Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: October 7, 2008
Normally, fall isn't the time of year when one thinks about basketball. Baseball season is winding down, with the World Series getting ready to crown a new champion, and football is in full swing, with collegiate and NFL fans living and dying on every down. But this is the time when 2K Sports has decided to grace us with their latest NBA offering, and for the hardcore, it's the game of your dreams. For everyone else, there's a great game here, but the price of admission is incredibly steep.
One thing that must be said right off the bat is that NBA 2K9 absolutely nails the presentation of an actual professional basketball game. The camera angles, lighting and television-style transitions all really suck you into the game and make you feel like you're right in the heat of the action. Even the crowd, which is usually a sore spot in sports games, comes to life here and creates an electric atmosphere in the arena. When the home team is performing well, the fans will get loud and raucous, even joining in on thundering chants of "DEE-FENSE." But if the visiting team nails a big shot or starts to rally, the crowd will go flat, and you can really feel the arenas deflating. It's a subtle touch, but it personifies what it feels like to be involved in a professional sporting event.
As slick as the cameras and as rowdy as the fans, they still can't steal the thunder away from the real stars of the show, the NBA players who grace the court. The character models look great, and some of the sport's biggest stars are showcased with near-identical digital doppelgangers. Furthermore, the way the characters act is perfectly in sync with what you would expect to see either live or on television, with defenders squeezing their way past screens, and ballhandlers cutting gracefully in and out of traffic in search of the open shot. In many ways, the NBA is like a ballet, albeit a much more physical and demanding one, and NBA 2K9 captures that spirit exceptionally well.
Rounding out this devotion to perfection is a great commentary team composed of Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Cheryl Miller. Kevin and Clark handle the booth work, while Cheryl chips in from the sidelines. Harlan provides concise, enthusiastic play-by-play, and Kellogg is always ready to jump in with some insightful color commentary. Even better, the team will take a moment during natural breaks in the action, such as during a timeout or when a player is heading to the free throw line, to revisit some highlights and dissect how well a particular player is doing. In essence, their chatter acts as the cherry on this very pretty sundae, leading to believe that if you didn't know any better, you'd swear you had just flipped the TV to an actual NBA game on a station like TNT or ESPN.
As for the gameplay in NBA 2K9, you have to understand that this is a sim game through and through. The franchise mode (dubbed The Association 2.0), is full of nuance and minutiae, and it's likely you'll spend more time running off-court matters than you do actually schooling opposing teams. Between games, there is a barrage of items to manage, such as scouting, trade offers, player drills and morale issues, and they all need your attention right now. Obviously, you can pass off a lot of these duties on computerized assistant coaches, but if you ever wanted to get knee-deep in what it's like to run an NBA team, this is the game that will teach you. Take trades, for instance. It's no longer a matter of simply picking players and trying to make a deal; now there are a litany of other issues that may crop up during the arrangement. For example, some players won't waive their no-trade clause if they're happy on their current team and don't wish to go elsewhere. Also, there are other factors to consider such as the "Larry Bird Rules" for free agents that mean you may never be able to woo away a player like LeBron James from Cleveland, no matter what your offer. No doubt hardcore NBA fans will love this attention to detail, but mainstream and casual gamers are going to get lost almost instantly.
This difficulty translates onto the court as well, due to NBA 2K9 sporting one of the most complicated and confusing control schemes I have ever seen. I've called game controls confusing before and for that I apologize, because this tangled mess is so intractable that I honestly believe it would take months of practice and a superhuman amount of patience to fully understand how to work this game. The manual features nine pages of instructions on controls (literally over half the content in the game manual is just how to play), and even then it refers you to a Web site in order to get the "full" set of instructions. I'm sorry, but if you've already asked me to read through nine pages of button combos and then ask me to consult a Web site to get even more, I'm afraid you've already lost me, and a large chunk of the audience as well. There's honestly way too much going on, and 2K may want to seriously consider paring it back in future versions of the game for fear of killing the franchise's popularity by turning it into a game no one can play.
Aside from the game's overly complex nature, it really does have a lot going for it, as a couple of neat features promise to keep the entertainment coming for a long time. First up, Blacktop mode is back this year, which sort of serves as a collection of things to do for the less hardcore players. Players take to New York's famed Rucker Park for 3-Point Shootouts and Dunk Contests, as well as quick pickup games and old-school bouts of 21. Also, if you ever tire of trying to outwit the game's very formidable AI, you can hop online and jump into a game of true 5-on-5 ball, with human players controlling each character on the court. These matchups can be a lot of fun, with players fighting to get open, work the ball and take the open shot against other, fallible players instead of the seemingly strategically perfect AI.
Finally, 2K9 is promising a very unique feature this year: "Living Rosters." This new program will keep track of an amazing number of NBA stats, from rosters and trades to hot streaks and injuries. Even better, anyone who's connected online will receive Living Roster updates automatically, so you'll always feel as though you're living through a real NBA season. If Tony Parker goes on a scoring tear or Steve Nash is sidelined with an injury, these changes will be reflected in your game. Since the NBA season hasn't actually started yet, we've yet to see this system truly in action, but if it lives up to its billing, then we're in for quite a dynamic game experience as the year rolls on.
The main thing to take away from NBA 2K9 is that this is a game designed and built for hardcore fans, and it's not going to waste any time concerning itself with anyone who doesn't "get it." To be perfectly blunt, the game is very, very hard, and most decidedly not for everyone, especially if you aren't an NBA superfan or a longtime franchise devotee. Those willing to put in the time and effort to learn the game are going to absolutely adore it, but anyone who is looking for a title that will allow you to easily jump into a game of basketball is going to be frustrated. The bottom line is that NBA 2K9 is a beautiful, deep, staggering game, but its high walls bar entry for all but the most fanatical fans.
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