Review: ESPN College Hoops 2K4 (XB)

Regular readers already know how big a fan I am of college hoops, so I won’t bore you with it again. But can anybody tell me what the first college basketball video game was? Anyone? Bueller?

How about NCAA Basketball for the SNES. One of three games I actually bought for my SNES back in the day. True, there were only a handful of teams. True, the over-the-shoulder third person viewpoint was a little odd. True, there was no crowd to speak of; just a floor, hoops, and players. Still, it was the first time you could play an expressed game of college hoops. The teams were fairly balanced, there were no Jordan or Shaq characters to glom onto (although I remember a guard named Hewlett who played for Kentucky with some fondness. He was almost automatic from the arc). Your major schools were all represented. Mid-majors would still have to wait some years to get any love, but hey; we were just excited that college games had actually arrived.

NCAA Basketball probably did more to bring down my GPA than any other video game I ever played. I spent most of my fourth semester playing NCAA Basketball. It was a hell of a lot more fun than Diff. Eq. and Thermo.

Game: ESPN College Hoops 2K4
Platform: Xbox
Developers: Visual Concepts/Kush Games
Distributor: ESPN Videogames (a.k.a. Sega)
Favorite Team To Start Legacy Mode With: Dartmouth

MODES

Folks, this review should point out the importance of Little Things (copyright 2004, John Haley) in video games, especially sports games that have a very defined concept to fit into. At first glance, this game doesn’t appear to be head-and-shoulders above NCAA March Madness 2004, but those first looks can be deceiving. How many passes have gotten picked off because the lane looked open at first glance; the point guard not noticing that the small forward was watching his eyes like a hawk?

Case in point: A slightly more expansive set of play modes for this game compared to the competition. It may not seem like much, but the inclusion of the Slam Session and Gym Rat modes show that the developers were really trying to increase the appeal factor of the game. These are two modes that really have no relevance to NCAA basketball per se, other than being fun events for hoops fans to throw down in between tourney runs or simulating seasons.

Modes Rating: 6.5/10

GRAPHICS

It’s kind of funny how EA games look great at distance, but look almost lousy close up, while ESPN games look just a snit worse at distance, but look fabulous close up. This is just my second direct EA/ESPN comparison, the first being their takes on the NFL, but the trend still holds true here.

The in-game animations are not quite (but pretty damn close) as polished as their competition. Transitions between normal maneuvering and special moves aren’t quite as smooth, but not bad by a long shot. The cutaway shots with the mascots or the crowd are wonderfully animated and funny to boot. My personal favorites are the one where a fan of one team spills their drink (accidentally, of course) on a fan of the other team, and the one where the fan of one team is standing and screaming right at the fan of the other team seated next to him.

Collision detection is solid, although this game suffers a bit from the same “instant set” CD issues that pretty much every other basketball video game ever made has had. You know, those cases when you’re streaking down the court on a fast break with a kinda slow player, and an opponent runs along side you and the suddenly gets ahead of you and stops, and your man just stops along with him. In any real basketball game that would be a blocking foul all the way, and after a bit of practice those situations can be dealt with most of the time with educated use of the dribble move, turbo, and shoot buttons.

Graphics Rating: 7.5/10

SOUND

Commentary duties, handled by ESPN’s Mike Patrick and somebody who I don’t remember right now, are competent. The phrases are varied enough that it doesn’t sound repetitive or even monotone. There’s lots of specialized audio cuts to keep things interesting too. However, no commentary engine is perfect and there are some times when the “guys” will contradict themselves, or be a bit behind the times, but it doesn’t ever get bad in my opinion.

Game sounds are also good, although the grunts during the jams and never else are a little melodramatic. I would’ve preferred some more specialized crowd audio, as is in other games of this genre. College basketball fans are a notoriously rowdy and organized bunch. Some “who’s that?” chants during the player introductions would have been enough for me, but the game settles with just some half-hearted boos.

Menu music is all ESPN-certified, so they get a half point for that. Hey, I’m an ESPN mark. So sue me.

Sound Rating: 7.0/10

CONTROL

Controls are very close to the other basketball games out there. You have your basics: move, pass, shoot, turbo. You have your advanced controls: special dribble moves, pass-to-teammate-nearest-basket, call for a pick, post up. You have the Iso-motion with the right stick that I honestly don’t find all that useful, but I probably just need more practice with it. The controls are all laid out well; the biggest problem I had was pulling the left trigger (back down) instead of the right trigger (turbo) early in my evaluation, but other than that it was easy to get a hold of.

My biggest problem is that dunking is still notoriously hard to do on this game. Of course, you’re opponents aren’t necessarily breaking backboards either so it’s not as if the game is cheap, it’s just frustrating to get in close with a free path to the hoop and watch your player try some baby hook or some insane circus shot rather than just elevating and slamming it home. Hell, most of the time I’d be happy with a squared-up little two foot shot rather than what I get. Some of that is the learning process with the combinations of the shoot button and the turbo and post-up triggers; different combinations (allegedly) give you different shots; and some of that I’m sure is designed in to make this feel like more of a real college game than a slam-fest. I’m just saying that you will sometimes get a little frustrated with your close-in shots if you play this game. Otherwise, it’s butter.

Control Rating: 7.0/10

REPLAYABILITY

I’d just like to take this moment to point out how replayability is different from addictiveness; and not just because I need filler. You see, I’m horribly addicted to this game, but I realize that that’s because I’m a college hoops mark so I can properly look at my personal addiction in the context of the game in general. Replayability, on the other hand, is the game’s draw even when addictiveness isn’t present. Does it have nice features to keep you coming back? Can you change up the standard features to give you a new game experience? Those sorts of things.

They’re definitely headed in the right direction with the Slam Session and Gym Rat modes. It’s real easy to spend a couple of hours with your friends simming through seasons and playing games, then switch it up and do some Slam Session, then maybe a pick-up game or two, then back to some Legacy. Of course, none of this matters if you’re not a hoops fan, but it’s a solid effort to give you fresh options.

Replayability Rating: 7.0/10

BALANCE

This is a tale of two games. First is the classic basketball game. In this regard, ESPN has a nice variety between it’s easy, mid, and hard settings. Mid started as a real challenge to me, but not an insurmountable one; and as I became familiar with some of the more advanced controls, particularly the auto-fast-break-pass, the challenge got less and less. It’s not horribly stupid nor unbelievably cheap, and it certainly doesn’t suffer from the same problems that it’s main competition has “¦ particularly the teleporting Center on defense. The fouls were evenly called, and it’s easy to draw charges in this game too, which is a big plus to me.

The other game is the simulation. My biggest beef with the balance of this game is the fact that, unless you have overwhelming talent, not just obviously better but damn near maxed out attributes, you have no shot of winning more than one game in the NCAA tournament if you simulate the game. During one simulation it took me literally ten years of consistently making the tournament, getting 25+ wins every season and running the Ivy League undefeated for some of them, before the game saw fit to let Dartmouth win a first round match. On another simulation I ran, I finally gave up and played each game of the tourney myself, saving after each one and attempting the simulate the next. No dice. It’s not that it wouldn’t let me win all of the time that bugs me, it’s that it wouldn’t let me win at all. I reloaded my Legacy literally dozens of times and re-simulated those games, and each time my team lost. Sometimes by 2, sometimes by 50+, most of the time by 10-20, but ALWAYS a loss. Now, when I simulated through with an uber-jacked Wichita State squad, they rolled. Then again, the lowest overall score for any of my players was in the mid 80’s. Playing as Dartmouth, I would be paired against teams completely inferior talent-wise to my squad, and we’d get trounced by 50. I’m sorry. No.

Fortunately, it’s not like that in the regular season, so I won’t be too hard on the game. It just gets annoying when you can simulate through a season in 3 minutes but you have to spend the next six hours playing though the NCAA Tournament to have any chance of winning. It’s very possible to run a 30-year career and compile close to 900 wins and never crack the third round of the NCAA Tourney with this game. Who do I look like? Roy Williams?

If the simulation side were a bit more even handed, I’d give this an 8.0 or better. It’s still good; hell, it’s still way better than the competition, but it’s not a classic. Not yet.

Balance Rating: 7.0/10

ORIGINALITY

This suffers from being part of an established sports franchise. As such, there are very definite expectations of this game. The only real opportunity for originality lies in the Little Things © you do with the subject matter. With the extra modes and the unlockables, this game stretches just a little bit further than the competition.

But it has to get at least another half-point for the Classic Videogame Court.

Originality Rating: 6.0/10

ADDICTIVENESS

Why is this game more addictive than March Madness? Is it the deep Legacy mode? Is it the less cheapy A.I.? Is it a slightly more reasonable selection/scheduling logic? Yes, yes, and yes. There’s no one thing about the game that drives me to think about it when I’m at work and scheme to squeeze in a game while Roni isn’t looking. It’s just an all around better game to me. I’ve talked about the better, less cheat-codey use of assistant coaches in this game, the more organic flow of the games themselves, and the increased ability to tailor your season schedules, but I can’t point to one and say, “This is what makes the game more addicting.” All I can say is that I love college hoops, and I this game doesn’t make me feel like a fool for liking teams from mid-major conferences.

So it should get a point over the Mendoza line for that, and another half point just for the fact that I was compelled to stay up all night to play this game as I was reviewing it. Fortunately for my marriage, I only let this actually happen once “¦ so far.

Addictiveness Rating: 6.5/10

APPEAL FACTOR

You’ve got to do something radical to really knock a standard sports franchise game out of mundanity. ESPN College Hoops may not transcend its niche, but it provides more content for the average player than the other major entry. Good season modes, good gameplay, and some neat arcadey modes (as well as some fun unlockables) make this a more all-around video basketball talent. It will satisfy straight-up players, party players, and sim geeks (like me) alike.

Appeal Rating: 6.5/10

MISCELLANEOUS

Gotta say it: I’m a little peeved that Wichita State didn’t make it into the Mascot Teams. Notre Dame and George Washington do, and they’re just people with big heads, but WuShock gets stiffed. Whatever.

Also, the alternate jerseys didn’t deserve to be unlockables. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel. Where there are 300+ teams in the game, singling out a dozen or so for alternate jerseys just ain’t worth the wall space; especially since quite a few more teams than those listed have been flirting with alternate jerseys.

But otherwise, I loved the unlockables. Oodles of classic teams, a large selection of Mascot Teams, NBA and Fantasy courts, they were all fun to shop around, especially the fantasy courts. Me and Cris almost split our sides playing on the Classic Videogame Court. They’re talking old school like BEFORE Double Dribble old school. There was NO crowd noise at all. The baskets were square. The crowd was all paper cutouts doing the big arms thing. It was surreal.

All in all, this is a solid game, and preferred by me over the EA entry this year. True, you may just be exchanging teleporting shot-blockers for ice-cold shooting teams, but at least the latter embodiment of cheap A.I. is more believable.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7.0/10

Modes: 6.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Sound: 7.0/10
Control: 7.0/10
Replayability: 7.0/10
Balance: 8.0/10
Originality: 6.0/10
Addictiveness: 6.5/10
Appeal Factor: 6.5/10
Miscellaneous: 7.0/10
Average Rating: 7.0/10