Monday, January 23, 2006

Total College Basketball Review

Total College Basketball, developed by Wolverine Studios and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Realistic results (both simmed and played), animated games, RPG elements, multiplayer compatible, thought out off-season
The Not So Good: Could have more in-game coaching options, no tutorial or checklist of duties to help new players
What say you? An enjoyable and (gasp!) fun management simulation: 7/8

Because of the stranglehold that the evil empire has on all things sports, fresh, new ideas in sports games must come in management form using generic teams. Luckily, there are lots of text-based simulations out there that are actually quite good, if you enjoy running the team more than playing as the team. The latest entry into the fray is Total College Basketball, developed by Gary Gorski of Total Pro Basketball fame. Total College Basketball puts you in a coach’s shoes, guiding a program down the path of glory, or at least not finishing last in your conference. I recently reviewed Bowl Bound College Football (published by the same company), a similar program that dealt with the gridiron side of collegiate athletic competition, so I’ll be making some comparisons against that product while we trudge along the Road to the Final Four (insert theme music).

Being a management simulation, Total College Basketball is primarily text-based, featuring spreadsheets of data arranged by icons. The user interface is OK; sometimes it takes more clicks than needed to access certain important parts of the game, but overall the design is well done. It’s really you’re personal preference whether you like things arranged this way, with more submenus, or where everything is on the main page, which tends to be confusing for new players. I do like the way the game portrays games, with a simple overhead view with icons representing each player moving around the court. This is a grand improvement over Bowl Bound College Football, where the plays and visual action never seemed to match up right. In Total College Basketball, I believe the results of each play because I can clearly see the action take place; this goes a long way in presenting a credible outcome at the end of the game. Sure, the players still miss baskets, but now I can see it’s because my dumbass center launched a three point shot while being double-teamed. Total College Basketball has removed the guesswork in coming up with effective strategy, as you can see if your defense has holes and is leaving key players wide open for shots.

At first I thought there was no sound in the game, but I was proved wrong; the sound is just off by default. The whole "audio" folder in the game should have tipped me off, eh? They are all appropriate for the game, including crowd reactions, chants, and some pretty silly effects for foul shots. They are meant to be used with the default game speed (which is really slow), and I really just turned them off after a while, as they don't flow well together and seem kind of hastily thrown together. You can record player and team specific audio yourself and have it used in the game; that is pretty cool. Because of this, the audio in the game screams "mod" or some kind of community enhancement, which is always a good thing.

Total College Basketball has some RPG elements in the game; you start the game as an unhired coach, and pick your school based on the ratings you give yourself. You can “cheat” and rate yourself high initially so that you can coach at the good schools, or play out your career starting at a small school and working your way up. There is a great emphasis in the game on you, not the team you are coaching, and you’re really expected to upgrade to better schools as the years tick along. I really like this idea, and it’s not really seen in many other management games, where you pick a team instead of an alter ego. Assuming you download the MOD (and you should), you coach for one of the 3,821 Division I-A college basketball programs in these United States (that’s hyperbole, or exaggeration for comic effect: there are actually 7,396 Division I-A programs), and each school has different short-term goals depending on their prestige (the University of North Florida, for example, wants to not finish last in their conference). Total College Basketball is also friendly to the multiplayer league, making it easy to set up real human players who will duke it out for supremacy in the college ranks. In fact, there is already a league accepting coaches so that you can try out some human competition.

Interestingly, you don’t start out at the beginning of the season, but the beginning of recruiting during the hot summer months. Recruiting is delightful but the game doesn’t really provide any guidance indicating that you’re doing well. You select from a list of over 1500 athletes and set options to call them each week, visit them, have them visit you, watch game tape, and eventually offer a scholarship. You can also subscribe to several scouting services to get more information on potential candidates. The problem is that I’m not sure what caliber of player you should be searching for based on your school. Top 50? Top 200? Top 500? You can filter the results according to those players who are initially interested in your school just by word of mouth that helps in determining the players you should shoot for, but players you could actually get may not be initially interested, and you don’t really know that until you waste time on recruiting them. The smaller schools usually have a handful of players (usually around 20) that are interested, but the bigger schools (those with the highest prestige) can have EVERYONE at least slightly interested in playing for that program. This actually makes recruiting for the top schools more difficult, as there are quite a number of candidates to weed through. The smaller schools must be content to find players from the small stack they are provided with or venture for better players at the risk of wasting a lot of time, money, and mouse clicks. Overall, you need to find interested players who are adept at your offensive and defensive schemes and concentrate on them, rather than spending time on players who would never consider going to your school.

There are copious options coming up with a gameplan, and this is one of the two most important aspects of the game (the other being recruiting, and I just talked about that: pay attention!). You can set your depth chart, substitution times, and offensive and defensive plays. Each play comes with a description of what it works well against, although it’s not a concrete countering model like in some real time strategy games (like archers kill horses). Once you decide what’s good for your personnel, you adjust your practice time to the plays you intend to run during the games. The game provides short e-mail messages covering the tendencies of the opponent so that you can customize your approach to the upcoming games. Total College Basketball does not have an “overall” rating for each player (like some other games) that makes it cut-and-dry dealing with who are the best starters. The game rates players in fifteen different areas including passing, defensive ability, court intelligence, and drawing fouls. Each player is also more proficient at certain kinds of offense and defense, and using the plays that best suits your team will result in better outcomes.

The third aspect of the game is coaching during games, and this is probably the least developed part of the game. I would like to see more specific options during the game; as it stands, your teams runs the plays you specified, but other than subs and a set play after timeouts, you don’t have much input into the game. There are some special commands you can give, but these are only useful at the end of the game (such as intentional fouls, taking the last shot, or shooting threes). I’d like to see more directions that you can give to your players, such as indicating which players should take shots and which should concentrate on moving the ball around. Player performance is most directly tied to their ratings, so recruiting takes a much more prominent role in Total College Basketball than coaching during game situations. This may disappoint some users who rather “coach ‘em up” than be a stellar recruiter. Also, you can only call specific plays (pick and rolls, isolations, or threes) after a timeout; I’m sure that coaches can relay to get the ball to a certain player during a real game by shouting, but Total College Basketball doesn’t have that option (although I’ve shouted at the screen, but to no avail). At first I thought there was greatly exaggerated home court advantage (my first season I began 10-0 at home and 0-6 on the road) but I recanted my feelings after playing the game more; it seems to be pretty realistic especially considering some recent results.

Total College Basketball is one of the best management games that I’ve come across. It is quite entertaining (unlike some management games) and comes with multiplayer support, robust recruiting and game planning, and coaching options. Most of the bad things I’ve mentioned in this review are nit picking, as the overall game is quite excellent. I should mention that there are some semi-random, non-repeatable bugs that have cropped up while playing this game, but it seems like the developer is working hard on fixing them; it is frustrating for the game to crash just after you’ve beaten a top 25 team, but it’s not too rampant as to retract approval for the game. A patch was released recently that addresses a lot of the problems. It should be noted that I don’t even like basketball, but I found playing the game almost exciting (or as exciting as watching squares move around a court can be) and certainly better than some management games featuring more interesting sports that I’ve played. There are a couple of areas that could be more fleshed out to make this game really great, but as long as you enjoy running a team more than moving the players with a gamepad, Total College Basketball is a great addition to your library.