College Hoops 2K8
Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: November 19, 2007
College sports are often considered tantamount to the minor leagues of their professional counterparts: relatively inexperienced but pro-talented players alongside competent, even skilled, young athletes who shall look back with fondness on their sports days but will, with their academic degrees, leave college and start careers in accounting, sales, medicine and the like. The closest they'll ever get to the big leagues are the occasional front-row seats at local pro games. In the minds of some fans, with some reason, NCAA sports are watered-down professional athletics with quirky rules instead of just being college basketball. The chances of taking a spot in the NBA are almost inarguably poorer than any other professional sport, yet still college players of all skill levels play with great passion. Among NCAA basketball devotees, College Hoops 2K8 transcends mere athletics — for some, dangerously dancing with obsession, others qualifying at least as far more a true pastime than an expendable weekend distraction.
There are almost 400 NCAA Division I basketball teams. Four hundred, ranging from tiny provincial schools with half, less, the enrollment of neighborhood suburban high schools, to the mega-squads of the annual top performing, city-sized universities — the NCAA's version of bona fide NBA teams. Four hundred auditoriums, most of them plain, old gymnasiums. About 1,200 coaches. Couple of thousand cheerleaders. Although NCAA basketball is unique — for example, far more reliant upon cohesive team execution of plays over highlight-reel performances by superstars — the technical business of simulating college ball mechanics is very similar to that of the NBA in developing sports video games. But recreating the near-mythical environment of college basketball makes designing an NBA title stem to stern seems a walk in the park by comparison. NCAA ball is thick with Americana, perhaps with all the bad and good implied, but it is a uniquely American experience, and a difficult task to reproduce it in a video game.
If you set out to play 2K Sports' College Hoops 2K8 with press-poll faves North Carolina, Georgetown, UNLV, even, perhaps, Villanova or Gonzaga, you're probably looking for an NBA-flavored basketball game, and you'll likely be overall disappointed, with this or any other NCAA title. It's not because Hoops doesn't do basketball well, but because at that level of NCAA play, you're missing almost all of what 2K Sports has tossed in for the college ball experience. Ultimately, Hoops is about playing as the small, no-name teams from schools no one recognizes beyond a couple hundred miles of two-line highway. With little forethought, when I started Hoops, I went straight for Georgetown and had a nice time with a good basketball title. However soon I switched to boosting the Wofford Terriers — that's right:
Terriers — and play not only a fine example of a sports simulation, but also recapture one of the most sublime personal experiences of my childhood.
This is where the Hoops franchise excels: in creating the magic — cliché, maybe, but true in this case — of small-change college athletics, reminding sports fans of days when the games were not virtually consumed with financing the whole school via powerhouse programs, players skirting endorsement rules to become rich before they'd earned a dime as pro athletes, and freshman running straight for the NBA draft hardly out of their first years. (Portland Trailblazer Greg Oden, late of, and briefly of, Ohio State, serves as this year's Hoops cover athlete, which is almost thigh-slapping funny, as he left the school squad after his first year, entered the NBA draft to be chosen first round, and he's not played NCAA ball all season. But Oden is a novel talent, likely wise to maximize his years in what is indeed a rough sport. But few basketball players, few even of the game's stars, are Oden-caliber athletes.)
Playing around the circuit in Hoops you'll immediately notice emphasis on art direction in the games graphical graphical environments. From aging, low-budget gyms with a high school ambience to major university arenas rivaling those professional auditoriums costing hundreds of millions of dollars — by the way, those university athletics centers rival big-money pro arenas because they too cost hundreds of millions of dollars — replicating the structures in exact detail, or merely in feel and sensibility, is perhaps Hoops 2K8's most immersive feature. Character models are generic, as they must be for any developer of college sports titles, as NCAA licensing rules forbid recreating the likenesses of real players. The fans in the stands are well done, too, although at first something about them may strike you as odd. That's because you'll notice them. Animating crowds in sports titles is nothing new, but, moving about or not, they tend to fade like wallpaper; in large blocks, the fans tend to perform the same animations all at once, effectively obscuring them. In Hoops, though there are a limited number of crowd animations, they're well spread throughout the audience; save intentional behaviors — say, jumping to their feet in response to on-court action — rows of co-eds cheering on their home squads don't do it all in the same manner at the exact same time.
Hoops 2K8 makes excellent use of its Dolby Digital sound feature, should your gaming environment support it: large arenas with vertigo-inducing ceiling heights sound fairly cavernous; the smaller venues resound with discordant college-kid chatter, as you'd expect. Commentary is stand sports-games commentary: it's sufficient, it's often redundant, it occasionally rolls out an inaccurate spiel as some last-minute, player-generated action is excluded from the spoken account; but it's far from the worst commentary in this year's sports titles — I'm afraid the otherwise quite good Madden 08 pro football titles takes that award, with good radio commentary, but only radio commentary television-style presentation of NFL football games. I'm usually disappointed in 2K Sports' music soundtracks, even considering that in sports titles bad soundtracks are hardly title-crippling features; however, Hoops 2K8 provides a nice mix of danceable hip-hop numbers, hard-rock tracks and songs of pop angst traditionally called alternative but now likely lumped, often inaccurately, under the emo label. Also included, delightfully, are some of the finer traditional fights songs of large schools — over this even Sousa would cheer. Be sure and use the music options to assign those tracks to the game's playlist, as by default they are excluded.
This year's Hoops control scheme remains much the same as previous years, with the "shot stick" on right analog stick, easily accessible controls for sprinting, blocking, etc. Some minor changes have been made to accommodate new features, but the overall control scheme is very easy to learn, though mastery, especially of the worthwhile "shot stick," will require some practice.
Hoops 2K8 includes several enhancements to the franchise. With the goal of recreating a realistic college basketball experience foremost in mind, perhaps the most suitable is the "6th Man Advantage." It's a simple element, basically a team-wide confidence meter filled for the home team — or for both teams when playing tournaments in neutral venues — by crowd response to on-court play. It's simple, but it appropriately affects team performance by the enthusiasm of excitable yet often mercurial college students attending their teams' games.
Also included are "Lock-On D," hard-driving man-to-man coverage, and "Playvision," a scheme for teaching via unobtrusive diagrams casual gamers how to play the game well on offense. Those unfamiliar with the more technical aspects of college ball, or basketball in general, may find this invaluable for a quick start. For learning more and honing those skills, there's a training challenge; and, exclusive to Xbox Live, 2K Sports presents the "Pontiac Virtual NCAA Final 4," which is exactly as it sounds. Rather than take a trophy, the winner takes a trip to San Antonio, Texas, for this year's real NCAA Final Four event.
2K Sports has also this year added into Hoops the eponymous "2K Share," a system for uploading and sharing custom, gamer-designed plays, specially created team rosters, various elements of game options stored in settings files and even team chants. Frankly, sharing and checking out player-created chants is by far the most fun. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that with all of this exceptional college basketball for playing in Hoops 2K8, I spent better than an hour one morning refining the perfect chant for my humble Wofford Terriers. Still, therein lies the special qualities of this year's Hoops titles. Sharing various specialized configurations via online gaming is quite clearly the way top-tier sports are going; by including "2K Share" this year, Hoops, though not purely innovating here, is well keeping up with the competition.
In past years, the Hoops franchise has been criticized for in-game AI behavior that plays.… Well, it doesn't play like an NBA title. Flubbed ball-handling, poor execution of play assignments by individual athletes, officials missing a few calls here and there — but in a college sports title, what are so-called AI mistakes, and what are merely the ways the dominoes fall? The effect of various in-game factors on a play each time it's run? No AI behavior in Hoops 2K8 near qualifies as bizarre or irrational. As for officiating, in sports, referees miss calls, likely the number one cause across the world of profane screaming at televisions sets. As an older teen, I spent a couple of springtimes officiating for youth soccer matches. All sports fans should do this sort of thing once in their lives. Try booking a smug, 10-year-old brat and see how much parental adulation you earn. (The boy was, for a long time, quite intentionally kicking hell out of every ball-handler he attacked; of course I should have straightaway ejected him, but I didn't want the team's entourage of fathers beheading me on the spot.) The point is: officiating is not easy, certainly not as easy it may seem. In basketball, for example, lane violations are often subjective judgment calls. Save a lunatic, eagle-eyed official I constantly ran up against while playing on my junior high basketball squad, this guy pegged me for a rampant lane offender the moment he first laid eyes on me. Lane violations are frequently missed at all levels of the sport, without anyone even noticing. Should a basketball simulation be any different? Besides, you'll eventually need to blame someone other than yourself for that one- or two-point loss right at the buzzer.
Hoops 2K8 is a technically competent basketball simulation outfitted with years' worth of features and created by a development team with an obvious passion for NCAA ball. If you're looking for an NBA simulation, that's absolutely what you should play, but if you are indeed a college fan, or outright fanatic, and you're after the whole NCAA experience — from my faithful Terriers to the regularly raging champions of Duke and Michigan State — Hoops is surely this year's top pick in basketball video games.