Ask any basketball coach and they'll tell you. After superior coaching, athletic ability and alumni, ahem, "support," it's the little things that win championships. College Hoops 2K6, the latest iteration of 2K Games NCAA franchise, does so many little things right, like adding real NCAA coaches and high school scouting camps, that you may just paint your face and crash into your TV as you attempt to rush the court. With revamped presentation, the good old faithful 2K basketball engine and a wealth of features including an extensive online mode, College Hoops 2K6 has solidified itself as the most immersive college basketball experience on the planet. You could play Legacy mode for hours without ever playing an actual game.
The first thing to notice with 2K6 compared to its predecessor is the lack of the ESPN license. Gone are Mike Patrick and Jay Bilas in the booth as well as the pretty ESPN-flavored menus and overlays. Whatever. 2K Games responded by procuring some serious talent that rivals only ESPN NFL Football back in 2004 for finest presentation in a sports game. Remember Chris Berman doing a highlight show at halftime? This year, 2K6 adds a virtual Greg Gumble and Clark Kellogg to handle everything from a preseason special, to postgame highlights -- screenshots in the PS2 version unless you have a hard drive -- to the Selection Sunday special. And now that we have a virtual Selection Sunday, we see just how much we were missing from other college basketball titles. Selection Sunday is easily one of the highlights of the college basketball season as bubble teams wait on pins and needles to hear the answer to one important question: Who's dancing?
Although the commentary is pretty generic, Gumble and Kellogg do a fine job of detailing the top seeds, the top four teams in each region and a Who's in - Who's out feature on the bubble teams. Instead of a silly pop-up screen that says "Congratulations! Your team reached the NCAA Tournament," or some other nonsense, 2K goes one step further in adding authentic college atmosphere with the Selection Sunday show. The only way this could really be improved is if they would flash to more scenes of fans and teams going absolutely berserk when their bubble team makes the tournament. There are a few scenes in there, but it would be nice to see some fans waiting for the announcement, then reacting appropriately when the bracket is unveiled. We'll look for that on the 360 version later this year, but the current setup, as mentioned, is a wonderful step forward.
The preseason special is pretty sweet as well as Gumble and Kellogg break down the top teams in the country and the first and second teams of Preseason All-Americans. Kellogg's insightful remarks include such gems as, "The player truly understands game of basketball," and "I hope this guy receives the recognition he deserves." Again, some pretty generic stuff here, but that's what you get in college games when the players are generic, too. The big thrill here is in Legacy mode when the hours of training pays off for one of your recruits and he is recognized on a national stage.
In the booth, 2K Games enlisted broadcasting vet and Happy Gilmore commentator Vern Lundquist to take over for ESPN's Mike Patrick. Lundquist is a little bland, but that's CBS basketball for you, and his familiar voice adds authority and authenticity to the game. As color-man, Bill Raferty bounces nicely off of the more stoic Lundquist, adding a little bit more energy to the broadcast. Nothing will ever come close to what Dick Vitale brings to EA's March Madness series. He is the voice of college basketball, after all. The lovely Bonnie Bernstein fills the sideline reporter role. The only complaint there is that 2K Games didn't include a virtual version of the nubile young journalist. She's pretty.
There are, however, virtual representations of about 85% of NCAA coaches in the game, including defending champ Roy Williams, as well as former champs Lute Olsen, Tubby Smith and Jim Boeheim. Some notable absences: Coach K, Rick Pitino and Gary Williams. 2K wasn't able to get all the coaches for monetary reasons, saying that Pitino's license would have cost more than the license for the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Apparently Pitino's hair gel bill runs pretty high these days. Needless to say, 2K went all out on presentation this season.
On The Floor
All these frills aside, the question remains: How does 2K6 play? Thankfully, the answer is pretty danged good. Like its big brother, NBA 2K6, College Hoops features the shot stick and the new strip 'n rip defensive system. For those not in the know, the shot stick enables you to control the direction of your shot with the right analog stick. You can press it away from a defender to shield your body as you go in for a layup, hopefully avoiding a block. On the flip side, you can use the right stick on defense to poke away the ball from lazy point guards. Flick it down, the defender will swat down at the ball. Flick it right, we will swat from the right side. You get the picture. Get used to strip 'n rip though because steals play a huge part in this year's game.
Maybe because college kids just don't have the ability that the pros do. Maybe it's from the frantic full-court presses found in the college game. But in College Hoops 2K6, there are a lot of turnovers. On a double team, you power forward will throw the ball into the stands if he doesn't have a clear line of sight to a teammate. If point guards don't protect the rock, it will be, um, stripped or ripped away. This adds a great level of intensity to each possession. Whereas in EA's March Madness you can simply run down the floor, throw a juke and slam it home, you have to work to break through a touch zone in 2K6. As is the trend with these two titles, simulation fans and real basketball fans in general will love 2K6. Arcade fans will probably prefer the run-and-gun style of March Madness 06. But for my money, I'll go with 2K6 every time. The player models look better. In order to win, you have to play college basketball, and that's a good thing. As a sports fan, you grow to appreciate having to penetrate, kick out, penetrate again to break a 2-3 zone.
Oh, and speaking of money, 2K6 retails for a paltry $29.99.
Another great aspect of 2K6 is the sense of momentum you feel throughout the game. There are definite, palpable, tangible momentum swings, the kind of momentum swings that are found in a real basketball. There's no silly momentum meter or anything like that, but you should alter your game to go with the flow. If your opponent is streaking, call timeout. Slow the game down. Pass the ball and get some buckets. If you, on the other hand, are starting to blow the other team away, keep the pressure on, press, force turnovers, attack the basket. Even when your team is down by 20, like mine often is, you never feel completely out of a game when you string a few shots together and get your home crowd back into it.
None of this momentum stuff would matter if the atmosphere was not up to snuff. The band, polygonal cheerleaders, mascots, crowd chants: it's all here. The crowd noise is especially enjoyable at home, especially when the momentum is in your favor and the fans do everything but throw folding chairs. There are definitely some quirky things that need to be cleaned up. During tournament games, the "home team" still has that home court advantage even though the teams are playing on an impartial floor. Even stranger on these impartial floors, sometimes the crowd will chant "defense" at both ends because both teams are "given" home court advantage. That's just weird.
In the PS2 game, there are some graphical hiccups. On the cuts to the studio with Gumble, the framerate dips so low that the set shakes. Also in the PS2 version, there are some pop-up issues with the crowd, and the game will sometimes lock up for a moment during animations. Also, the last game we played, the screen would flash black for a split second when you inbound the ball. This happened about three times a game and, while it didn't seriously deter from gameplay, it did make us want to switch back to the smooth Xbox version.
The Deep End
Here's a fun example of how deep College Hoops 2K6 is. In Legacy mode in the coach's email box, you occasionally receive spam messages. Some of my favorites:
"Coach, great game last night but I think you really should have employed the 2-2-1 press with 3:48 remaining. I've never played basketball but I think that my opinion should matter to a college coach."
"We thought you'd like to know that we shipped your gift today, and that this completes your order. Thanks for shopping at styrofoamhammers.com, and we hope to see you again soon."
That's no joke. But seriously, Legacy will keep you on the recruiting hunt all year round. You can let the computer sim recruit for you, but it's an awesome thrill to land that national star at your little school because you put in the extra visits and slipped him the keys to an alumnus' Hummer.
You also have the option of attending training camps for high school players. There are three levels of camps, and you'll want to stick with the lowest level first as coach of Kennesaw State because the big recruits are heading to Duke. Sorry. At the end of the season, you'll also have the option of looking at some junior college transfers.
In season, it's your responsibility to keep you players happy. As time goes on, your charisma as coach will increase and you'll have a bigger effect on your players. You have 10 meetings a season to use on players that are angry about playing time. After a meeting, they'll get a confidence boost depending on how much charisma you have earned.
The coaching carousel is pretty much what this game is all about. If you're like me and have aspirations of succeeding Coach K at Duke, then you'll jump ship from your little program to every few seasons or so -- if you haven't been fired, that is.
Other game modes include the obligatory Quick Game and the Pontiac Tournament mode in which you can play all the conference tourneys and the Big Dance. In this, however, 2K Games made a big booboo. If you play ESPN College Hoops 2K5 tournament mode, you'll notice the exact same default bracket as in 2K6. It's as if the developers simply copied the code over from last year. This would be all fine and dandy if teams like North Carolina are not drastically different this year from last year. Instead, the Tar Heels, who lost pretty much the whole team to the NBA, are still ranked No. 2. That's just sloppy. Hopefully you'll be playing a lot of Legacy mode and you'll make your own bracket depending on your season outcome.
Also in the tournament, you'll notice a lot of upsets in the Dance, including a bunch of No. 16 seeds over some No. 1 seeds. Maybe there's a lot of underdog love because of 2K's status as underdog to industry giant EA, but considering that no 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1, this seems a little excessive. Lamar over Mississippi State? C'mon now!
Online, College Hoops 2K6 offers substantial options, including tournaments, leagues and quick matches. As with all of 2K Sports' games, regular and ongoing events, such as tournaments, are constantly popping up, creating a refreshing Xbox Live experience. The online service is solid and likeable. 2K Sports provides excellent lobbies and a good online interface so that gaming is made easy.
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