How do you explain George Mason University's unlikely Cinderella story during the 2006 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? Was it raw talent that got them to the Final Four, toppling traditional powerhouses like Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut? Was it pure luck? If you ask the folks at 2K Sports that same question, they might have a different answer for you: unity. The concept of team unity plays a big role in the gameplay of the publisher's upcoming college basketball game, College Hoops 2K7, and we got a hands-on look at how the concept is being worked into the game.
Unity is a measure of how well a team is playing together on the floor. It's dependent on a number of factors--how experienced your players are, how often you make substitutions, and, of course, how well you perform. Teams with high unity are better at nearly every aspect of the game, from the little things like setting up the screen and making smart passes to larger components of the on-floor action such as defensive ability and shot making. Conversely, teams with low unity will often be less apt at these team-related fundamentals, regardless of how talented a team they are. In fact, how unity is applied in the game means that a high-talent, mediocre-unity team such as UConn might struggle against a team comprising less talented but better-unified players (think George Mason and the Huskies). Unity isn't going to necessarily guarantee a win, but it might just keep you in a game or two.
In the game, your unity level is designated by a meter--to fill up the meter, you have to make plays happen on the court and increase your players' confidence ratings (which are indicated visually by a white semicircle underneath each player's feet). The higher your players' confidence, the better they'll play and the more your unity rating will increase. Miss some open shots, or have the ball stripped by your opponent a few times, and your unity will suffer accordingly. As the coach, the actions you take will have an affect on your team's unity, as well. For example, substituting fresh (but inexperienced) players into the game to relieve your starters will certainly take a notch or two from your unity meter. As a result, there will be even more importance for you to make substitutions at the right times.
Team unity will also improve if you have what's known as a "coach on the floor" playing on your team. These natural floor generals help build the confidence of your younger players and help all five players on the court gel together. It's possible to have multiple coach-on-the-floor players, though you won't receive additional bonuses for having more than one on the court.
While the concept of unity is a bit abstract, it was easy to see in effect during a game we played against one of the developers. We played as Michigan and our opponent played as last year's champs, Florida. Though the Gators didn't start at a full unity rating, once they filled out their meter, the difference in their play was immediately noticeable on both sides of the ball. Three-point shots were drained from every point on the court; no-look, gorgeous behind-the-back passes were executed flawlessly; and the Florida defenders were like flies to honey whenever we made an errant pass or bobbled the ball. In essence, the team played like a team on fire.
From a control standpoint, one of the biggest changes is that crossover and spin moves normally associated with 2K's isomotion system have moved to the Y and B buttons on the Xbox 360 controller. While you can still pull off the moves using the analog stick and triggers, this control change was made to add more ease to the system. In the past, you had to choose your spin direction based on which ball your hand was in. Now, it's simply a matter of hitting the spin button and letting the computer execute the context-sensitive spin for you. Another change: The free-throw system has been borrowed from NBA 2K7 for the college game. Just as in NBA, you move the stick back and release at the right moment in conjunction with the player animation. You'll also want to make sure the stick is pulled straight back to ensure an accurate shot; if you want to miss the free throw on purpose and give your team a chance at an easy rebound, you can move the stick back left or right before releasing the ball.
Other new goodies in 2K7 include loads of new shot (including signature shots), pass, and block animations; a postgame replay feature that lets you watch a replay of any score in the game you just played; an improved create-a-player mode that lets you alter everything from cheekbone size to free-throw style; and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (that's the NJIT Highlanders to you), one of the more than 330 teams that are playable in the game.
Part of the magic of any college sports game is the atmosphere of game day. College Hoops 2K7 has upped its game here, thanks to a vibrant and dynamic crowd that seems more alive than ever before. During our Michigan/Florida game, the crowd was literally on its feet from the get-go and didn't let up with its chants and cheers for practically the entire game. The crowd models are more animated than before, and the sidelines are brimming with new cheerleader and mascot animations, benched players who react accurately to the action on the court, coaches who stalk the sideline all game long, and a mop boy who's just waiting for a break in the action to take the floor and get his mop on. Before the game begins, you can even control your players in their pregame warm-ups. Hit a big dunk, and the home crowd will roar with appreciation; perform well in warm-ups, and your team will get a small boost of confidence before tip-off.
In addition to having more than 200 school fight songs to add to the atmosphere, 2K7 will let you create your own school chant from scratch, with an easy-to-use and surprisingly flexible chant-creator tool. Using up to 32 "beats," you insert individual cheers from presets such as letters, mascots, and regional locations into each slot to create a customized cheer. Once you've got your "message" complete, you can set it to a variety of marching-band drum beats and then choose when and how often you want to hear it in your games. It's too bad you can't upload these chants for use in online matches, as the potential for humiliating your friends (and enemies) is delightful to think about. Perhaps that's something they can add in the future.
What is confirmed for online, however, is your standard list of 2K game options, including leagues and the ability to play 64-team tournaments online. The VIP system is in place, as well as a feature known as Reelmaker, which is also borrowed from the NBA 2K series. Using this tool, you can string together a chain of game highlights, add special effects, and even add commentary, and then upload the movie for others to enjoy via Xbox Live.
Last year's coach mode returns in 2K7 with one main difference. Now, instead of watching the game from the traditional broadcast view, the camera has swung down to coach level. As the game is played out on the court, the camera will naturally follow the action on the court. In between calling plays and making substitutions, you can move the camera up and down the sidelines or turn your virtual head to follow the action as it unfolds. From a gameplay standpoint, coach mode hasn't changed (beyond the need to take into consideration team unity, of course). The new camera angle isn't a huge change, but for those who love this mode, it will likely be a welcome tweak.
Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery, and Bonnie Bernstein once again share the booth and sideline duties respectively in 2K7, and the development team has tried to up the play-by-play enthusiasm this year. Expect the commentary team to make a note of substitutions during a game, especially in regards to how any subbed player will affect that team's unity. Our favorite call we heard so far from Lundquist while playing the game was in reference to a particularly skillful shot: "I didn't believe it then, and I still don't believe it!" Classic Verne.
While the NBA is firmly focused on its star players, college basketball is all about the teams. With the team-unity feature, 2K is making sure that the team concept is more up front than ever before in College Hoops 2K7. There's still plenty more to explore in the game, including a look at the revamped legacy mode. Expect more information on that and more as we prepare for the game's launch in late November.