Hey there, basketball fans! Are you ready for a new season? Will LeBron and the Cavs make a legitimate run at the title this year? Can Kobe and the Lakers win two in a row and start the whispers of a dynasty? We'll have to wait a bit longer before those questions will be answered, but in the meantime, you can play NBA 2K10, which will go a long way toward satisfying any fan's need for a solid basketball title.
The first thing likely to strike you once you fire up a game in NBA 2K10 is its presentation. Each game kicks off with a breathtaking view of whichever arena you happen to be playing in that night, and the NBA's biggest personalities immediately take center stage. Whether it's Dwayne Wade doing chin-ups on the rim or LeBron tossing the powder in the air, 2K has done a great job of packing all the excitement and showmanship of the game into this package. The top-notch presentation continues throughout the action, with dramatic camera angles and cutaway replays on dunk cams highlighting all the big moments. This isn't the same as watching a game on TV. It's better.
Perfectly complementing the visual flair is an amazing commentary booth featuring Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg. I've long said that the absolute best video game sports commentary belonged to the crew on Sony's MLB: The Show franchise, but Harlan and Kellogg match or surpass the efforts of Matt Vasgersian and his crew. These two banter gracefully and easily transition from the on-court action to stats, key players, upcoming matchups and league standings, all without missing a beat. It's truly incredible, and I feel like the 2K folks need to head over to EA's Madden offices and teach the football crew a little bit about what it takes to call a great game.
A big reason the commentary is so amazing is due to the new NBA Today feature, which has its fingerprints all over the game. NBA Today keeps track of all the stats and standings around the league and provides the announcers with knowledge of various league happenings. Throughout each game, you'll hear Harlan and Kellogg riff on teams with the best shooting percentages, league leaders in steals, the history of the two teams in previous meetings during the season, and even upcoming marquee matchups that will likely affect the standings. While most sports games don't really do much to give you a sense of what else is happening aside from providing randomly generated scores, NBA Today makes you feel like you're actually a part of the league.
Enough about that; we should move on to what's new out on the court. Most of the franchise's fundamental mechanics and controls are still present, with one major exception. Turbo is now measured, so it's not possible for players to simply tape down the R2 button and jet up and down the court. The first yellow bar represents a sort of sprint meter, and while it's full, your player can freely leg it up and down the court with extra speed. Under this is a green meter that measures player stamina, and depleting this gauge will leave your man gassed and unable to compete effectively. Also, while the yellow meter refills after a few moments of rest, the stamina bar only comes back once the player has sat down for a while; if you push your superstars too hard, you may end up losing them to long stretches on the bench. It's a much-needed push for realism in the franchise, and most players will likely appreciate the more strategic use of turbo over the old model of rocket players.
There is also one new play mode that's been added to the game, and you'll likely find yourself sucked into it pretty quickly. My Player is the franchise's version of a career mode, where you create a baller and then put him through his paces in an attempt to win championships and become an eventual Hall of Famer. After a few summer ball games and possibly a training camp invitation, your player will begin his career proper in the NBA Development League, playing in small arenas against marginal competition. This stage of your career is painful, as basically everyone on the court looks like they aren't good enough to make a high school team, let alone the pros. Perform well enough, and you'll eventually make the jump to the big leagues, and soon you'll be driving the lane on Shaq or attempting to shut down Paul Pierce.
While My Player is a great first step as far as career modes go, there are still a lot of things that could use substantial improvement. First off, the process for creating a superstar is painfully slow, and you'll spend a few seasons languishing with subpar stats before you even get a taste of true success. There are four different pages of attributes that all need hefty skill point investments if you want to be any good, and those skill points come at a premium, especially early in the game. In fact, it is this process of earning the points needed to improve your player that nearly sinks the whole game.
While you are given a list of in-game objectives to achieve before each matchup (i.e. "Score six points in the paint" or "Hold your man to two offensive rebounds"), most of the points you earn come relevant to your "Teammate Grade." This value fluctuates throughout each contest, going up when you perform well and decreasing when you fare poorly. Setting picks, making smart decisions with the ball and drawing fouls all improve your grade, while turning the rock over, forcing up bad shots and letting your man score buckets all reduce it. It's a terrific concept, as it encourages unselfish play and smart team tactics, but it really needed more tweaking before its debut.
The problem is that the game is far too harsh on punishing "bad" decisions, even if those actions would be considered smart in a real game of basketball. If I'm on defense and the man with the ball beats his defender, then I should rotate over and help. If he kicks it out to the guy I was guarding and he in turn scores, it's no big deal because at least they had to work for it. The same goes for fouls: If a player is driving the lane, then the smart thing for a beaten defender to do is commit a foul so at least his man is denied an easy layup. Unfortunately, both these actions are harshly punished under the game's grading system, and in these instances, being a good teammate is actually detrimental to your score. Furthermore, there are more obtuse concepts that knock off your point total, such as bad positioning or spacing. The thing is, the game never teaches you what good positioning or spacing looks like so it's impossible to tell what it really wants from you. While I appreciate being rewarded for previously unheralded acts like setting screens and dumping off the ball for an assist, the grading system is weighted far too heavily on the negative side, making it difficult to earn the points necessary to build up a created player to even a decent level.
My final complaint with the My Player mode is the ubiquitous "2K Insider," who shows up after every game to "critique" you. What this normally means is he'll tear you down for insignificant reasons (I was once chastised for giving up one basket in the entire game) and tell you how you need to be a much better player. He also pops up while you're distributing skill points to tell you that you're doing it wrong and a player at your position should really focus on certain specific traits. That would be fine if the game limited you to only playing one position, but a character created to play small forward may also find himself occasionally taking on a role as a power forward or even a shooting guard, so he'll need to be well-rounded enough to post up under the basket or take a contested three-point shot. The Insider doesn't see things that way, though, and he'll constantly berate you for playing the game incorrectly.
There are plenty of other issues outside of My Player that also hurt the game, most of them stupid AI bugs that really don't belong in a finished title. Point guards will often — and by "often," I mean two or three times a game — commit backcourt violations by crossing over the midcourt line and then showing off some fancy dribble for no reason that results in an infraction. I can understand this happening from time to time late in a close game when the defense is bringing an intense full-court press, but not when there isn't a defender within 10 feet and the guard decides to inexplicably show off. Teammates are also terrible about reacting to screens and help defense, not really showing any understanding of when to rotate over and pick up the man with the ball and when to rotate back and cover their man, who's now standing unguarded behind the three-point line and practically demanding the ball. Finally, coaches call timeout in the most inane situations; I get the feeling that if we're down by 20 with 15 seconds left, the wise thing to do would be to let the clock run out and let us go home. No one wants to be out on the court anymore, let alone forced to huddle up and talk it over.
While I've been hard on the game, it's important to note that NBA 2K10 is still, at its core, a highly enjoyable game and one with very solid fundamental mechanics. Playing games is a blast, and wonderful presentation does a lot to smooth out any rough patches the game may have. Furthermore, in spite of its flaws, the My Player mode is highly addictive, and there's nearly no better feeling than having a great game and then heading off to spend the cornucopia of earned points to inch your player that much closer to domination. There's still plenty of room for improvement for next year's game, but this year's edition isn't bad at all. While NBA 2K10 may not be quite in the title picture, it's definitely ready to jockey for a playoff spot.
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