mean point guards won't sky high above the rim and plodding forwards won't launch three pointers. Offensively, the game makes you pass the ball and use screens, which differs from March Madness where you can simply take a guard and do special dribble after special dribble until you coast in for a dunk. This emphasizes the team game over individual play, which qualifies as one of college basketball's trademarks. The excessive penetrating comes at a cost because the defenders tend to impede your forward progress. The old human shield defender definitely is in use in ESPN College. To succeed offensively, you must blend a good post game and outside game - not just one or the other - and that is not the case with the other two games on the market, March Madness and 989 Sports' NCAA Final Four. On the default sliders, however, the field goal percentages are astronomically high. In my season with California State-Fullerton, my team shot a blistering 72 percent as a team.
The new Isomotion, similar to EA Sports' Freestyle, is done with the right analog stick and has little success. Too often the dribbling animations are too long and result in charging calls. The same goes for the circle crossover button.
Defense can be a challenge because the CPU shoots just as well as you do. The computer teams do not press as much as their real-life counterparts do, many times abandoning the defense after they get burned a few times. The player ratings seem to be tailored to those in real life: among the best overall rated players are Jameer Nelson from St. Joseph's and Chris Duhon from Duke. None of the players are rated above a 92 or 93 the first year, but the next year's freshmen can come in as high as an 85. I don't mind this because that occurs in real life, where a player like Carmelo Anthony can dominate the game. I did not see in my recruiting experience a high school player back out of a commitment and declare for the NBA.
Like other basketball games, some players have little icons next to their name and position identifier. ESPN College has hands for good defenders, shoes for fast players, threes for good shooters and stars for high-overall players.
Replay Value : 93
The game has the strongest college basketball dynasty mode on the market, and with downloadable rosters, the potential enhances. The gameplay, while unexciting and flashy, is gripping once you find an AI sliders set that suits you best. In any video game, the mark of its longevity is not in the gameplay, but the options. For ESPN College, the recruiting itself is reason to keep the game playing for month on end.
Overall : 85
Sure, I could say style over substance, but ESPN College really has been the first NCAA basketball game I have become addicted to. The Legacy mode, which like 989 Sports' multiple season mode, starts you at a small college and makes you work your way up. I am in the process of working my way out of the mid-majors in hopes of landing at a power conference school. ESPN College Hoops is the strongest college basketball game on the market this season by a good margin.