College Hoops 2K8 Review (Xbox 360)
Like their real-life counterparts, college sports video games have the unenviable task of trying to become more than just the “little brother” to the professional version. In both football and basketball, the two sports that consistently release both a pro and college game, the NCAA versions, while often lagging behind in sales numbers, often wind up being the superior product. With the team at 2K Sports releasing a quality NBA title just a few short months back and coming off a 2006 release that brought home the coveted Operation Sports 2006 Basketball Game of the Year, College Hoops 2K8 steps onto the court looking to prove that it’s the game to beat on the Xbox 360.
Right out of the box, I have to say that I love what College Hoops 2K8 did this season. They took everything that was right about last year’s game, added the significant new features from the NBA game like Lock-On D and Playvision (without even really promoting them as new features) while also adding a completely new set of features unique to their own game. It’s perhaps one of the biggest year to year jumps in feature lists that we’ve seen in many, many years. And while not all of the new additions are top-shelf, I respect the effort they are making to advance despite already being considered by many to be the leader.
The new feature that will be most likely to stand out to old and new players alike is the 6th Man Advantage. The 6th Man Advantage in College Hoops 2K8 is not the 6th Man that we usually associate with basketball. Instead, they are speaking more about the home crowd and how it affects the players on the court. It’s represented in-game by a small meter located near the bottom of the screen, during the eb and flow of the action, the crowd will grow more and more excited by action on the court, eventually that can lead to a boost of sorts for the players. The visitors will have to combat this momentum by making key stops, hitting clutch hoops or even simply taking the highly underrated timeout.
I really like the addition of the 6th Man Advantage in this series and hope to see it back in future releases. Major kudos for having the forethought to have two 6th Man meters for games played on neutral courts. In next year’s game, I would like to see it capable of working the opposite way as well as the current function. If the road team is really taking it to their hosts, I’d like to see the crowd turn on their team and, consequently, a negative reaction from the players.
Maximum passing brings a new level of control to the game that we’ve not seen before, but I actually found it somewhat counter productive during live action. Maximum passing allows you to squeeze the left bumper (LB) and actually choose the type of pass you’re going to throw. You can lob it for those post entry dishes. Throw that lead pass to the cutter. Or even go old school fundamentals and throw that picture perfect bounce past onto the block. While I think the concept is rock solid, I actually found that it made the controls a little more complex than I normally prefer. College Hoops has always featured a pretty deep, yet intuitive control scheme, but I felt like this addition had me fumbling for the right button more often than not.
While we’re discussing these new gameplay features, I need to address my issues with the gameplay in College Hoops 2K8. I was disappointed to find more gameplay issues in this year’s version than I ever remember encountering in previous years. Nagging issues from previous releases like missed wide open layups and far too many intercepted passes still plague the game. Perhaps the most noticeable issue to me came in the form of the AI defense. More accurately, it’s the complete lack of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, in the defense in some areas. That’s not to say the AI will let you get to the hoop time after time, it’s what’s not there that’s the problem.
In the dozens and dozens of games that I’ve played, the AI simply does not attempt to steal the ball. Yes, sometimes they will tie you up in a double-team animation, but they simply do not attempt to take the ball from a human controlled player, resulting in a lack of risk in one on one matchups and a complete absence of non-shooting fouls. One hundred percent of the steals that the AI gets from me are from stolen passes and my players simply dropping to ball while trying to move to the hoop. That’s not basketball, especially college basketball. To be missing any type of risk during on the ball defending from the opponent is a huge problem for me.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the gameplay. That’s not the case at all. But when you’re missing key components like that, it becomes impossible for me to view this game as anymore than a fun arcade experience that is lacking a the realistic sim element that I feel usually defines most of 2K Sports’ releases.
The rest of the on-court action, in the area of overall presentation, presented me with a real hit and miss experience. While I think the overall graphics and animations have been improved over last season, they still feel like they are lagging behind what this system is capable of. The courts and arenas are visually impressive and definitely provide the most polish within the game, but I think the player models are under drawn and appear clunky and overly generic at times. I do think that they took a step forward in finally giving a significant weight to the players. Unlike last year, I never feel like I’m skating out there, however the new heft sometimes leaves me feeling like I’m trapped in a slow, clingy animations.
The sounds of the game have some of the best components that I’ve found in sports gaming this year with a few exceptions. The crowd athmosphere is the best that I’ve heard in a game and the actual sounds of the game of basketball are some of the best I’ve ever heard. Every squeek, thump, swish and rim rattle seem as real as if you were sitting in the front row. The Public Address Announcer is well used, showing proper emotion based on the action on the court (Note: When the PA Announcer gets real excited, he turns into Dr. Phil. You’re welcome for that!).
Where the issues crop up in the audio department is when you stop looking at the game as a basketball game and look at it like a basketball game on television. Play-by-play with Vern Lundquist and Bill Raftery seems to be mostly recycles from last season, very repetitive and simply far too thin for the number of games that you play. Raftery was repeating himself in the very first game that I played. Tracy Wolfson takes over the sidelines duties this season and is easily the highlight. Instead of simply using a canned blurb at the beginning of each half, College Hoops 2K8 utilizes the sideline reporter as she is intended, to get updates from the sidelines. Go on a bad run, make a change in strategy, they’ll throw it down to Tracy who will fill you in on what’s going on. A well executed touch that should serve as lesson for all sports gaming developers.
While another new feature, the All-American Challenge provides a nice single player, mini-game type experience; it is best utilized as a new training element in what is the meat and potatoes of the College Hoops series – Legacy Mode. Legacy Mode, which can still be played as a Career or Open, already provided one of the deepest experiences available in the sports gaming genre got even more impressive this season. Besides the challenges being used to train your players during the week, recruiting has been expanded with the addition of the Amateur Basketball League (ABL) during the off-season. Now every off-season, over 1000 players are placed on 128 different teams to play it out on the court. There are two main motivations to playing these games. First, it allows you to physically get your hands on a player and see how they perform on the court before even starting the recruiting process. Game after game you can get more in-tune with each player and decide how they complement your team.
Playing through the game also earns you addition recruiting points that get spent during the season for scouting, visits and other contact. It nicely mirrors the reality of the situation. If you’re willing to put the time in, you’re going to have a leg up in recruiting. If you just want to sim through it, it will be more of an uphill battle.
Online gaming is remains a strength in College Hoops 2K8. The options, ranging from quick games to 64 team tournaments, are as deep as you’ll find on the market and the team at 2K Sports continues to set the bar in overall online experience. This year, however, they take it to a new level with the addition of 2K Share. While 2K Share isn’t a mode of play per se, it’s perhaps the most important addition of them all. 2K Share allows gamers to upload and download everything in the game from rosters, to custom chants, to slider settings. We all know that Rosters and Sliders have become a phenomenon in sports gaming and this is an exciting step into what we all hope will be the future.
When the buzzer sounds and the cheerleaders head back to their dorms, College Hoops 2K8 has recreated itself in my eyes. While it’s a fun and enjoyable game that I will be playing well beyond March, I think it took a few steps backwards. For all of the additions and enhancements that this season brought, the core gameplay has too many little issues to call it an improvement over last season. While some are little bugs like AI Point Guards catching the ball and running back over the center court line for no logical reason, things like the lack of on the ball defensive effort really hurt my ability to call the game a sim. I can easily and confidently call it a good game, even great, but it’s not the best we’ve seen this season.