Sports games belong to a genre that rarely takes chances with a winning formula. Most people have a clear idea of how these games should go, and any changes to the formula are either roundly lauded or completely ignored. This is especially true of sports simulations, where fans demand that the new addition to their favorite franchises be meaningful, lest the game get shunned in favor of competing products.
Since the current generation of game consoles began, 2K Sports and Visual Concepts have been playing it safe with the NBA 2K series, arguably their most popular sports franchise. While the competition has been busy trying to reinvent itself year after year, this game series was adored by fans and critics alike thanks to the high emphasis it places on the game of basketball itself as opposed to other side features.
This year, however, things are a bit different as it is taking a chance with NBA 2K10: Draft Combine, a companion piece to the main game coming out later this year. Is the game worth grabbing for fans of the series, or are they better served waiting for the main title to arrive?
Draft Combine plays out a bit differently than you'd expect. You begin the game by creating your character and determining what stats he will have as well as what position he will be assigned to. Everything has to be chosen carefully, though, since you only get one shot at making a character here. Once this is done, you can go through some of the trials — such as shooting, passing and blocking — to further boost his stats in this area before taking on the two main modes of the game: NBA Draft Combine and Scrimmage.
NBA Draft Combine games play a little differently than what you're used to in the full games. You take control of your created player and only your created player. There are no opportunities for you to switch to other players on the team and control them during the game. There are six Draft Combine games in all, and each one has four five-minute quarters to play through. You will be evaluated on your performance on offense and defense but mostly on your ability to act properly for the sake of the team. This means staying on your man for defense and making sure that he doesn't score too many points on you. It also means learning when to call for a good pass and when to properly take a shot. Causing lanes to be open is beneficial as well as preventing yourself from committing any fouls or turnovers. In short, playing your position correctly and strategically is more important than winning the game. At the end of each game, you will be evaluated on your performance and given points depending on said performance, winning the game and completing bonus goals. These points can then be spent to further increase the attributes for your player. Once all six games are completed, you can upload your created character to the main 2K Sports servers so he will be ready for download for NBA 2K10 when it releases later this year.
Scrimmage games take the basic concepts introduced in the NBA Draft Combine games and give them an arcade feel. You can still only play as your created character, but you have a little more control over the rest of your team by telling them when to pass the ball to you or when to take the shot. Other differences include the ability to only play one five-minute quarter instead of four and the relaxation of just about every rule except for out of bounds. Also missing is the earning of stats for your created player and evaluation of your performance in the last game.
Several different problems appear in just about every aspect of NBA 2K10: Draft Combine. It's obvious from the beginning that this title is really meant for hardcore NBA 2K simulation players, and no place is more telling of this fact than the NBA Draft Combine games themselves. The game will criticize you for failing to play according to how they want you to play, and it will punish aggression of any sort. Calling for the ball at the wrong time, for example, will immediately demote your grade, and letting your man score, no matter how well you defend him, will always result in criticism. Making shots will not always guarantee a grade increase, no matter how hard you fought for that shot, so you always want to play a defensive role even if it will cost you the ability to fulfill any of your challenges.
This focus on true team and simulation play would be well and good if there were some kind of tutorial on how a real game of team-based basketball should be played. None can be found, though, and with only six games to be played before your character stats are locked in for the full title, all of your Draft Combine games will end up being sink-or-swim experiments. Because of the nature of Scrimmage games, players can't use that as training for combine games either. The AI for your team won't help your situation, since it seems to range from below average for combine games to poor for scrimmage games. With the opposing AI almost always at the top of its game, expect to do just about everything yourself if you want to win any game whatsoever. You're only given three opportunities to play any of the available drills, further handicapping just how powerful your character can be in all other modes. Aside from the ability to only create and upload one character, the final missing piece of the game is some sort of online mode. It would have been nice to play against other created players to see how future competition would be like, but with this title, it's all relegated to stats on the leaderboards.
The controls remain deep, though the basics are simple enough for novice players to grasp easily. Players of the previous versions of the game will find that all of the previous mechanics remain the same. This holds true for the right stick IsoMotion controls as well as the free throw mechanic, still considered one of the best mechanics in a basketball game. It remains responsive enough so that no lag or controller misfire can be detected, and every type of player will be pleased with the defaults, which is good because there is no way to change them.
The graphics are what one would expect from the series by now. Considering that all of the players are created ones instead of real NBA rookies, you won't be expected to find any discrepancies or odd-looking faces here. They all show off the abilities of the player creation system quite well and show that the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series isn't the only one out there that can craft good-looking players for professional sports. Player movements look fluid enough, though there are a few lingering animation transition problems. It's not as prevalent as it was in earlier games, but it does pop up now and then. What seems to have finally been solved, however, is the infamous jersey clipping problem of the past. Clothes finally stay outside of the body instead of going inside, as they had before.
The gym looks rather nice, sporting reflections on the floor as well as activity outside of the playfield, with other draft prospects holding little conversations with each other as they watch the current game taking place. If there's one complaint that could be made here, it would have to be the camera. There is only one available position for the camera, and it's behind one end of the court, much like the view seen in the Madden NFL titles. Worse yet, the camera is only centered on your player. This prevents you from seeing the ball action sometimes and can lead to ruined plays unless your player is in the vicinity of the basketball at all times.
The sound is fairly good and reminiscent of the earlier complete titles in the NBA 2K series. The sounds of the court, such as the swish of the ball on the net and the squeak of the sneakers, still come through clearly, especially on a Dolby Digital 5.1 setup. With no commentary to accompany the action, court dialogue has been added instead, which gives the game a better sense of ambience. Players will call on others for a ball pass, praise you for taking a good shot, and blast others for not covering someone who scored an open shot. It won't completely replace the usual commentary you'd hear, but it's a nice alternative that would be a great addition to the full game if available.
The soundtrack continues the trend of infusing hip-hop at any available place. Menus, loading screens and the game itself always have some song playing. This time around, the mixes are fairly good and, with the exception of one song that sounds too sad for its own good, really get you in the mindset to play basketball. The one caveat to the music, aside from the fact that not all players of the game will be fans of hip-hop, is the fact that there are only five or six tracks that are included in the game. Considering how much time the average player will spend with the title, all of the songs will start to get real old real fast.
NBA 2K10: Draft Combine is an interesting experiment that would only appeal to a limited audience. The simulation aspects aren't tight enough to be enjoyable to hardcore fans, while the arcade aspects are punishing enough for casual fans to feel discouraged most of the time. Those who find character creation interesting, though, will find a few things to like here, and with a few more refinements, this could be the start of a promising pre-season NBA series. In short, the best move would be to try out the demo and only invest in the full title if you really want a head start on your created character's career. All others would be best advised to wait for the full title when it hits store shelves.
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