ESPN College Hoops 2K5 Hands-On
Ready for the Sweet 16 or the NIT scrub? We preview the latest build of the popular ESPN college basketball series.
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It's only October, but a lot of college hoop fans are already thinking of March--that glorious time when the NCAA College Basketball Championship Tournament is upon us. Another important, upcoming month for fans of college roundball is November, because that's when Sega will release its newest college basketball game, ESPN College Hoops 2K5. We recently sat down with the latest build of 2K5 and had a chance to discuss what's new in this year's game with its developers.
The first thing you should know about 2K5 is that the game was brought home this year so that it could be developed in-house by Visual Concepts. What this means is that some of the graphical and control touches you might be familiar with from VC's ESPN NBA 2K franchise are present here in College Hoops 2K5, though they've been tweaked appropriately for the college game. Fast breaks and tomahawk slams may not be as commonplace in college basketball as in the pros, but the college game still has all its own wrinkles.
College Hoops 2K5 boasts a huge number of college teams on its roster (at current count there are more than 320). Lesser-known schools, such as Birmingham-Southern, Cleveland State, and newcomer Savannah State, all make appearances in 2K5. In addition, at least 70 classic college teams will make their ways into the game, which is a boon for fans looking to relive past NCAA Tourney glories all over again. Players will also be able to take their favorite teams online on both the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game.
What's immediately obvious in 2K5, as compared to its NBA cousin, is the tempo of the game. The action on the floor unfolds at a more controlled pace than some of the more up-and-down plays common to the NBA. This does not mean the game is slow, however. In fact, in some ways, the game pace seems a lot quicker than that of its NBA cousin. Defense, in particular, might feel completely different to those new to the series, mainly because college basketball teams actually play it. During one game, we watched as an artificial intelligence-controlled team played a full-court press for the entire first half of the game, which is a defensive tactic basically unheard of in the pros.
This defensive-minded approach has obvious ramifications on all aspects of play, but it most obviously affects the passing game. Finding an open look, even when inbounding the ball, can be tough, because the plucky AI will do everything it can to relieve you of possession of the ball. Double-teams are rampant, and they can make moving the ball around the court difficult, to say the least. To counter this, 2K5 includes improved passing controls that add depth to your offensive game. While a simple straight pass is still easily completed--provided you can find an open man--2K5 also lets you use a more controlled passing, mainly through the use of additional controller buttons. This will send a man toward the basket, allowing you to easily find an open man in scoring position. Throw in the shoulder buttons and you can perform a give-and-go or an alley-oop. What's more, this mechanic can be changed on the fly. Therefore, a play that starts as a give-and-go can be quickly modified into an alley-oop dunk with a few quick button presses (and the right on-the-court conditions, of course), and vice versa.
Post moves are similarly tweaked in 2K5. Pressing the white button on the Xbox controller, for example, transitions your controlled player into "post mode," where he can use various post moves in the paint, such as backing an opponent in. Pressing the white button again exits post mode. The final designated post mode button has yet to be determined by the developers at VC.
Fans of the NBA 2K series will be pleased to note that College Hoops 2K5 also includes a variation of NBA 2K5's "isomotion" control scheme, which is used primarily to juke defenders as you make your way toward the basket. The control scheme is a bit different from the one found in the NBA series, because it calls for the additional use of the trigger buttons on the Xbox controller. It will be interesting to see how this feature turns out in the final game, because the real college game is less dependent on flashy moves than on sound teamwork and allowing plays to unfold on the floor.
To that end, we found foul calls to be plentiful in our preview time with the game. The default foul settings seem to be pretty unforgiving, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but we also saw numerous charging fouls with the ball in our possession. Overuse of the isomotion control features, especially the pro hop, will almost certainly result in a blown whistle. As such, to avoid foul trouble, it seems best to limit your fancy moves to those opportunities where you have mismatches on the floor.
Another big change comes in the free-throw system. College Hoops 2K5's free-throw mechanic eschews the complicated scheme found in NBA 2K5. There's no pressure-sensitive shoulder button squeezing, and there are no strange timing challenges needed to sink a free throw. Instead, the mechanic is entirely based on the animation of the player taking the shot. A press of the button starts the shot animation, and when you release pressure on the shot button, the ball is released. Choose to release the ball at the correct moment during the shot animation and you have a good chance of making the basket. As you might expect, a player's free-throw percentage is tied to his shooting ability, and, this year, the game seems to be embracing those numbers wholeheartedly.
Sports games' bread and butter is in the accurate representation of the players who take the field (or floor, as the case may be). Without decent player modeling and ratings, a sports simulation can fall flat on its face. College Hoops 2K5 extends these ratings to coaches as well. Despite no real names being used, VC has scouted actual college head coaches in a number of different tendency areas, such as primary defensive formation, offensive pace (how concerned the coach is in running a play through to its end), pass frequency, and recruiting priorities, among others. All of these tendencies are adjustable by the user, so if your team's coach doesn't necessarily call your style of game, you're welcome to alter him to fit your personal style. You're not restrained by these coaching tendencies once you're in-game either, because you're able to change your game plan and play style as often as you like. These determined coaching styles, instead, matter more when simulating games throughout the season.
More focus on the coach also comes in the form of a beefed-up simulation mode that's designed for gamers who may not feel like controlling a team for an entire game but who still want to influence the action on the court. Similar to coach modes in football video games, where plays are called and substitutions are made as the game progresses, 2K5's coach mode is integrated into the game as it unfolds. By bringing up a menu, you can change defensive and offensive plays, and you can make substitutions on the fly. However, this mode does bring up the obvious question: Why would you want to simply coach a game when you can actually play it out? This test of strategic thinking might make for an interesting challenge when you're looking for a change of pace.
A huge portion of coaching lies in the offseason game, where scouting and recruiting players are crucial to a team's success. College Hoops 2K5 has modeled this in its offseason game, where, in a manner that's similar to NBA 2K5's system, you'll be responsible for hiring a staff of coaches to assist you on your way to a hardwood championship. Each coach vying for a job on your team has a letter grade attached to a number of attributes, such as recruiting, teaching, scouting, offense, and defense. The challenge is to find the coaches with the right mix of attributes to bring on to your team. The ramifications of your hiring choices will affect your season at some point--whether it's during the regular season or whether it's during the course of scouting potential talent for your roster during the offseason.
Recruits have a similar letter-grade ranking assigned to each of their physical attributes. However, when scouting talent, you'll notice that each letter grade is accompanied by a question mark. This means there is a degree of flexibility on the final rating for that attribute, which can only be fully confirmed by scouting the player. Some attributes, such as potential, might include two question marks and no letter grade. The final rating for this attribute will only be revealed once that player has been scouted fully. Of course, this scouting effort is similarly affected by the coach's scouting proficiency, just as actually convincing a potential recruit to commit to your team is a function of a particular coach's recruiting ability. We're curious to see how this depth and complexity will add up in the final version of the game, but the results are promising so far.
According to Visual Concepts, a good chunk of ESPN College Hoops 2K5 was completely rewritten once game development was brought in-house. While it doesn't represent a complete makeover, the game looks to include some of the best features found in the NBA 2K franchise, in addition to including improvements that are specific to the college game. What we've seen so far of this new-look collegiate offering has us excited to see more. Keep an eye out for our full review of the game when it is released in November.