Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: October 7, 2008
In a genre dominated by Electronic Arts, it is both refreshing and surprising to see another game series take the crown for best basketball simulation game. Starting with the franchise debut on the Sega Dreamcast, the NBA 2K series has shown gamers how video game basketball can be done and be done well. Everything from graphics to movement to gameplay and sound were responsible for showing off the power of Sega's final console. With the move to the PS2 and Xbox, the series began refining the controls and looking outside of the main game for improvements, adding in and refining franchise modes as well as trying to create a presentation more akin to a real NBA broadcast. The jump to the Xbox 360 and PS3 helped create better graphics while the main game went through more tweaks. NBA 2K7 was considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series, but with average graphics, average AI and no known improvements to be seen, NBA 2K8 was considered by those same people to be a step backward. Fans and critics alike started to wonder if the series was beginning to run out of steam. NBA 2K9 from Visual Concepts and 2K Games shows everyone that the series still has a lot of life left in it. It is by no means a perfect game, but it is by far the best basketball game on the market today.
When you first start NBA 2K9, you'll initially be presented with the chance to quickly enter a game instead of a menu. While veterans will immediately recognize what to do here, newcomers to the series won't realize right away that flicking the right analog stick finally brings up the menu. Doing so will give you a wealth of menu choices, including several for the various game modes. While this will initially put people off, keep in mind that flicking the right analog stick in just about any menu will bring up the main menu for the game, which ends up being a very convenient way to get anywhere you want instead of just backing in and out of menus and quitting games to do so.
NBA Blacktop is where all of the mini-games are located, and they are split up into five sub-categories, all taking place at the famous Rucker Park. The Sprite Dunk Contest is just like the one you see every year at the All-Star Game. Your selected player has to try and outperform every other competitor by trying to do the fanciest and most spectacular dunk possible. Instead of using the standard face buttons to dunk, however, you have to manipulate the right analog stick in various ways to get the job done. It will give you fancy dunks to dish out, but the high difficulty level of stick manipulation means you'll spend plenty of time in Dunk School (also located in the NBA Blacktop section) to practice the art.
The 3 Point Shootout, also part of the All-Star Game festivities, appears here as well. The objective is to sink as many three-point shots as possible from various spots on the court using the right analog stick. It's still difficult if you're not used to right analog control, but it is more manageable than the dunk contest. Pickup Games are simply street rule versions of full NBA games, this time with the choice between a 1v1 game to a 5v5 game. Finally, Game of 21 pits three players against each other to see who can reach 21 points first. Unlike a similar mode found in NBA Ballers, whoever sinks a basket keeps getting a chance to shoot from the free throw line until he misses, giving people a chance to score and start their own free throw streak. The mode is a little slow-paced but enjoyable for those who have played it on playgrounds before.
There are several different main modes to be found outside of Quick Play. Season mode lets you put your selected team through a regular season on a quest to get the NBA Championship at the end. Play-offs discard all of the regular season games and put you in charge of one Playoff Season, where you try to take your selected team all the way to the NBA Championships. Rookie Challenge is actually just the T-Mobile-sponsored Rookie vs. Sophomore All-Star Game before the main All-Star Game. Practice is where you try and learn the nuances of the game's controls as well as put them to use before heading out to the main game. Finally, Situation lets you create your own scenario with which to try and win the game. For example, you can set it up so that your team is behind by 20 points in the fourth quarter with just two minutes to go. It's a good way to recreate big moments from a game, and NBA junkies will go nuts for this feature.
The Association is NBA 2K9's biggest mode, since it is the game's version of Franchise. It plays out much like Season mode, except you can micromanage just about anything you want. Unless you have the CPU take care of some of the tasks for you, you can go through several seasons with a team, hire and fire staff members, and manage the salary cap and budgets. You can also partake in capturing major draft choices and trading your players in hopes of getting a championship-caliber team together. As expected from previous versions, this mode is as deep and detailed as you can get.
The only real problem here is with the interface, which is designed to look like the NBA.com Web site, complete with the season's news links and schedules for your team and the rest of the league. While this makes for an interesting-looking interface, it also makes for a very confusing system through which to navigate. For example, if you wanted to know who the stars of the team are and how their morale is, you have to find a news report about them and hope that the link you choose is the correct one. The same goes for team standings and team stats. For a mode that's already confusing enough with all of the elements one has to manage, it doesn't help that the interface unnecessarily adds to the difficulty.
Like past versions, the Xbox Live portion of NBA 2K9 is top-notch as far as features are concerned. Aside from the standard five-on-five NBA game, you can participate online in the street game version and the dunk contest. You can also go at it alone or team up with several other players and go up against another team with a combination of people over Xbox Live. Just like last year, you can create your own virtual leagues along with every nuance of that league. Even items such as slider settings, custom-made replays (free this time around, not a paid download) and rosters can be shared online with other players.
There are still a few hitches to the online mode, though. For one, while the team-up mode is a great idea for an online game, the camera angle that you're given is very different from the offline game. As a result, players will be disoriented when playing the game, especially since the camera whips around quickly to follow the ball. While the gameplay is smooth when the connection is good, it becomes very poor when the connection starts to go bad, to the point that a few games played for this review were doubled in time because of the experienced glitches and hang-ups. Better handling of bad connections is something that needs to be addressed in next season's game.
(Please note that while much has been made about the Living Roster feature, which updates the rosters in the game on a daily basis, it has not been made a factor in this review since the NBA season has not begun as of this writing. Nevertheless, this is something to keep in mind if you are deciding to play NBA 2K9 at any time during the NBA season.)
The controls remain the same from previous incarnations of the series, which is both a blessing and a curse. Aside from using buttons to perform your moves, you also use the right analog stick for specific actions. On defense, this means trying to block your opponent from making a pass, and on offense, this means taking shots. The right analog stick is a great mechanic for the free throws, since you'll be timing the release based on your shooter's arm movements. Each player varies on how he takes his shots, so this can be difficult to do at first but ultimately rewarding. Outside of that situation, most players will find themselves relying on the right analog stick for shooting when close to the bucket and using the X button to shoot when away from the paint. The element that makes or breaks NBA 2K9 is the deep complexity of the controls. The average player can get by on knowing the basics, though he would be hard-pressed to win by two points against the CPU or win at all. Series veterans and sim addicts will come to love the nuances and will beat the CPU by a decent margin. It's a system that rewards simulation fans, so depending on what kind of sports gamer you are, you'll either love the complexity of it all or not bother with how to do a perfect fadeaway jumper.
Graphically, NBA 2K9 is more than impressive. At first glance, you'll mistake this for a real NBA broadcast. The frame rate is smooth, and the animations are extremely fluid, especially during those transitions where players go from rebounding a ball to making a long pass for a breakaway slam. The illusion is solidified by the pixel-perfect arenas, and the crowds and bench are vibrant when the time is right. Like previous versions, the big-name players, such as Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, all look exactly like their real-life counterparts. This time around, however, a good chunk of the bench players also look like the real deal. Even the coaches got rendered properly this time around, matching the quality of the big players in the game.
With all of this praise heaped on the graphics, though, there are still some areas that need improvement. Halftime, for example, takes place in an empty studio with nothing but a desk and some monitors displaying the NBA and game logos. It's not exactly impressive-looking. While most of the players have instantly recognizable faces, there are still some of the lower-ranked players who aren't rendered very well. Finally, while the frame rate handles itself well during most of the game, it falters anytime the game takes odd angles. It sometimes happens during replays but mostly occurs during free throw moments. Anytime the camera angle changes to where the player is shooting free throws toward the top of the screen, the frame rate chugs along at around 15 frames or so. It's the one big blemish in an area that is almost perfect.
Like the graphics, the sound in NBA 2K9 is a shining example of how to do things right in a sports title. The mix of music is pretty good, although it still leans toward hip-hop with splashes of rock and some funk. While there isn't a more cohesive theme going on like when Dan the Automator took over soundtrack duties in NBA 2K7, you still have a soundtrack that has the vibe you'd expect from the 2K series: songs with solid beats (with the possible exception of the DJ Unk song) that help get the player into a basketball-playing mood.
The commentary from Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Cheryl Miller is some of the best stuff to ever grace a home console. Miller's sideline reports sound exactly like something a coach would say given the game situation, and her lines are delivered as naturally as possible. Harlan and Kellogg's commentaries rarely have instances of noticeable pauses to combine the name of the current team with a pre-made comment. Everything is said smoothly and with excitement when the moment calls for it, such as a breakaway slam after a stolen ball. The commentary is heightened when lulls happen in the game and the team take some time out to dole out some anecdotes. For example, during a free throw session in a game between Golden State and the Clippers, Harlan started talking about how the NBA Commissioner loved watching the Sacramento Kings. While that didn't seem to make sense at first, Kevin went on to say that the Golden State Warriors have started to play like the Sacramento Kings of old. It's a very nice touch that you don't hear in too many games.
Like the graphical presentation, anyone hearing NBA 2K9 for the first time would swear that a real NBA broadcast was happening at that moment. The only time that this illusion is ever disturbed is when the commentary makes obvious mistakes. For example, in a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder (previously known as the Seattle Supersonics), Kellogg began talking about how Lamar Odom of the Lakers had been a dominant force in the paint, scoring almost all of the time he got the ball and was already posted up near the basket. After heaping praise upon Odom, he then stated that the Los Angeles Lakers had to do something to stop his scoring hot streak. Players will know that Kellogg was referring to the Oklahoma City Thunder instead. Commentary bugs like that might not be caught by some, but those with keen ears will have their illusions broken.
The final jewel in the sound crown comes from the crowd. In most games, the crowd is something of an afterthought, but here, the crowd becomes an essential barometer in how the home team is doing. As expected, crowds cheer when the home team scores and boos when the visitor does. What's new this time around is exactly what kind of cheering is done and for how long it happens. Get the home team in the lead by a wide margin, and the crowd will cheer with confidence that a win is at hand. Give the visitors a huge lead, and the crowd will only politely respond when you score a bucket that doesn't make a dent in the overall situation. Keep the game close, and the crowd goes nuts, hanging on to every basket made and almost gasping whenever the ball is in the air. Steal the ball and dunk it hard, and it'll almost blow out your speakers. Free throw attempts by the visitor will cause a chorus of foot stomps and thunder stick claps. In short, this is one sports crowd that is just about perfect.
With a majority of the high marks along with some blemishes, the question of whether NBA 2K9 is given a solid recommendation will depend on the type of sports gamer you are, basketball in particular. If you tend to only play basketball games with your friends, NBA 2K9 is a good buy. Your scores will be low at first, but you'll want to really learn the control nuances in order to start posting triple-digit scores. If you are more of an arcade basketball player, the game is still a good buy. You'll get killed before you reach for the sliders to adjust things in your favor, but every other aspect of the game will amaze you before that point. If you are a hardcore basketball simulation player who enjoys not only managing your favorite team through several seasons but playing against like-minded people as well, you probably already have NBA 2K9. If not, go and grab it now. Until NBA 2K10 hits, this will be the best basketball sim you'll ever play.
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