It's time for March Madness, but that usually means filling out brackets and sneaking out of the office to run to the nearest sports bar and catch a few tournament games during lunchtime. You usually don't associate this time of year with the release of college basketball video games, but 2K Sports went ahead and did it anyway, with the Xbox 360 version of College Hoops 2K6. With the game's late arrival, you would hope that a lot more than just some subtle tweaks would have been made to justify paying double the price of current-generation versions. While the same great artificial intelligence and gameplay from those versions remain in this one, there just isn't much new here to get excited about.
The same control systems used in NBA 2K6 and previous versions of College Hoops 2K6 are used in this version too. First of all, there's the new isomotion juke system. Instead of using the right analog stick to execute fancy dribble maneuvers, you toggle the right and/or left trigger buttons to put your ball handler into an aggressive stance. Once you do that, jiggling the left analog stick will not only move your player, but it will also execute juke moves. If the ball's in your player's right hand, toggling the stick from right to left will execute a crossover. Do a half circle and he'll wrap the ball around his back instead. As you experiment with the isomotion, you'll find that you can easily chain together moves ranging from jab steps to crossovers to backspins and more. It's not an easy system to learn for sure, but once you get it down, you'll find that you have a lot of control over how your ball handler moves.
The new shot stick is also included in College Hoops 2K6. The right analog stick is now used as another way to shoot the basketball, since it no longer controls the juke moves. The interesting thing about the shot stick is that it lets you emote different types of shots. Tap away from the basket from midrange and you can execute a fallaway jumper. Drive the hoop and tap to either side, and your shooter will try a one-handed scoop with either hand. Different types of dunks can also be executed depending on how you move the stick as you drive an open lane--the more-agile dunkers can do some spectacular throw-downs. The post game is also made more interesting by the shot stick, as you can execute different types of post moves, like spins, drop steps, fallaways, and up-and-unders with a combination of the shot stick and the aggressive modifier. For the faint of heart, the standard shot button still remains, which will allow the computer to select a shot for you as with any other basketball game. But for those of us who want the added control, the shot stick works pretty well once you get the hang of it.
Other new tweaks to the gameplay have also been made, such as the intuitive pull-and-release free-throw mechanism. In this version of College Hoops 2K6, the camera does not zoom in close to the player. Instead, you get the same camera you picked for gameplay, which gives you a better view to rebound any misses. Perhaps more important is the inclusion of a flexible quick-menu system called the "coach's clipboard" that pops up at every play stoppage. This great feature lets you quickly make player substitutions, as well as other adjustments to your defense. There are quite a few options made easily available to you, so you can fine-tune when you want to execute presses and traps (your options include always executing your press, never, occasionally, or only after made baskets). There is also quite an array of different presses you can do, ranging from simple half-court traps to a two-two-one zone press. You can also adjust double-team frequencies on certain players, change matchups for man-to-man defenses, and even call out points of emphasis for your players to focus on, like rebounding and ball control.
On the court, you have access to up to eight different quickplay calls from the D pad. You can press any direction to execute a play that you've designated from the game's extensive playbook, and you can toggle another button to call up a second set of four plays from the D pad. There are dozens of plays available, and there are a few different playbooks available depending on the type of offense your school runs, including flex and motion offenses. Only four different quick defenses are available from the D pad, but you can assign these from the usual array of different zone defense types like three-two, two-three matchup, and box-and-one. Traps in this game can be particularly effective, as you can often tie up a ball handler by bringing a quick double-team on him. You'll need to be careful about pressing teams with good ball handlers though, as you can easily get burned if they break out. You'll also find that in the Xbox 360 version of the game, it's more challenging to pass effectively out of the double-team. You can't just jam on the pass button to bail yourself out, or you're likely to turn it over.
The gameplay in College Hoops 2K6 is as sharp as it was on the regular Xbox version of the game. Schools seem to run the type of game that they do in real life. You'll see squads like Wisconsin play hard-nosed defense and grind out the shot clock on offense. Other teams like Washington will attempt to run and gun up and down the court and shoot earlier in the shot clock to generate tempo. Opponents will also mix up defenses on you and press at different times to show you different looks. Perhaps most impressive is that teams actually appear to run offenses in the half-court, so you'll see players moving off the ball and usually in an intelligent manner. It's important to be able to read the type of defense being run on you so that you can attack the open spots. The computer also reacts intelligently depending on how you're playing. If you're using Cal and lighting it up with Leon Powe, for example, they'll eventually run double-teams at him to try to force him to give up the ball. Conversely, the computer-controlled teams are smart enough to rely on their star players, so if you play against Duke, expect to see JJ Redick and Shelden Williams shouldering most of the scoring load.
College Hoops 2K6's legacy mode is another clear highlight of the game. In this mode, you can take control of a school of your choice and try to lead it to the top of the college hoops over a period of years. You'll have total control of a college basketball program, and many of the coaches are even named for you, such as Ben Braun at Cal. For some reason, though, many other high-profile coaches like Mike Krzyzewski at Duke are named generically. The legacy mode includes access to rosters, stats, standings, and playbooks, so you can adjust the style of basketball your school plays. The calendar contains full schedules of games, which seem very accurate for the 2005-06 college basketball seasons, including regional preseason tournaments. Practice regimens can be adjusted for your players to focus on areas like shooting and the post game. You'll even get e-mails from time to time regarding players who are disgruntled about playing time and other issues for you to deal with. You'll even see special shows like a season preview special and a Selection Saturday special hosted by veteran college basketball commentators Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg. Unfortunately, this highlight show, as well as the postgame shows, appears to be lifted right out of the previous-generation versions of the game, so they don't look all that good for an Xbox 360 game.
The heart of the legacy mode is, of course, recruiting, which is year-round in College Hoops 2K6. You're presented with a large list of recruits who are ranked for you based on the primary and secondary attributes that your program looks for in college players. These general attributes include skill, potential, athleticism, and intelligence. So depending on what your program values are, the types of recruits you'll look for may vary. The recruiting trail requires you to assign coaches to contact or scout recruits, and doing so costs you time points on a weekly basis. Time spent on the recruiting trail means less time available for your coaching staff to scout opponents and practice with the team--so you'll need to balance everything carefully depending on the schedule, your coaching staff's strengths (some coaches are better at recruiting, while some are better at scouting players and teams), and your team's needs.
This is all fun and compelling content for those who love the micromanagement aspect of legacy modes in college sports games. Unfortunately, for those who might feel out of their depth, the computer doesn't seem to put any effort into recruiting players for you if you're uninterested or if you're unable to handle that aspect. If you simulate through the whole season (playing or coaching games without diving into the recruiting side), it's very possible you'll end up without any incoming players for the next season. If you prefer playing against human opponents instead of building up a Duke-like dynasty, online play is included over Xbox Live of course, with the usual leaderboards, leagues, and tournaments, as well as VIP profile-tracking, which you can use to scout prospective opponents. Online play is pretty smooth, so there's some extra value to be gained out of head-to-head play.
College Hoops 2K6's primary faults are in its visuals, which aren't very polished at all for an Xbox 360 game. Sure there are a good amount of animations, and a lot of attention has been placed on architecture of the major arenas, but too many aspects of the presentation have simply been lifted from previous versions of the game with little or no modification. The selection show and postgame shows are good examples. The crowds, even with emphasis on showing off student sections, could use a lot of work. The lighting and floors look nice, and the cloth and sweat mechanics of the other 2K Sports basketball games on the Xbox 360 have been brought in as well. But because the likenesses of real players can't legally be used, there isn't the same visual impact with this game as there was with NBA 2K6. There's no sense of looking at a player and being wowed by the resemblance. In NBA 2K6 you'd look at a replay of LeBron James dunking and say "Wow, that really does look like LeBron!" In College Hoops 2K6, you see a replay of Adam Morrison stroking a three, and you say "OK, that looks like a generic white guy wearing a Gonzaga #3 jersey." The least that could have been done was the addition of a bad peach-fuzz mustache on Gonzaga #3 in the game. What's more, the game suffers from some of the same standard definition versus high-definition issues as NBA 2K6 on the Xbox 360. If you play in standard definition, some of the button prompts and fonts are difficult to read, and the game simply doesn't look nearly as sharp as it does in high definition. There's very little that separates the look of this game from a regular Xbox game when you play on a non-HDTV.
The general sound effects from the court and crowd are pretty decent, but the new announcing crew of Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery is a clear downgrade from College Hoops 2K5's duo, Mike Patrick and Jay Bilas. Lundquist does a passable job, but Raftery's empty-headed and oddly nuanced remarks pale in comparison to almost any other color commentator, let alone someone as knowledgeable as Bilas. What might be even more disappointing is the lack of fight songs available in the game. Only a handful was included, and they don't even cover many of the traditional basketball powerhouses. You'll hear Maryland and Arizona's fight songs, but many high-profile teams' fight songs are conspicuously absent. Instead, you'll have to choose from the likes of New Hampshire, Sacramento State, or Southern Methodist's fight songs.
The Xbox 360 version of College Hoops 2K6 is like a bubble team trying to make a late case for itself to the selection committee. Yes, there's a solid gameplay engine there with great AI, but there are just too many things going against this game to make it wholly recommendable. It arrived after the regular season in college basketball had ended, and it didn't do much to improve the presentation or include new features and functionality. Really, it's just a tweaked-up version of the same game on the Xbox, but it shipped several months later at double the price. If, for some reason, you don't already own the game and are a college hoops fan, it's definitely worth playing. But chances are, if you like college basketball, you already have this game, you've been playing it for months, and you paid half the price. If that's the case for you, then there's not much in this version that makes it worth a second purchase.