Each year, ESPN College Hoops
gets better and this year's no exception. ESPN College Hoops 2K5
is my favorite hoops game of the year for its atmosphere, its wondrous meterless free throw system, and its improved Legacy Mode. Though there are still some gameplay flaws and sound bugs, College Hoops 2K5
is a diaper dandy.
The college experience is quite different than hoops in the NBA. The crowds are often bigger, rowdier, and full of far more spirit than what's found in the pros. Once again College Hoops comes through with an awesome recreation of college life on the hardwood. The 3D crowds chant with fervor, with team-specific cheers and a hefty number of authentic fight songs. Mascots patrol the baseline, dancing and egging the crowd for more noise. Like other Visual Concepts games, there are cut-scenes showing fans in war paint acting like fools in the stand and there are some sweet multi-angle replays that cue on great dunks, nothing-but-net treys, and slamma-jamma alley-oops.
At the end of the half you're treated to cheerleaders shaking their pom-poms and highlights of the best plays. When the final buzzer sounds, you get a second reel of highlights to punctuate a tough loss or come-from-behind win. While that's not terribly expectional, Legacy Mode does something far more interesting with highlights. ESPN News offers a detailed story (8-11 pages long) of your last game, with headline, stats, and some funny comments. The newspaper-style daily edition uses Mad Libs logic to insert different sections and fill in the blanks, allowing for more than 100 possible combinations. ESPN News is accentuated with video highlights of your game. Even simmed games get at least one highlight.
Sound plays a major role in sports presentation and College Hoops 2K5 brings it with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Though the spacing between speakers isn't the best, there's certainly a good on-court feel to the audio and some of the cheers from the crowd actually got me pumped as if I were an Orangeman driving to the hoop.
The only downside to the audio is the commentary. Once again Jay Bilas and Mike Patrick offer the play-by-play. The familiar voices also offer far too many familiar comments from previous years. However, the flow of conversation is pretty good this time out. It's nice to know that your point guard has five threes in the half or to be recognized for having one of the best rebounding teams in the NCAA, but there are still some sound bugs where Bilas and Patrick are talking about the wrong play or stating a team was down at the end of the half when they were not. I would hope that after all these years, Visual Concepts could smooth some of these out, but that's not to be for 2K5.
Where the sound has both good and bad, the visuals are pretty much all good. Using the NBA 2K5 engine, College Hoops 2K5 has all the bells and whistles of its big brother. Realistic character models with varying heights and builds, specular highlighting for sweaty skin, 3D crowds that hoot and holler throughout the game, fantastic animations, and animated uniforms for that extra bit of realism. There's still some clipping and some animation bugs, but overall a very attractive game.
Hitting the Hardwood
This year College Hoops was taken off Kush Games' hands and brought in-house. Using the NBA 2K5 engine (instead of being a year behind as usual) the gameplay has seem some nice upgrades and improved visuals. While the core game remains very much like last season's, with a bit of the best of NBA 2K5 sprinkled in for good measure, there are some smart tweaks and nice additions that should please most fans.
IsoMotion, which allows for awesome jukes, spins movies, stutter steps, and fadeaways has been toned down just a bit for the college game. To pull off spin movies and the all-important hop step, you'll need to employ the triggers with the IsoMotion button. This isn't much of a difficulty change, but it's meant to make it a little more complex to pull off moves that are a little less common at the collegiate level. It does take some time to get used to the slight changes to IsoMotion, but the limitations make for a more realistic game, while still allowing for some sweet moves by those with great ball handling skills. The post game has also seen the NBA 2K5 touch, with IsoMotion opening more offensive options in the paint. However, instead of the usually Trigger hold to put your back to the basket, it's a one-tap motion (White Button on Xbox...yech) that puts you into the mode. It's a little strange and I'm not sure a change was necessary, but once posting up, the moves are easy enough and make for a better post game on offense. On defense, though, the post remains a sore subject for 2K5 fans as you cannot manually put your back to the basket and box out. This is done for, well, who knows why, but I really wish I had more control over my defender in the post. IsoMotion moves on defense don't exist, and instead you must rely on the AI to understand the situation, raise your hands in a defender's face or block out in the post.
The best addition is the new two-button passing feature. While you have easy access to a lead pass, which chucks the rock at the player closest to the basket) you can also use the Left Trigger as a modifier to tell a player to head to the hoop as you pass. If there's an open lane and they have a decent dunk rating, you may get a sick alley-oop toss (these are a little too common for college, but damn do they look cool). However, this is a risky play, because it's easy to get cut off by a defender, to have the pass go awry, or to brick the dunk.
The other option is to use the modifier and pass the ball for a unique type of give-and-go. The passer will run towards the hoop after giving up the rock and for a few seconds you can quickly toss it back to him with a tap of the pass button (or you can use this to set up the alley-oop). It's a nice move, just as with the lead pass, and can often collapse a defense, opening things up for outside shooters.
Both of these passing options are geared towards the basket, which perpetuates College Hoops big problem. This is still too much of an up-and-down game. With good runners, you can play a never-ending game of fast breaks, which really is not college ball. However, this is resolved in two ways. First, you have to crank the difficulty way up, as the first three (of five) settings are far too generous, and second you need to play some good teams.
Some of the bugs seen in NBA 2K5 and last year's College Hoops resurface. From time-to-time, players shoot behind the backboard, step out of bounds foolishly, or get backcourt violations for no reasons other than faulty AI. The bugs aren't too bad or too upsetting, but they are there. Fortunately, the AI is much better in College Hoops 2K5 and teams often play like their counterparts. With many schools built around their real-life coaches (without the likenesses), Hoops 2K5 does a great job recreating the college game. On tougher difficulties and against good teams, you can't just run fast breaks and must pass the ball in open passing lanes to avoid steals and humiliation at the hands of your opponent.
Free Throw Revolution
One last mention to the gameplay additions must be made. The free throw system of old (you know, the one that sucked ass) is gone. There is no remnant of it whatsoever in College Hoops 2K5, so I hope you weren't attached to it. The system has been replaced with a meter-free mechanic that has you holding the shoot button as the player cocks his arm back and prepares to shoot. Release the shoot button when it seems right and that's it.
This is all about touch and the intuitive system is a great relief from the nonsense meters of the past. What makes it doubly difficult (but also so fantastic) is that different players have their own free throw styles. Each style has a different timing, so you really need to get the feel for a variety of shooter. Your accuracy is largely based on the player's free throw skill, but timing will be an important factor. It's not easy to get used to, but spend some time practicing free throws and it soon becomes second nature. From all my hours of play, I've seen some fairly accurate free throw percentages (nothing too high or too low). Build Your Legacy
I don't think that the gameplay for College Hoops is quite at its peak and has a bit more work to be the perfect college game, but it's hard to imagine the Legacy mode getting any better than this. The focus is now completely on your coach, whom you create, and then level up throughout his 40-year career. There are numerous career and yearly goals for your coach and meeting any of these earns you one point to spend on any of five different stats. Some of the goals are pretty easy to obtain, like having a winning season, but others are going to take some real dedication (500 career wins, being one). You begin with a C- coach, but with success, you can eventually rise to become the greatest coach in all the land.
You start, once again, at a crap school and must work your way to bigger and better programs. As you build up your coach, you'll be able to hire better assistants to help with scouting, recruiting, and teaching your players. These assistants are your equals in many regards, as you'll need to maximize their time and your own to prepare your players and find future stars in high school (assuming they don't all hop right into the NBA draft).
Recruiting is now a year-long process, just like with real college, and you and your assistants have only so much time in the week to get everything done. Managing your time between training your players, scouting opponents, and visiting recruits requires a lot of micromanaging, but it's a very satisfying experience and easily the most involved recruiting system of any college game. Along with time, you have to worry about your schools budget. Small schools can't do as much, so your best bet is to go after local talent and focus on a few recruits instead of throwing out a large net and hoping to catch a big fish.
The depth of the Legacy mode is truly impressive and thanks to fixes to the tournament logic, I've never seen obscure schools winning the NCAA Championship year after year. Legacy is pretty much everything I hoped for and the interface is much friendly than any other Visual Concepts sports game.
The Internet is Your Friend
College Hoops 2K5 once again features full use of PS2 Online. This time around the netcode has been improved for smoother play and fewer drops. There's not a whole lot new this year, though expect better ESPN intergration, including tournament pages that mirror ESPN.com's look. As for tournaments, those have been added this year and are the closest thing to an online league. Tourney's allow up to 64 people to choose a team (with default rosters) and play online for the ultimate title. The fact that you can do 64-team tourneys means that people can live out their own March Madness. Pretty damn cool.
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