E-S-P-N, Fight, Fight, Fight!
Unlike the pro game, which has seen only 6 different teams win the championship in the past 20 years, the college national title always seems up for grabs. We all know Duke and Kansas and North Carolina will make the tourney, but who the hell knows which one will emerge the winner?
Luckily, things aren't as unclear when it comes to college basketball games. 989's NCAA Final Four 2004 is uglier than a Jerry Tarkanian bobblehead and EA's perennial champ March Madness 2004 isn't as good as it should be, leaving a nice fat lane to the basket for ESPN College Hoops. Despite not having the history of those two other franchises, its fantastic depth and solid looks make for a unanimous champ, though the road to glory still has plenty of bumps.
But you couldn't ask for a much smoother presentation. The front-end and menu systems are decked out in full ESPN flavor and look good, but things really cook when you get out on the court. The framerate is solid, the character models are varied, and the animations are plentiful. Admittedly it's a little hard to get used to watching players just stand around after EA's great 10-man motion capture in March Madness, but overall the visuals here are much better. A great variety of low-post moves and slick dunk and layup animations give it a realistic touch, and while the crowds are cheap sprites up close, they look right at a distance.
The audio is actually not bad, featuring the decent announcing team of Mike Patrick and Jay Bilas. They talk a lot and often what they say is insightful, though they also get it wrong half the time. No guys, that guard isn't really a defensive stopper just because he made one steal when I was up by 40. I don't know if developers will ever get announcing right.
The gameplay is closely patterned after ESPN NBA Basketball, just as March Madness was Live in a dorm room. This is made most apparent in the "enhanced' IsoMotion freestyle moves. It's been tweaked a bit since ESPN NBA, but feels much the same. Animations take too long and stringing together useful jukes is awkward at best, but thanks to counter-moves on the defensive end, it can still be a good, tense cat-and-mouse affair.
You won't use IsoMotion much, though, because it's surprisingly easy to score. Players nail jumpers even with a hand or two right in their mug, and are often more accurate at 15 feet than at 5. The game could seriously use EA's separate shot and layup buttons, because post players have an irritating tendency to take dumb jump shots instead of just throwing down monster dunks while under the basket. And while the dunks and layups do look very good, players occasionally try needlessly complex dipsy-doo trick shots instead of taking the simpler route, which can result in blocked shots as they twirl the ball behind their back for no good reason.
If you need to clear some space, ESPN College Hoops does contain plenty of offensive and defensive sets. You'll notice the CPU using these as well, especially on the defensive end. At the highest difficulty setting (there are three), it can very tough getting through the lane, as it should be.
What shouldn't be is the rebounding problem. Basketball games have been fighting with this forever, and sadly ESPN College Hoops doesn't offer any solutions. Opposing teams will routinely nab offensive rebounds out of thin air while you flail like a maniac under the basket. It doesn't matter much if you box out or not " expect to give up more than a few easy boards.
Thankfully, you can tweak this and just about everything else with the in-game sliders, and if you want an authentic experience, you will.
ESPN College Hoops gives you a ton of bang for the buck, that's for sure. In addition to basic Exhibition, Practice, Tournament and Season modes, you can actually try out a Slam Dunk Challenge. It's not quite as cool as it sounds, though, making you press a series of buttons for each dunk. The system doesn't work very well since you really don't get much time to pull it off, and even if you do it just doesn't feel very rewarding. Something more hands-on and kinetic would have made this much better, but hey, hats off for trying.
But the main game is found in Legacy mode, which is the best on the market. You can build a dynasty using any Division I team (they're all here) or one of your own design by way of the robust Team Creator, which allows you to tweak mascots, colors, court elements and even cheerleader outfits. You'll need to hire and fire assistant coaches, who actually provide useful info and can help make recruiting go more smoothly. The recruitment is top-notch, featuring scores of high-schoolers and a handy national map telling you which kinds of ballers come from which regions. Though it doesn't seem to make much of a difference whether or not you go after a guy from your home state, it's still very deep. You can scout, invite them to a home game and even send an assistant to one of their games, which you can then manually play. Way cool.
Rounding it out is a great interface, complete with an intuitive e-mail setup to help you manage all your duties. If you're into hardcore NCAA basketball simulation and management, it doesn't get any better.
There's a plethora of virtual goodies to unlock, including fantasy courts and all-time teams ("69 UCLA, baby!), found in a new Campus Store. There's just a ton of junk under the hood.
And for both Xbox and PS2 users, ESPN College Hoops is playable online. Matching is easy and the game works, though it doesn't seem to be very crowded as of this writing. This is a boon for Xbox users who didn't get any online play in March Madness.
It isn't a perfect game by any stretch due to some glaring issues with the rebounding and control, but ESPN College Hoops is still the best NCAA game out there right now. It looks better than March Madness and the great Legacy mode is unrivaled. Not bad for a freshman.