No hoops game has ever gotten everything right. Some may have good flow, but bad AI, others might have great control but weak presentation and graphics. The quest for the perfect or even near-perfect basketball game is one Visual Concepts has pursued for the past six years. This year's attempt, ESPN NBA 2K5
is a confounding mix of good, bad, and just plain stupid. Like Charles Barkley, the 2K
series remains great, but is still lacking that elusive championship ring.
I am a Sega fan and have always been the biggest champion of the NBA 2K series in the office. That said, I'm a little disappointed in what Visual Concepts is putting on store shelves this year for hoops fans. Despite great improvements to the 24/7 mode, some decent additions to Franchise mode (now aptly titled "The Association"), and an upgrade to the IsoMotion system, there's a lot of flaws that make me question whether VC is taking its NBA 2K franchise in the wrong direction.
Hoop 'n' Holler
With defensive force Ben Wallace as the cover boy, it would seem safe for a gamer to expect the tenants of Pistons basketball to be the focus of NBA 2K5. Defense and teamwork should be the keys to NBA 2K5, but instead it is once again more of an offensive show. On the higher difficulty levels you will need to use good passing and movement off the ball to get good looks at the basket, but once again it's a drive to the hoop type of game where the offense has far more weapons than the defense.
The biggest casualty is the post game, which is phenomenal for the offense, but too limited for defenders. On the offensive end, post players have some great options. Post up a defender and tap left or right on the Left Thumbstick to head fake. From here you can take different shots which change depending on positioning, but include hooks and fades. Or you can try and fake and then use the Right Thumbstick for the more classic IsoMotion spin move and a drive to the basket. The animations in the post on offense are fantastic and those who love the post (as I do), will be thrilled. That is until they have to play defense.
Defensively there aren't nearly as many options. As with last year's Sega baller, there is no way to manually D-up the ball handler. Instead, everything is handled automatically. Though you will usually face the ball carrier with your back to the basket, there are a few instances where the AI doesn't turn you around properly, which can be quite annoying. I don't mind that you automatically put your back to the basket in the half court, as it's certainly realistic, but there really is no fighting for position in the post, no easy way to box out, and the level of control is nowhere near what is experienced on offense.
IsoMotion2 seems to be the main focus of control improvements. Outside of the post moves, control has been slightly refined for squaring down defenders on the perimeter. Depending on your player's handling skills, you'll be able to perform different levels of crossover moves and spins to fool your defender out of his shoes. If you try to get too fancy with Vlade (who indeed likes to party), he may skip the ball off his foot and put it right in the hands of a defender, which makes sense.
To add to the offensive options, players now have access to a hop step, or as I like to call it, the "I would like an easy score now" button. Yes, the pros do use the hop step, but rarely to such great effect. The hop step is easily the quickest and most effective way to drive to or get near the hoop. Even on the highest difficulty level, you can hop step through two or three defenders and then pull the fade away from three feet. Sure, occasionally you get a charge and once in a while you lose the rock, but 90% of the time it's two-points. Even risky shots seem more likely to go down after creating space from the hop step. It's a bit too powerful and, unfortunately, I've rarely seen the CPU use the hop step.
The last big offensive addition is air-IsoMotion, which improves the ability to adjust your shot while in the air. After you get airborne, you can hit the shot button a second time for a double clutch and then use the Thumbstick to alter your shot. This allows you to switch hands to avoid a defender and can create some spectacular circus shots. While the change may help avoid a block, it will also increase the difficulty and therefore the likelihood of actually going down. Only problem is that any player can pretty much try the same shots. So Shaq or K-Mart can do an equally acrobatic move. It likely won't drop, but it just looks funky -- especially when the AI tries to pull it off. On defense you have, essentially, a single viable new option -- the Double Team. By pressing the Left Trigger, you call for a double team of the ball carrier, which can be very helpful. But the problem is, you can easily get pulled into a trap animation. When two players surround the ball carrier, you lose control and are left to watch as you hound the guy with the rock. He'll either kick it out to someone else or eventually you'll get the jump ball. Sadly, there is only one jump ball animation, so you will see it again and again (especially on the lower settings). While it looks good and realistic to see two ball hawks crowding a guy, why couldn't I be given direct control to do my own hounding instead of having control taken from me?
The last good bit is that you can now change the tempo of your offense and defensive pressure on the fly. Hit the D-Pad to call up the in-game menu to choose a play or to boost or lower tempo and/or pressure. It's a nice little extra touch that keeps you from having to go to the menu. And there are numerous plays this year at your disposal. The playbook is pretty robust compared to previous years with plenty of defensive and offensive options. Though the zone is still shaky territory for the NBA, you have multiple zone choices here if that's to your liking.
Not everything is rosy in the land of IsoMotion2. In fact, anyone who hated IsoMotion last year will be equally displeased. There are far too many charging calls on both sides, because it's incredibly easy to get in the path of a defender and plant your feet. The trick is to cancel your drive by pulling back on the Right Thumbstick, but the majority of gamers won't learn this and will get numerous, frustrating turnovers as a result.
It's not all user error though. There are some definite problems with IsoMotion2. The animation and collision detection system just isn't sophisticated enough to make IsoMotion work properly. Isn't there a better solution to avoiding charges than to force a pullback? Even when you don't get a charge, you'll often find your player running in place against a defender or you may bump into them and drop the rock in an incredibly unnatural animation that makes it look like your player just got shot.
On defense, it's child's play to draw the charge. It seems that so long as you hit the "take a charge" button at any time contact is eminent -- often even as it's occurring -- you will be considered to have your feet planted and the charge is called. In all my games, I saw only a few blocking penalties total and not even many shooting fouls. It's actually tough just to hack a shooter most of the time. It seems some dunk animations can't even be stopped or fouled. At times, you'll see a defender just pushed back by a move or dunk as if they were on ice skates. They don't fall, or affect the shooter in any way. It's pretty lame and it's pretty common as well. The balance and physics just aren't up to snuff.
The new momentum engine factors in the physical stature of a player, where and how they are moving, and alters the way they shoot. The momentum engine is a good start, but it isn't fitted to marquee players. It looks good, but you will also see players taking shots they would never take in real life -- heck, shots they could never take in real life.
This year VC decided to try a new trick with AI, by creating a fully individualized and responsive AI system. The idea is that each player on a team has both the team's AI identity for set plays but also his own way of thinking of how to best help the team. Man does this not work properly.
I don't know if it's because Visual Concepts had less time to finish the game (which was originally slated for late October) or if the AI system is just too dysfunctional to work properly. Yes, guys will cut on offense and there is some movement away from the ball (especially when you call plays), but none of it is particularly characteristic of different players or teams.
I've played on every difficulty setting (most of them far too easy) and found the same problems throughout. Though some AI problems do clear up when you play on the hardest difficulty, most still remain. There are a ridiculously high number of shots from the paint by the AI. I didn't really notice it at first, but after a while I became curious, so for fifteen games I started tracking stats and watching the shot charts at the end of games. Over those fifteen games, each against a different opponent, almost all on the second hardest difficulty, the CPU barely ever fired a three. In fact, excluding buzzer beaters, the CPU fired off just five triples in fifteen games. That's against half the teams in the league. Five. It's all about inside, inside, inside with the CPU. I thought maybe it was my strategy, so I started camping in the paint in hopes of changing up the CPU's tactics. That works somewhat, but not enough to equal a proper NBA game. Plus, why should I be forced to play a certain way just to make the game more realistic?
There are some other notable AI goofs that won't really show up playing with anther person. It's the human vs. CPU matchups (otherwise known as the franchise mode) that are woeful. Big men stay on the perimeter too much, Kobe actually passes the ball far too often, there's almost no inside-out game. In fact, VC has instituted a post zoom camera that pulls in on the post when the ball is near the bucket, cutting off the view of the perimeter. This makes it impossible to see if Nowitzki is open for a three on offense in the classic 2K camera or to see if you need to leave the double team in the post to cover a deep shooter when on defense. Fortunately, this can be toggled off, but the fact that it's included seems to show a definite focus on the inside game.
And while that focus may be enjoyed by some, the purpose of the game is to be a sim. This just isn't true basketball -- not that hoops games ever truly sim basketball to begin with. But the flow seems to central and the lack of perimeter shooting is a letdown.
The Shaq Test
Each year, when the new basketball games come out, I hit each up with a simple test, The Shaq Test. Shaq is a unique player, one of the great centers of all time, and one of the easiest marquee players to emulate. If you've seen Shaq play, you know how he works. Teams feed him in the post, he bullies defenders, and shoots a high percentage from within five feet of the hoop. When the post collapses on Shaq, he kicks it out to an open perimeter shooter. Shaq is a great passer and a dominant defender who rarely plays outside, even when the baller he's covering tries to pull him from the post.
That's Shaq and everyone knows it. It's easy.
Shaq plays like KG in ESPN NBA 2K5. He doesn't play at all like Shaq (though the facial modeling and tats certainly make him look just like the Big Aristotle). This imposter seems to rarely show up in the paint. I've found him numerous times hanging ten feet off the hoop, not even covering a defender. It's offensive. It's wrong. You cannot f' up one of the most recognizable players in the NBA. Heck, not in a game that features a great defensive player on the cover. You have to get Shaq at least kind of right. Right?
Not only does Shaq look for the ball from far off the basket, he will often look for a lane to drive down for a powerful slam. It just doesn't look like Shaq. He'll shoot from outside (and clank, of course), do spin moves and fade away shots. He rarely dominates under the basket and I've actually seen him bullied by Andre Miller. Yes, little Andre the point guard -- bullying Shaq! It's because of the utter failure of the Shaq test, that I began testing other marquee players. They all seem almost interchangeable, with only handle and dunk abilities truly setting any apart in terms of control.
For Franchise Mode, VC is trying to add a little attitude and personality to what has become a rather sterile feature in the past few years. It succeeds in some ways, but isn't the full-blown revolution the name change might suggest.
The Association, hosted by Stuart Scott in place of the departed Kevin Frazier (who is most famous for the phrase to begin with), operates relatively similar to most franchise modes, but with a few key differences. The old and decrepit trading block remains unchanged and all of the league rules apply for free agents, salary cap and rookies, as you'd expect. Nothing new or fancy there, nothing new or fancy about the playoffs either. But don't worry, the new and fancy is indeed to be found in NBA 2K5. Each week you can pay to bring in motivational and inspirational coaches to help the team, be it a defensive guru or an NBA Legend. Each has a different effect, but they all cost some cash and money is important in the Association, even though there's no form of ownership mode. That's a nice touch and adds to the new focus on team chemistry, which is the most important factor in improving and maintaining your franchise. I just wish there was a true mini-game training system similar to what's offered in 24/7. That way, instead of choosing from a menu, I can choose to go on the court and practice to improve my team.
At the end of each week, one of your players will ask to speak with you in private with concerns about the team. He will have one of four personality types (type 1, 2, 3, or ?) and after reading his concern you'll have three response choices. You have to learn the different personalities in order to figure out how to respond to different situations. The ? personality belongs to the Iverson's of the league, as it's pretty much a crapshoot as to how they'll react. While this is a nice attempt at adding personality, it's also too simple for its own good.
Each time a player talks to you, the screen shows his personality type. So rather than having to learn 'Melo's type for yourself, it's handed to you on a silver platter. After a few weeks, it becomes easy to know which answers suit which type (except the unpredictable Iverson's of the world). That just kills it. What's the point if you're going to make it so easy to master? A good idea that is poorly implemented and ends up being a bit too one-dimensional to offer up as a revolution.
However, there is one area where NBA 2K5 is revolutionary. Game simming is now in your control thanks to Full Authority. This ingenious sim mode takes about five minutes to play through and lets you dictate who puts up the shots, and how you defend the other team. Breaking the game down into eight sections (two sections per quarter), you divvy up shots to your players and determine if they shoot from inside, medium range or outside. Depending on a player's skill and number of shots taken, they can perform special moves, such as catching on fire to heat up their biorhythm or dominating the post.
After setting your offense, you then must decide how to counter the shots of your opponent, who also has special moves available. It's a card battle system, essentially and it's highly addictive. Once everything is set, you get to see highlights from that mini-quarter. Taking shots and doing special moves saps up stamina, so you'll have to substitute players often. It's a fantastic mini-game that is completely optional, but makes simming games much more interactive than ever before. The only qualm is that you earn little stamina back between halves. Other than that, it's a great idea that should be used in Sega's other games.
As for the rest of the Association, the trading AI is pretty good. You can't swap junk players and a second round pick for a marquee player with much ease. Trades are kind of tough but you can still get away with trial and error. At the end of the season you can spend cash to scout different players as you head into the draft. Scouting is a simple interface and the more you spend to look at a player, the more info you will gain for the draft. It's just too bad you can't take these rookie hopefuls into a gym rat game to test their skills personally.
The best add-on, mini-game, or gimmick every offered in a sports game has got to be 24/7. Last year it was better than the main game of ESPN NBA Basketball and this year it is back with even more gravy. Featuring online and offline multiplayer, more than 100 new items, a snazzier presentation, and new timed mini-games, 24/7 has improved significantly.
Though the basics of 24/7 are the same and overall the mode plays pretty much as last year, there's enough new here that gamers will want to give it a second go. Once again, the idea is that you have created a street baller and that events are happening day and night. Certain players and events become available at different hours, based on the clock in your Xbox (or true time if you use Xbox Live), and now you will only meet specific ballers when your respect level is high enough to demand their attention.
Where last year game could sometimes drag on too long, new time-based games have been added to put a little pressure on things. There also seem to be fewer high-scoring affairs, allowing for a brisker pace.
The new moves, likely meant to improve the 5-on-5 hoops action of the main game, are actually much more successful in 24/7. You will love IsoMotion2 in this mode. It's a great help. For one thing, there are no fouls, so you won't have to worry about charging calls. Plus, the action is up close and more intimate, allowing you to get a greater sense for the showdown at the perimeter and in the battle in the post. Once you've built your player up to a satisfactory level, you can take him online for exclusive items, ranking points, and bragging right. Though the multiplayer aspect isn't as well-integrated into the regular 24/7 mode as could be (as you must access online from outside your 24/7 game), it's still nice to play a game of street hoops with your custom character.
Along with 24/7, several arcade-friendly modes have been added to the mix, all of which are also available online. You can play a game of 21 with three-to-five players or do the one-on-one deal on any of the 24/7 courts. The different modes and options add a lot of extra variety to the game and like 24/7, the new IsoMotion2 moves add a lot to the overall experience. NBA 2K5's greatest achievement is providing the best simulation of street hoops out there.
Online hasn't changed much from last year, but the inclusions of leagues (and a better interface) are big pluses. You can play pretty much every game type and mode online, including 24/7 and the pick-up games. From what I've played, everything is nice and smooth. However, this is on a test server, meaning that there aren't thousands of people choking the 'Net. From my experience, games tend to have their online problems show up after the game launches. While there shouldn't be anything so monumental it will detract from the score, I'll post updated online impressions later this week with the final box copy.
Visual Concepts has always had the edge in graphics and this year is no different. NBA 2K5 features spectacular face models for the majority of players, all of which look incredibly accurate. You also get good models (Shaq sure looks like Shaq, even if he doesn't play like him), with the right hair (Ben Wallace goes 'fro, yo!), and tats. It's a beautiful representation of the NBA and its individual players.
Animations are nice and fluid, though there are a few rough spots. There is a need for more depth to animation so that collisions in all aspects of the game are accurately represented. When Camby is in the lane and Kobe leaps right at him for a dunk, Camby's feet shouldn't slide on the floor like he's moonwalking. One of them needs to budge or tumble or at least look like they are interacting.
The specular lighting and sweat factor return and once again stadiums are individually lighted to create a unique feel to each. Crowds are finally fully 3D and look great. There are a few opening and end-game cut-scenes showing the crowds in the same way NFL 2K5 did, but no cut-scenes during the game at all, which is a shame. Still, the crowds look a lot better this year and the game only has a few frame hitches during automatic replays (and only on occasion).
The Greatest Hyperboles in the History of the NBA!
Visual Concept's greatest failure is the inability to realize that Bill Walton is horrendous. The master of the hyperbole, Walton joins Bob Fitzgerald to call games and offer inane commentary. As if Walton's voice weren't enough to grate on basketball fans' nerves, he is kept in check and not even allowed to offer the kind of idiotic color commentary that's made him infamous among fans. If I'm going to be forced to suffer Walton talking during a game, at least allow him to say things like, "Carmelo Anthony is the greatest dribbler in the history of the Denver Nuggets!" If only Tom Tolbert were around to tell him to shut the hell up.
Outside of the weak play-by-play and color commentary, the game sound is very solid. The crowd offers some fantastic atmosphere (though still not as good as Sega's NCAA Hoops effort), with smart reactions to great plays. LeBron takes it to the hole and the crowd indeed erupts. There are some redundant taunts, though, that have seemingly been in this series for all six years. An "A" for atmosphere and a "D" for commentary makes it a wash overall.
Speaking of atmosphere, this year Xbox owners can cut custom soundtracks just as in NFL 2K5 and add them to different aspects of gameplay. While the interface is still just as rough, it's nice to be able to drop in all my favorite K.C. and the Sunshine Band tunes when the Warriors throw down in the arena.
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