College Hoops 2K8 Review
Most gamers who love the sports titles will probably agree that 2K Sports has surpassed EA Sports as the perennial quality leader, but even then, we haven't seen too many simulations that can be deemed fantastic over the past few years. In fact, while most of the preceding generations saw excellent sports simulations at the start of a system's life cycle (remember Madden 2001 for the PS2 and NBA 2K for the Dreamcast?), we really didn't have that this generation. We're still waiting for the first must-have sports game that absolutely every gamer must have as part of his library. Could College Hoops 2K8 be the first to deliver the goods? Well, in some respects, it improves on previous entries in the series and certainly outstrips EA's NCAA franchise, but in other ways, it falls short. We just wish 2K Sports would take the time to work out the kinks, because if they can do it with 2K9, we'll be very interested to see the result.
As is, we get very much what we'd expect, especially in terms of graphics. The characters retain that weird, plastic-y look that we're already used to seeing in this new generation, but the overall detail is a plus. The various arenas are both loud and colorful, and there's a wide variety of player models and animations. You can spot those cool animations even better if you choose a closer camera view (and you've got plenty to choose from), but if you zoom in enough, you will notice some pretty heavy clipping from time to time. Essentially, if you're at all familiar with prior College Hoops entries, you won't be surprised in the least at the visual display in 2K8. There may be a few cleaner lines in the graphical foundation and the shading seems to be better, but there are still a host of visual glitches. At one point during our foul shooting, the camera suddenly started to jiggle violently, and while slowdown during gameplay is almost non-existent, it does pop up during substitutions. But all in all, the game still looks very good from top to bottom, so there's no need to get all anal.
The sound gets a big boost from the rowdy college crowds, because we all know that the biggest appeal of college sports is the devoted students in the stands. They'll yell, scream and moan, and what happens on court sounds both crisp and accurate. The soundtrack is oddly lacking and even a bit repetitive when toying around off the court, but it's still well orchestrated and well produced. A slam dunk is appropriately jarring, the squeak of the sneakers fits in nicely with the diverse moves of a player, and the fans will react strongly when one of their guys blows by an opponent. However, all this being said, we kinda miss the rest of the atmosphere. Where's the band and the cheerleaders? Where'd the coach go? College basketball arenas are loud and invigorating, and while 2K captures the environment rather well, they tend to focus only on the fans and the players; there are other facets of the experience. But again, in much the same vein as the graphics, we shouldn't nitpick due to the all-encompassing quality we find with the sound. Oh, and we've noticed balance issues between sound effects and music in this generation, but College Hoops 2K8 doesn't suffer from that.
There are two things that absolutely must happen when a developer attempts to create a good simulator, especially one that is designed to be a big seller. First of all, the requisite depth must be evident, from both the macroeconomic standpoint (managing the team and players off the court) to the microeconomic (hop-steps, Maximum Passing, 6th-Man Advantage, etc.). Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the game needs to remain accessible to first-time players, all the while showing visible enhancements and improvements over the previous year's installment. This will satisfy both the casual and the hardcore gamer, and let's face it: there are more casual gamers involved in the sports category than any other genre. 2K has always done a good job on both counts, even though they sometimes fall short in regards to control and execution. They occasionally run into problems with the animations choking off plays and movement - see below - and the physics are still questionable, but 2K8 remains, for the most part, both realistic and accessible. But would it satisfy the avid b-ball fans and casual college buffs?
Well, maybe not. Let's start with some of the issues that continue to plague this series, in the hopes that 2K will finally address them for the next entry. First off, for some reason, they just can't allow the game to be realistic when up-close-and-personal with the basket. For some strange reason, perfectly capable players will continually brick easy, uncontested layups, and they tend to happen at the worst possible time. Furthermore, unless you adjust the difficulty sliders, you will find that the computer almost always has an incredible shooting percentage. We played games where the other team was 7 for 7 from long range in the first half and 6 for 8 in the second half (yeah, that's an impossible 3 pt. percentage). We also played games where the other team didn't miss a single foul shot. It can get downright infuriating, especially when stuck on the losing end of a 6th-man advantage run. This is like a momentum feature, and it allows you to gain the upper hand if you go on a particularly impressive tear.
Unfortunately, it can be incredibly difficult to break through this momentum barrier. When the opposing team is draining every possible shot and buckling down on defense, you tend to feel helpless, regardless of team and player statistics. On top of this, we still get the sense that, despite it being a simulator, College Hoops 2K8 has the dreaded rubber-band AI. We sprinted out to a 37-13 lead in one game but watched as the other team mysteriously caught fire, gained the 6th-man advantage, and pulled to within 4 points in only about 5 minutes time. ...that's just wrong. Finally, even though the animations are numerous and fun to look at, they can have a negative affect on the gameplay. For instance, when you're towards the end of the game and the other team is intentionally fouling due to a big point deficit, you'll have to be 10 feet from any opponent to get off a pass. The passing animation takes too long, and the other team can almost always get in there with the foul. This can even happen with the standard shooting animation, as defenders have plenty of time to gather themselves for a leaping block.
But that's where the majority of our complaints end. The game really is accessible; just about anyone can pick it up and play, and you don't have to use the occasionally troublesome Shot Stick. The Shot Stick mechanic works okay, but if you have a sensitive enough thumb, you'll do just fine with using one of the face buttons. Movement is smooth and fluid, you must work to gain easy baskets, you have to stay vigilant on defense to avoid easy baskets, and as is the case with any good simulator, you have to factor in fatigue, matchups, defensive and offensive plays, and of course, strategy. If you double-team an opposing player in an attempt to steal the ball, that means you've left someone open, and the computer will find that open man. If you drive the lane with a guard and you're double-teamed by two guys 6 inches taller, your shot is going to get blocked, almost guaranteed. If you don't direct your pass or use Maximum Passing, your pass could turn out to be ill-advised. If you're falling backwards, your shot is less likely to drop than if you had an open jumper from the foul line. Yep, this plays out very much like a real basketball game would.
This is evidenced by the very first game we played, where we took UConn against Providence in a classic Big East matchup. It didn't take long to get the hang of the gameplay, and we ended up winning 77-69. The score and our experience proves that much of what you see on screen is indeed quite accurate, although we did get miffed at missing easy layups and passing the ball to players who are mysteriously out of bounds. There is another little feature to talk about, the Lock-On for defensemen that allows the player to stay in front of an aggressive ball-handler. At first, it appears to be an excellent addition to the game, but after playing for a while, we realized it was flawed. Thing is, we soon learned that a tall, slow player could easily shut down a fast, speedy one using the Lock-On, and again...that's just wrong. But at the very least, if you want to play the game without the bells and whistles - sans the Lock-On, Shot Stick, etc. - everything works out quite nicely. You use the Sixaxis motion sensing for foul shots, but strangely enough, you don't set the direction. You're always spot-on and you're basically setting the timing when moving the Sixaxis, causing the ball to be long, short, or right on.
You have plenty of game mode options, and that includes the regular ol' Quick Play and the popular NCAA Tournament, which is almost fully customizable. There are lots of alternatives, so in short, there's plenty of depth to satisfy most avid college basketball fans. Overall, College Hoops 2K8 works out well for the aforementioned group, although it's nowhere near good enough to be considered a must-buy for gamers who aren't Dick Vitale lovers and don't agonize over filling in their brackets in March. It's a solid simulator and lots of fun, and it does a lot of things right. But some of those same flaws are still very much present; there's only so many times you can miss a 2-foot layup or watch the other team rip off 18 straight shots in a row before you get a tad frustrated. Hence, there are plenty of drawbacks that directly impact the gameplay, but the entire package remains appealing. It's also great entertainment for several fans of the sport (the multiplayer is as good as ever), and that's another bonus.
This is one game that, once it drops in price, would definitely be worth the price of admission if you're looking for a decent basketball simulator. As it stands, it's a solid choice for the die-hard fans.
5/12/2008 Ben Dutka