I went to college at the University of Oregon, not exactly a basketball powerhouse or household name for college hoops, but a school that’s quietly made its way to the Elite Eight and sent several players to the NBA (Luke Ridnour and Freddie Jones among them). Some might call The UofO a small school, and by many accounts those claims would be correct. But the atmosphere and passion of small-school hoops simply can’t be topped, particularly at The Pit (MacArthur Court), one of the hardest arenas nationwide for visiting teams to play.
It’s that atmosphere that sets college hoops apart from the NBA game, and it’s also what sets College Hoops 2K8 apart from its “big brother” competition. College Hoops 2K8 suffers from a lesser presentation quality, some choppy graphics and repetitive audio when compared to NBA 2K8, but its ability to capture the exhilaration and atmosphere of the college crowds elevates the game to a new franchise high.
“The Pit” at the UofO probably violates half the fire code and architectural standards now established for basketball arenas, but taking your life into your own hands is part of its charm. Once you enter the arena, you know it’s going to reach deafening decibel levels at some point, making MacArthur Court a distinct sixth-man advantage. Visual Concepts clearly knows that crowds in general are a huge advantage in the college game, as the new Chant Creator and Sixth Man Meter imply. The Chant Creator does just what it says: lets gamers create their own chant, complete with instruments and any imaginable phrase. Put that together with the Sixth Man Meter, and you get an unrivaled feeling of actually being in a college arena.
As the home team makes a few key plays, the Sixth Man Meter at the bottom of the screen gradually fills up, giving certain players more confidence and enabling them to temporarily elevate their game. In a sense, it’s an awful lot like being “on fire” in the old-school NBA Jam games, but in a slightly more-realistic sense, since it hinges mostly on student-athletes feeding off the crowd. I have to say “slightly” realistic, though, because it seems to fill artificially and at a steady pace rather than erratically like you’d see in real life. Two blocks or two dunks in a row would send most college arenas into a tizzy, but it takes several more plays to really notice much difference in the Sixth Man Meter. This is probably because the college game and its fans are so erratic that it’s impossible to actually re-create that volatility in a gameplay mechanic. But, since Visual Concepts tried to do so, they’ve definitely left some room for improvement in College Hoops 2K9 for the Sixth Man Meter to really reach its potential.
The Sixth Man Meter isn’t the only gameplay change Visual Concepts has introduced with College Hoops 2K8, though. Maximum Passing lets players press the shoulder button (or L1) and then press one of the four face buttons to choose a specific type of pass (bounce pass or lob, for instance). To be honest, this was too complex for my tastes, as I still botch a few shots using the right thumbstick to shoot, so expecting me to nail passes with two additional button presses might be a bit much. However, it’s not entirely my fault; the passing icon switches between players so quickly anyway that it takes a bit of practice and luck to make sure you consistently deliver that fast-paced pass to the intended target.
The purpose of Maximum Passing is to give players more of a feeling of control over the game, but the Coaching Adjustments and Play Designer actually deliver that in a more “big picture” sense. Coaching Adjustments, which takes place at halftime, is essentially like a tutorial by which the game notes your trends during the first half, tells you what’s worked and what hasn’t, and offers some suggestions for the second half. Players can choose which suggestions to take or ignore, and the game adjusts accordingly for the final 20 minutes of the game. Although technically players are being coached, there’s still an illusion of being the ones calling the shots.
Where players definitely do call the shots is in the Play Designer. When you were younger and played pickup games, do you remember devising those crazy offensive plays and defensive schemes that you knew would lead to victory if someone would just give you the chance? Well it’s time to find those notes because Play Designer lets you do just that. Seriously, if you’ve got an offensive or defensive idea — any idea — design it, then test it out against various offensive or defensive schemes and, if you’re pleased with the results, upload the play to your team’s playbook and use it in real game situations. The only drawback to this is that the Designer isn’t the most intuitive piece of software to use, and the tutorial leaves a few holes, so a large part of the time you’ll spend designing a play is simply due to trial and error. Good thing you can test the plays out before uploading them.
Testing is also the name of the game with the revamped Legacy Mode, which allows you to not only recruit high schoolers but to actually play as them. In previous outings, interaction with high school students and recruiting was as simple (boring?) as sending emails. But in College Hoops 2K8, you can actually play the games in the Amateur Basketball League (high school circuit) to get a feel for the players and their attributes and improve your school’s chances of having them sign your letterhead on letter-of-intent day. How your participation in the game (rather than simulating it) actually improves the kid’s chances of coming to your college I’ll never know, but the addition of high school play definitely makes the recruiting process much more interesting.
With online versus play, 64-team tournaments and an insanely deep single-player experience, it’s hard to imagine what more Visual Concepts can cram into the box. However, in the argument of quantity versus quality, there’s definitely room for improvement. From the overall polish and presentation to the intuition of the Play Designer, College Hoops 2K8 has all the right ingredients for the ultimate college basketball game. With a little more time in the oven, these concepts could make 2K Sports” College Hoops the ultimate college basketball video game. But it won’t happen until at least 2K9.
– Jonas Allen