After the NBA 2k series gained popularity, college basketball fans began to wonder: When will we get our game? In 2002, those wishes were granted when College Basketball 2k3 was released on the PS2. The game had its flaws - there was no icon passing or A.I. sliders - but the framework was established. Last year's ESPN College Hoops 2k4 was a stronger showing and the best among the three college basketball games (EA Sports' March Madness, 989 Sports' Final Four). I gave last year's game a strong 92 overall rating. This year, the new additions include a give-and-go passing system (EA Sports has had this in their basketball games since the Super Nintendo days of NBA Live), a more engulfing Legacy mode and on-the-fly team playing style changes.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
Like March Madness, ESPN College Hoops put an extra emphasis on making sure the college players were accurately represented in the game. Previous games had the player's jersey number or physical attributes correct but never was so much attention paid to the look. In the professional games, player faces and their tattoos are mapped with a near photograph-like quality. The accuracy gap was laughable. Player models look similar to ESPN NBA 2k5 but lack the above-mentioned details. The game uses a Triple Pass Rendering Animation system (is this a video game or heart surgery?) that produces a realistic player lighting. The stadiums are not accurate to the exact detail but an effort was made. According to the company, around 350 facilities were simulated. Impressive. That stated, March Madness packs a more impressive look. The players have more shape, the stadiums better lighting and details.
Knowledgeable basketball fans will appreciate College Hoops' animation set that gives special attention to the finer details of the game. It's those micro bursts of realism that push the good modern sport games to great. Unlike the days of Baseball Stars or NBA Give 'N' Go, the larger variables in the gameplay experience - passing, shooting, defending - are accepted as a pre-requisite like how you would expect a luxury car drives smoothly. And so, it's important for sports games to sweat the small stuff. You'll notice such detail when a back screen crushes your player or after a referee calls a jump ball a player will aggressively rip the ball away. It's a bounce pass under a wing defender; a defender sticking in the backcourt for a moment after a made basket to hold up a quick in-bounds pass; a quick cut to the basket after a post pass. To the average gamer, those are meaningless half-second blips but to the diehard basketball fan, it's a wink from the developer demonstrating a commitment to realism. In fairness to the competition, March Madness has a number of such animations but the thrust of the effort was spent in creating a smooth gameplay experience in the flurry of dribbling and aerial moves. But I'll write more about that in the gameplay section.
Presentation/Audio : 86
The crowd does a good job of creating an atmosphere, especially for big games. A stark contrast is drawn for lesser important games, however, as the cheerleaders and band drown out the applause, or boos. Jay Bilas and Mike Patrick return as the play-by-play crew and they do a good job. I would prefer for Bilas to comment more on a specific player and his accomplishments (that's 30 points tonight for X player), but he does a good job of touching on the trends of a game. The two have a good chemistry in the booth. After a post player scored a basket, Patrick said that he was having a "Jay Bilas night" to which Bilas, a former forward for Coach K at Duke in the 1980s, laughed. The duo far outpaces EA's Dick Vitale and Brad Nessler.
Interface/Options : 91
The interface is thorough but some things get hidden as a result. Things get easier once you realize there is a 252-page, in-game instruction manual. In this area, I give the nod to the EA Sports games, which are borderline annoying in how they direct you to their new features and changes (they usually have a NEW! flashing logo). College Hoops' thorough interface works for in-season recruiting where you can sort players by player caliber, location, position and interest.
In terms of game flexibility, College Hoops has a range of A.I. sliders that go beyond the industry norm. Outside of offense and defense sliders, you also have access to adjust shooting (short, mid and long-range) and player attributes. I'm not a big fan of tinkering with the sliders, but it's nice to have those options. The stock sliders result in a realistic game, with shooting percentages wavering around 45 to 55 percent. Team scoring seems to be right on, as does the number of fouls and free throw attempts. The game has five difficult modes.
The game modes include Legacy, Tournament, Coach Mode, Rivalry, Gym Rat, Practice and Online. It's worth nothing that the Practice mode has some helpful advice, such as telling you if you are releasing the shoot button too early or late. College Hoops has a number of controller options, even tailoring one for EA Sports people with circle as shoot, a triangle hop step, and the right analog stick Isomotion, which is the game's FreeStyle equivalent.
The Legacy mode, similar to the 989 Sports games on the Playstation, begins with you taking your pick of no-name schools from small conferences, like the Ohio Valley Conference. You must win to work your way up through the ranks. This feature is intended to simulate the "paying your dues" aspect of coaching and liven up the multiple-season mode. This year, the game gives you additional options to distinguish your coaching style by allowing you to set your top two recruiting priorities (talent, size, intelligence, etc.) and a smattering of X's and O's stuff (press frequency, offensive/defensive playbook, primary defense, bench usage). Unless you are simulating your games, the coaching style stuff is not significant but the recruiting priorities do have an impact on attracting recruits who look for a certain style or coach.
Gameplay : 88
When compared to March Madness, College Hoops is a smarter game and the gameplay has improved from last year. The core gameplay engine is solid. CPU players will set screens and cut to the basket. Basketball games have this horrible tendency to predictable, especially when it comes to moving without the ball. Rare is there a moment when a game can portray the fluidity of the game. Think how the Detroit Pistons' Rip Hamilton weaves around a screener to set him up for easy mid-range shots or how the Sacramento Kings work together like clockwork. It's those tactical aspects of basketball where College Hoops shines above all other games (including ESPN NBA). You believe that your CPU teammates are working with you instead of feeling like they are senseless robots. Leading - or defending a fast break - has never been so fun.
One-on-one play also has its moments. By pressing the circle button, you will dribble the ball between your legs where a number of crossover or step-back are at your disposal. There still is Isomotion, College Hoops' FreeStyle, but this game within a game of move and countermove is far more enjoyable. You have to pick your moments when using the circle button (you trigger the resulting crossovers, etc. by pressing the right analog stick in a certain direction), as opposed to Isomotion or FreeStyle, which, at times, can feel like you are break dancing instead of dribbling a basketball because you can conduct one move right after another.
New to this year's game is a free throw shooting mode that is innovative because it requires true touch. In other basketball games, free throw shooting is completed with meters (one usually for length, a second for straightness) that are similar to the ones used in football games for kicking or punting. The ESPN basketball games previously employed a system where you had to press the right and left triggers with equal pressure. No more. On the surface, College Hoops' free throw system is the most simplistic system to ever hit a basketball game. The requirement: Hit the X button. But there is a challenge, as you must release the X button just before the shooter releases the ball. It's harder than you might think because shaky shooters will alter their routine: a deep bend at the knees one time, a quicker release next, a hitch after that. The better the free throw shooter, the more rhythmic and consistent the release. This mimics real life where you can watch a player like Duke's J.J. Redick (career 93.9 percent free throw shooter) and observe the same release nearly every time. Swish. Swish. Now think about Shaquille O'Neal who releases the ball at a number of angles, sometimes from behind his ear, in front of his face or above his head. Clank. Clank.
In a day and age when video games and their sports are becoming faster and less fundamentally sound, College Hoops may be too laborious of a pace for some gamers. I reviewed March Madness simultaneously with College Hoops and jumping to and from the two games was like pulling yourself from the swimming pool only to jump into the hot tub. It is true: March Madness players run faster and jump higher. That is part of MM's appeal, the smoothness of the players. It's a game style taken from the pages of the And 1 Mix Tour. In College Hoops, the gameplay is ugly. Players sluggishly plod around the court and dribbling moves are more staccato than harmonious. Leaping for a rebound or a block shot feels like you're jumping on the moon. Now this can be interpreted as a plus or a negative, based on your perspective. I'm choosing not to hold this against College Hoops.
The A.I. is solid, although it is subject to moments of err especially in late-game situations. A CPU team with a lead will take shots too early or too late when trailing. Weird substitution patterns also occur, such as taking out a star player or a hot one at awkward moments.
Replay Value : 93
When you combine the gameplay with the depth of the Legacy mode, College Hoops hits on both cylinders: the game is fulfilling on the court and off. Another sign of College Hoops appeasing to its audience is the fact the real-life rosters are input into the database. That means if you manually insert player names into the game (amateur rules permit video games using real-life names), they will be acknowledged by the announcers. There will be no: "Basket by SG # 5." Because recruiting is so thorough, it may scare off gamers who want a lighter Legacy experience. Also, two bugs hamper the overall Legacy experience. One is a scheduling bug where you get the exact schedule the previous year. The other revolves around inaccurate conference champions (the team coming first alphabetically is listed as the champ).
Overall : 93
Taking a step back in the sports gaming world, the game competes well with Madden in terms of gameplay quality and long-term appeal but it lacks the polish. Madden, with 15 years of existence, has well-established game modes and quirks; whereas College Hoops is still a game that is looking for its niche. For example, last year's dunk contest was dropped this year.
College Hoops is the second best sports game I played in 2004, with Madden taking the top prize. March Madness improved vastly over the last two years but College Hoops is beginning to establish a quality gap. It's easy to dismiss MM as the choice for the impatient, College Hoops for the purist but I think that's slighting both games. Both games appeal to a wide range of gamers, but College Hoops gets the decisive nod because of its ability to recreate the teamwork that exemplifies the college game.