The new college try.
While the NBA has enforced a mandatory dress policy
to reel in the thuggish look of its players, college basketball has maintained a downy, innocent appeal, holding fast to the traditions of fair play and teamwork that has always been at the heart of basketball.
Or maybe not.
Still, any true college hoops fan will yell until the face paint runs into his frenzied eyes that the college game is not just different, but better than the NBA. The players have more pride in their school, more tenacity in their defense, and much less legal tender. It's difficult to say who, exactly, the college purists are arguing against, but they would be plenty mad at College Hoops 2K6, a bachelor degree version of NBA 2K6. The gameplay is pretty much identical, except it uses halves instead of quarters. Oh, and the cheerleaders are less sultry.
The big innovation this year is the "shot stick." No longer used as the clunky "Isomotion" juke control, the right thumbstick is now the shoot button. Pulling it back and releasing takes a jump shot. Pushing it forward shoots a lay-up or a runner. Pushing it to either side will initiate a turn-around jumper or a left or right-handed lay-up. When it works well, it gives you a lot of welcome offensive options. Still, it wasn't a perfect science in NBA 2K6 and it isn't any better for the tuition at the college level.
Despite the improved control over which kind of shot you take, it is still strangely difficult to get your 6'10'' center to power up for a dunk in traffic instead of prancing around like a prissy lay-up fairy. It's also not clear when you are supposed to release the shot stick during certain shot types. Do you let go of the stick at the beginning of the turn-around jump shot, at the very end, or at some vague moment in between? Since your performance with the stick seems to have a big impact on the algorithm deciding whether or not you score, its lack of consistency can be a bit frustrating.
As is playing defense, in which you are unaided by the ingenious lockdown stick in EA's most recent March Madness. Your defenders seem powerless to stop drives, and guarding the ball-handler feels like manipulating a weightless, jittery cursor. Trust me, run zones.
The prime selling-point for College Hoops 2K6 is its focus on coaching. In the new College mode, you get to coach your team from the sideline, making substitutions and calling out plays and presses. It's meant to mimic real coaching, but there is no "argue the call" button, or "throw your chair" button, or even a "throttle your shooting guard" button. Bobby Knight will hate this game.
And unlike the fiery Texas tyrant, Coaching mode is thoroughly boring. It pretty much boils down to you watching the computer play with itself, occasionally making little tweaks, like substitutions, which you were always able to do anyway. What's next? A "Fan" mode where you get to watch the games, press A for cheer, press B for boo, or press Y to flash your man-boobs? Once you take player control out of the equation, the possibilities are endless, unlike my patience.
To be fair, this new emphasis on coaching isn't all bad. In the new Legacy mode, the usual multi-year Dynasty is reconfigured to focus on your rise from Cinderella coach to Final Four mastermind. When you begin, you are a C/C- level coach forced to select from a group of small, equally bad schools. As you complete seasons, you recruit and play your way to new and better jobs, hiring better assistants and developing your own coaching skills. This rags-to-riches storyline makes sure that you lose a few games, learn more about the glory of Division II basketball, and play a ton of seasons before you win a championship.
It's a good idea and works well enough on the play level, but is a little dry. That's because, as coach, you will have to do all of the recruiting associated with your job, meaning a lot of shuffling between menus filled with numbers. Seriously, this game has more digits than a phone number in Mongolia. Is it just me, or is a rating for an "Intangibles" grade laughably paradoxical?
Also, the recruiting process is needlessly complicated. You can choose specific actions like visiting the recruit or calling him at home…every single day of the recruiting season. Somehow, e-mailing a recruit every day actually increases his interest in the school. I always thought there was a fine line between "recruiting" and "spamming." Speaking of which, your coach's e-mail box will sometimes also fill up with spam, which you can read if you want. Don't ask me why. Spam doesn't listen to reason. And even when you get your top recruit's interest to 100%, he might still go to a different school. 100% seems pretty high.
Other modes include Tournament, Rivalry, and a number of Practice drills. The practice drills are actually very deep thanks to little mini-games like "knockout" and "monkey in the middle." It's a nice feature, and including these drills in the recruiting camps where you can try out high school recruits is also pretty neat.
For all the peripherals, the bulk of the game will be won or lost on the court. The games, in general, are a lot more exciting than what the EA college game offers. The computer A.I. is smart: breaking presses, exploiting weaknesses, and double-teaming your star player. There are not as many exploitative plays or controls to guarantee points or turnovers, so you're actually forced to play a dynamic and balanced game. Not all of the outcomes are nail-biters, but the computer is a good match-up for the human brain.
But while the computer plays the game well, it doesn't always look good doing it. Visually the game is bumpy, and often will hitch noticeably as the game loads the "replay" reel. Since dunks are regularly replayed, almost all of them hitch just as the player gets to the rim. It kills the mood.
The players look passably decent, even if their noses are just a little too Michael Jackson pointy. Offensive animations look pretty good, especially when a player shot-fakes, pivots one way then the other, and finishes with a fade-away jump shot. The defensive side of the court looks lame in comparison, as players stand around idly and occasionally swat at the ball, which is about the only useful defensive button.
Though the Xbox is bit brighter and features shorter loading times, the two versions look and play identically. Both versions also have decent online play, although an elaborate "feedback" menu after every game is cumbersome and often abused.
Pitting 2K's college game against EA's is a close call, but ultimately I suppose that this game's better price and A.I. give it the edge. Someone needs to fire the coach before it's guaranteed a tourney berth, though.