If there is something we've learned from this batch of launch titles for the Xbox 360, it's that we want more from our next-generation console. A lot more. As IGN is in the process of finishing reviews for each of the launch titles, it's great to see when a developer goes all out to utilize the power of the 360, like we are seeing with Sega's Condemned: Criminal Origins. On the flip side, it's frustrating when a developer like EA actually removes key features from its games, like several golfers and courses for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 and the franchise mode from NBA Live 06. The next generation is now, people. We should be adding features, not removing them.
Thankfully, NBA 2K6 didn't remove any of the features that made it a well-rounded and deep basketball title on current-gen consoles. Speaking of well rounded, NBA 2K6 reminds me of Tim Duncan. Like the Big Fundamental, 2K6 is not flashy and you are rarely going to jump out of your seat in sheer excitement when you play. But, like Duncan, 2K6 is a big name in the business, has earned tremendous respect from intelligent basketball fans, and it does just about everything well. However, the only real changes from 2K6 on the PS2 and Xbox to the Xbox 360 seem to be updated rosters and improved player models.
This might be a good thing. While kudos must be given to the 360 version of NBA Live 06 for taking a risk on revolutionizing the basketball genre, there are just too many poorly implemented features to make up for the good ones. 2K6 took the safe approach and created what is basically an exact port of a very good basketball game with some tweaks to old gameplay issues and sliders. And when we say "exact port," we mean it.
Visually, every menu, player photo and fan cutscene are stolen straight from the current generation. So too are the head coaches, which look absolutely bizarre standing next to these high-resolution, slick player models. In the 24/7 mode, the outdoor courts are also exactly the same. Not even the cheerleaders received an update, which was sorely needed.
The player models, however, have been improved dramatically and are some of the best we've seen in any of the next-generation sports titles. From Duncan's scraggly beard all the way down to Rasheed Wallace's struck-by-lightning tuft of white hair, it's all here. As advertised, the uniforms move separate from the players thanks to the nifty new cloth animations. The only thing that could make 2K6 look more realistic would be cutscenes of Eva Longoria pining for Tony Parker at Spurs home games. There are problems, however. Because only the player models were updated, they look like high-resolution cutouts planted on a low-resolution court, like they don't belong there at all. The long-haired players like Manu Ginobili still look like they are wearing plastic helmets.
Those cutscenes that showcase depth-of-field, focusing on one player and blurring the background, look pretty amazing, but they are a little overdone as the blur effect is so pronounced. Instead of being a tad out of focus, like in a television presentation, the backgrounds are almost blurred out completely.
Still, there are times, especially when running on a high-definition set, 2K6 looks like you are watching a live NBA basketball game. More often than not, however, 2K6 looks like a game that's just trying to be next-generation.
The gameplay received several minor tweaks in response to complaints concerning the current-generation version. The computer will attempt 3-point shots for a change and the charging, while still prevalent, has been toned down. In the current-gen game, it started to look like a Duke basketball practice out there as players were taking flops left and right.
The animations, while largely the same, do use several more frames per second and, consequently, run very smoothly - a trademark of Visual Concepts titles going all the way back to the Sega Dreamcast. VC was also able to add about 15 more animations that it couldn't squeeze into the current-gen version, along with some special animations for the cover athlete, Shaq.
The shot stick is back as well, one of the best features to be implemented in a basketball game in a long while. I actually stumbled upon the shot stick by mistake when I accidentally hit the right analog stick and suddenly my Dwayne Wade had tossed up an ugly prayer from half court while I cursed at the screen. For most people, the shot stick takes some getting used to. But once you do, it's like an extra few puppet strings you can use to control your players.
Let's say Ginobili is slashing to the hoop. Shaq is waiting for you in the paint. You come in from the left, hit the shoot button, and casually go straight to the basket for a layup that Shaq slaps at the soda vendor in the fourth row, creating a terrible mess. The real Manu would use his body and shield the ball from Shaq, avoiding the block and possibly drawing a foul. With the shot stick, you can. Just hit it in the direction opposite your defender and watch your player shift his body to protect the rock, just like the big boys do.
I still use the good old-fashioned shoot button for jump shots - the timing is bit easier with the dedicated button when you want to release your shot at the peak of your jump. But you'll find yourself happily reaching for the shot stick on layups, dunks and in the post in order to unlock a whole new arsenal of moves. It's especially gratifying to experiment with the stick on a fast break. I twirled the shot stick in a circle and suddenly Kobe Bryant ripped off a monster 360 jam.
Another nifty control feature is the duel player control. On offense, you can now select a single off-the-ball player and have him cut to the basket, come off a screen, set up for a three or post up. This is a great way to get the ball to your marquee players and exploit poor defensive match ups, like posting up a big guard like Bryant against a diminutive shooting guard - not an option in the default set plays.
The "Strip n Rip" feature is a nice addition on the defensive end. With the right analog stick, you can now poke at the ball from different angles instead of simply hitting a steal button. There is definitely a level of risk and reward here, as the wrong move could induce a foul or give a speedy guard a great first step toward the basket. Done correctly and you'll be leading the fast break the other way in no time.
2K6's gameplay is quite the step up from previous versions even without the duel player control and shot stick. Finally, the defense makes somewhat of an appearance this year as defenders are great at cutting off cross-court and ill-advised passes. It's also much more difficult to drive through an entire defense to the basket, which isn't saying much considering last year's defensive debacle. On higher difficulty settings, you'll find yourself actually passing the ball and using picks and set plays to score instead of mindlessly using IsoMotion around-the-backs to get to the basket. The help defense is still a bit slow, frustrating when Chauncey Billups is driving to the whole and my boy Tim Duncan is just standing around scratching his beard.
On the floor, the computer AI sometimes leaves me scratching my head, especially when it comes to clock management. Often when down by three with a few seconds remaining, the computer will opt to drive to the basket and foul on the inbound pass instead of chucking up a three, even with less than 10 seconds on the clock. This irked me a bit, especially when a good shooter has the ball in his hands at crunch time.
24/7 mode is back, the highly addictive create-a-player mode in which you travel the country, taking on NBA players and B-list celebrities for their cell phone numbers. The one-on-one street ball games can get monotonous because there is no real gameplay variation between Jason Kidd, Yao Ming or Kevin Garnett. They dribble to the same spots and shoot from the same spots, which is strange when Ming starts shooting threes. I did get a hearty laugh when the announcer proclaimed that "Greg OOOOOOOstertag is callin' you out," considering Ostertag has never called out anyone in his life.
The player customization and the skill drills are really the lifeblood of 24/7 and may cause you to lose sleep as you make your 7'9", 350 lb. center into a devastating perimeter shooter with a red bandanna, George Gervin throwback jersey, starfish sunglasses and new pair of Nike kicks. This year, 24/7 culminates in a trip to Rucker Park to compete for the EBC streetball title. After that, you can import your created player to The Association where the constant fouling and goaltending of streetball don't go over so well.
In the booth this year is the TNT broadcast crew of Kevin Harlan, Kenny Smith and Craig Sager on the sideline. Harlan and Smith don't suck, which is all I ever ask out of videogame broadcasters these days. Rarely is any comment repeated, with the exception of Smith continually referencing George "Iceman" Gervin every time a player whips out a finger roll.
The hip-hop soundtrack is as good as they come, considering every song was written specifically for 2K6. The beats come off like A Tribe Called Quest album and are good enough to be released commercially, but the lyrics actually reference NBA players and lifestyle, which would be a little strange on the radio. One song even manages to rhyme with Ginobili. That's right. Ginobili.
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