Thursday, March 20, 2008

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball Review

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, developed and published by Wolverine Studios.
The Good: Improved interface puts more information on one screen, enhanced player relationships and communication both on and off the court, play editor, better game day graphics, dirty tactics available for recruiting, even more historical stats
The Not So Good: Essentially no autosaving, hokey sound effects, needs more positive player interactions, more default plays would be nice, interested recruits need to be really interested
What say you? A deep sports management game gets needed upgrades in key areas: 7/8

It’s that time of the year again: when your carefully crafted brackets go down in flames (except for mine, of course). Yes, we are in the midst of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, where sixty-five teams vie for ultimate supremacy. Of course, I know I could do a better job than any of those highly paid coaches in reaching the Final Four, and that’s why we have Draft Day Sports: College Basketball. In this sequel to personal favorite Total College Basketball, you take the helm as the head coach of any of the 337 Division I-A schools. While Total College Basketball was a quality product, there is always room for improvement and enhancement; will Draft Day Sports: College Basketball expand upon the original enough to make us go back to the court?

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball looks like Total College Basketball got two additional years of work, which is essentially what happened. While this game is a management title, so you won’t be expecting enhanced 3-D graphics with realistic sweat dripping off the players, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball does feature some nice touches for the genre. The actual games have been improved upon, featuring more detailed player icons that are sized according to the player attributes. Also new is a health bar to give a good indication of exhausted athletes. The court can now take up the entire screen, provide more detail than the more simplified version present in Total College Basketball. The other main area of improvement has to do with the user interface: the developers have put more information on a single screen, taking advantage of higher resolutions and using the extra room to reduce the amount of page switching from the previous title. One of the problems with Total College Basketball was that you had to scour several different pages to do simple actions (especially during recruiting); this is greatly alleviated in Draft Day Sports: College Basketball. This game is much easier to handle and I’ll never go back to the “old” interface. As for the sound, it is not very good. There are only very basic effects during games, and they are very repetitive. While the ambiance is good, the whistles and crowd reactions all use the same sound over and over again, making the games much less realistic. Also, the opening theme music is an amateurish college band theme that is annoying the first time you hear it (the horns are not in sync with the rest of the band). It would be nice to customize which ones to use rather then turning them all on or off, since some of the sounds are useful during games, but the effects are very repetitive and the theme music is downright annoying. It’s an all-or-nothing affair with the single sound option. The sound notwithstanding, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball features an appropriate level of upgrades in terms of presentation from the original game.

Since Draft Day Sports: College Basketball shares a lot of similarities with Total College Basketball, you should familiarize yourself with that review first (there will be a quiz on it later) since I will mostly talk about the improvements (or lack thereof) present in this iteration. Creating a new single player or multiplayer game (yeah, online leagues) is generally the same, although there are a couple of new options available. You can now enable illegal recruiting: offering bribes to low-income recruits may reel them in, but repercussions (like getting fired) may be felt down the road. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you the options to create pretty much any league you would like: importing roster files, allowing for conference team movement, limiting the ratings you are able to access to make success more realistic (and difficult), and allowing underclassmen to declare for the pro draft. Speaking of the pro draft, you can export a draft class to use in the professional version of this game (coincidentally titled Draft Day Sports: Pro Basketball). Draft Day Sports: College Basketball features fictitious teams, but you can download real teams that users have made. It should also be noted that Draft Day Sports: College Basketball doesn't include the CBI, but nobody cares about that third-tier tournament anyway. Your coaching avatar can be assigned levels of ambition, academics, discipline, and integrity. You can also customize your skill ratings (offense, defense, recruiting, scouting, developing), or choose a level of proficiency (from low-level coach to elite) and randomize the distribution. Depending on how good you are, you are then presented with a list of schools you can coach and the game begins. Each school has different goals (from winning ten games to getting a national championship) that are realistic for each situation. You can now create protégés to control after your coach retires/dies, letting you play in the same universe for longer periods of time.

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you a bevy of information in the form of numerous reports and stats. Most of the in-game action can be done through your office. New features include the ability to call recruits and players and the play editor. The level of interaction has been increased: now you can call up any prospective or current player and discuss team priorities, game roles and strategies, academics, and behavior. These options give you more direct control over the course of your program, but not too much control where the element of surprise is removed. Handing down a suspension for behavior or telling a recruit to study more to avoid academic penalties increases your responsibilities and makes playing Draft Day Sports: College Basketball more satisfying. Most of the call options are negative, however, so I would like to have more positive interactions (such as praising a player for winning a weekly award, for example). Also new is the ability to design your own plays. While I have almost no idea how real basketball plays should be run, people more familiar with the X’s and O’s of the hard court should be able to take advantage of this new tool that seems to work well. Because of my novice experience in this area, I would have liked the developers to include some plays beyond the basic ones that were also included in Total College Basketball. The rest of the office options let you check out the upcoming games, see the current news (which includes polls and bubble team reports), pre-season magazines, receive pertinent e-mail, and check out any previous games. One option I would like to have is to automatically save your progress at the beginning of each week. You game is auto-saved only twice during the year, and I would like the choice to increase this frequency, since the occasional crash can serious hamper your day if it happens right after you beat a top 25 team and right before you save.

The first thing you’ll be doing is recruiting, and the interface has been greatly improved. Instead of having to switch between five displays (how annoying that was), everything is on one master screen. You can also scroll through the recruits with the keyboard and quickly put them on your call list with a simply hot-key. While Draft Day Sports: College Basketball should save recruiting display settings from the last time you used the screen (do I really have to select “national” players that are “on call list” every single week?), the interface is so much better this time around and I don’t dread the nuances of recruiting anymore. I would also like the “interested” option to only include players that have you in their top-10 choices; how it is now requires a lot of work seeing who you have a shot at. In addition, the call options let you plan your pitches when you visit recruits much better. Most of the league options remain the same: see the current standings, statistical leaders, historical stats, and even search through the records. Player information sheets have been upgraded with star ratings, which prove to be very useful in determining the best players on the team (though I would like to be able to sort by them). The remainder of the league and team options are the same as before (great): Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you all of the information and options you need to take your program to the next level.

Actually playing a game has seen some improvements. If you chose to simulate the games, Draft Day Sports: College Basketball does an excellent job quickly generating plausible results with believable statistics (even if you don’t have a fast computer); you don’t have to worry about the AI “screwing it up” if you are not there to directly make game-time decisions. In addition to the improved icons I mentioned earlier, you can now have the court display take up the entire screen or half it with the statistical information. Personally, I like to see the actual numbers for stamina instead of the simple bars under each player, so I normally play with the half-and-half view. The in-game ticker that displays out of town scores makes the games seem more genuine. I still play the game on high speed settings (I find 6 to be slow; I can’t imagine playing at 3 or 1) but 10 is fast enough for getting through boring stretches when you cant’ really do anything. Besides the ability to call plays you have designed in the play editor, you can now motivate individual players or the entire team. The options are basic (scream, concerned, or praise), but they are more than enough to make the game feel more like real coaching. While I certainly like this feature, I would also like to motivate players during media timeouts and not just during the five (ten if you count both teams) team timeouts. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball gives you the strategic options through the play sets, pace, rebounding, and substitutions to tailor your team to your design, and it’s quite fun to guide a program from humble roots to national prominence, and then leave them for a big money contract. Total College Basketball was a quality simulation and Draft Day Sports: College Basketball is even better: the improvements made with two years of additional development alleviate much of the pains associated with the original game and this iteration is definitely recommended for owners of the previous title. Of course, gamers new to the series have no choice as Total College Basketball is no longer available for sale, but no worries as Draft Day Sports: College Basketball delivers a quality basketball coaching experience.

I was initially skeptical of Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, since, on the surface, it appears to be almost identical to Total College Basketball. But, the more you play it, the more the improvements come through and ultimately make for a much more polished and playable game. Putting more features on one screen is a very welcome feature, making the game not annoying to control. The sheer amount of teams makes for high replay value, and online leagues sweeten the deal even more. Giving the coach more direct interaction with players is also nice, letting you suspend problem players and tailor offensive strategies for star players. Draft Day Sports: College Basketball throws even more data at you, but all of the information is accessible and organized well. There are a couple of small areas that could be improved (autosave frequency, positive interactions, more plays) but these issues are so minor that I can’t resist the urge to grant this game the seal of approval. People who don’t like text-based sports management games won’t have their mind changed, but Draft Day Sports: College Basketball is still a great title. If you like college basketball or quality management games, then you can’t go wrong with Draft Day Sports: College Basketball.

Oh yeah, the quiz on the Total College Basketball. OK, take out a sheet of paper and put your name in the upper right-hand corner. Question number one:
The “evil empire” I refer to in the review is:
(a) Electronic Arts
(b) Rosie O’Donnell
(c) FEMA
(d) the ASPCA
Answers are on the back.