ESPN College Hoops Review (Xbox)
Every sports video game fan should thank Sega for stepping into the sports gaming world. While everybody might not be a fan of their games, you can’t deny that Sega has produced solid games and Sega’s presence has forced their competitor’s to improve as well. Sega’s college basketball series is a perfect example of this. Last year’s game, “College Basketball 2k3”, was a solid first effort, and its presence caused EA to greatly improve its game, “March Madness”, for this year. How did Sega do in its sophomore season?
Last year’s game had many problems - most notably the “jump steal”. Players could steal most passes by jumping into the passing lane. This turned most games into turnover fests, and made the game virtually unplayable when competing against the CPU. However, the game was very enjoyable online – if you played with someone who didn’t abuse the “jump steal”. This year, Sega toned down the “jump steal” - and it makes the game much more enjoyable. The game resembles college basketball now; because it allows teams to use the passing lanes to find good shots. Last year, I would be hesitant to pass the ball out of fear that the pass would get stolen. This year, that isn’t the case.
Other problems in last year’s game included the amount of missed close shots, the lack of a mid-range game, lack of fouls, poor substitution patterns, and poor time out management by the AI. The majority of those problems would have been fixed with the inclusion of sliders. This year, the addition of sliders allows you to tweak the game as you please. The amount of reaching, shooting and blocking fouls can all be individually increased or decreased. If you think the CPU doesn’t take enough outside shots, you can change it. I’ve always been a huge proponent of sliders, and this game provide a big example as to why. Out of the box, the CPU will only take one or two passes before taking a shot - and still misses too many close shots. Without tweaking the sliders, fouls are still not called frequently enough. However, with the right sliders, this game plays as close to real college basketball as I’ve ever seen in a video game.
There are a few other additions that greatly improved this game. The playbooks have been expanded and are exclusive to each team. Classic teams are now available - with great teams like Michigan’s “Fab Five” and the 1990 UNLV team. The “ESPN Slam Session” is the only game that features a slam-dunk contest - and it’s well designed. Once you get the hang of it, it’s one of the more enjoyable features in the game.
The “Legacy” mode has been dramatically improved. There are so many things to love about this mode that there may not have enough room to list them all in this review. First, recruiting takes place through the entire season, and not just at the end of the season; like other games. The recruiting process is unbelievably deep. You’ll receive e-mails from recruits, invite them to visit your campus and even watch a game. There’s also a trophy room where you can collect and view your accomplishments through the years. All and all, it’s an exceptional mode and will extend the amount of time you will be playing the game.
While there’s much to love with the gameplay, there are still some few small issues to address. First, the animations in this game are occasionally sub par and unrealistic. In real life, you’ll rarely see players pick up their dribble, take the ball behind their back and dunk – but in “ESPN”, players will do that nearly every game. The dunk animations are too explosive - players seem to be able to make powerful dunks from positions they shouldn’t physically be able to. There also doesn’t seem to be enough off-the-ball movement; but that seems to be the case with all Sega basketball games. College basketball is all about motion, and players stand around far too much in “ESPN”.
From the arenas to the crowd and players, the graphics are of good quality. Last year, “College Basketball 2k3” had accurate arenas for the majority of the top college basketball teams; like Duke and Indiana. This year, “ESPN” has greatly added to that number. “ESPN” has also corrected all of the mistakes from the previous year; such as North Carolina’s center court emblem, and they’ve added completely accurate arenas to smaller schools like George Washington and Dayton. The player models are as good as last year’s game and the best of any college basketball game available.
Sega brought in real ESPN commentators this year instead of voice actors. Mike Patrick does the play-by-play and Jay Bilas is the color commentator. They do a solid job for a team that is in its first year. Mike Patrick is a great play-by-play man and he continues to do great work in this game. The color work is what will make or break a game’s commentary, and Jay Bilas’ color commentary is average at best. The majority of his statements are long-winded and out of place. Jay will often discuss the benefits of the “box and one” defense when both teams are in man-to-man defense. Sega needs to work on making sure the commentary matches with what is actually occurring on the court.
The college atmosphere of this game is fantastic. Team-specific crowd chants and fight songs are included in the game, and you’ll hear them a lot. The crowd reacts intelligently to certain parts of the game and cheers loudly when big plays happen. However, during certain parts of the game, the band will begin playing the home team’s fight song and will continue playing for minutes at a time. This tends to drown out the crowd, and can become annoying.
“ESPN College Hoops” is the best college basketball game this year on any system. The game does so many things right that many of the negatives get pushed to the back. This is a game you’ll be playing well after the college basketball season comes to an end.