It must be hard to be a last generation version of a sports title. Fans of the franchise are paying more attention to the newer console versions, tracking each new additional feature and visual upgrade to the title with rabid interest. Journalists spend a ton of time writing pieces on the current generation title, barely breathing upon the older one. It even seems like the developers hardly adjust much of the older games, making minor adjustments and roster updates as a priority to the title. In some ways, this is the fate of NBA 2K8 on the PS2. With much of the attention for this year's basketball game going to the PS3 and 360 versions of the game, once again the PS2 version feels like a mild update to last year's gameplay, with only a few additions. It's still an enjoyable title, but it's starting to show its age.
First off, let's clear up the elements that fans won't be able to expect within this year's title. You're not going to see the inclusion of the new Slam Dunk Contest, which means no car hopping, bookcase leaping jams to amuse the crowd and the judges. No unique player roles, sub-roles or personalities that affect the nature of the team chemistry in The Association mode. No 24/7 mode to be found in this year's game. No controversial Lock-On D controls to pin down ball handlers and perform traps or tight presses. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point - many of the highly touted elements that have been added to the other versions of 2K8 aren't going to be found within this year's game.
What NBA 2K8 does feature is a returning set of game modes from last year's title, including Quick Games, The Association, Season, Street, Tournament, Practice and Situation. As with all other 2K Sports titles, players can tweak and adjust the numerous sliders included with the game to find the best set up for them, which has always been a great touch. However, players will still have to deal with the navigational menu via analog sticks, which has never been a completely clean way to move through the myriad of options found within the typical 2K Sports games, particularly when you're controlling the aspects of your franchise via Season mode or diving into the deeper elements of The Association.
What has been newly included for this year's title is a new Playoffs mode, which lets you manipulate the play off structure to set up the post season however you want it to be handled. Players can choose to work their way through the individual games, or simulate them with the newly included Hoopcast Simulator, which breaks the game down play by play with statistical highlights, indicating hit and missed shots, rebounds and the like. Players can choose to completely "play" games in this manner, substituting players and adjusting matchups from the sideline. It's a different way of managing a playoff, Season or Association game, and it's not a bad addition to the title.
Of course, the primary focus of the title is with the on court action. NBA 2K8 features a lot more signature style animations to capture the specific shots and idiosyncracies of each player when they step on the court. Obviously, this covers the newest draft picks, but it also covers tightening up many of the veteran's movements during dribbles, fast breaks and post play. Isomotion is still the main way of controlling your ball handlers, although it's pretty apparent that 2K Sports expects that players of the PS2 version have been playing the title for years and have learned the system. Last year, many of the moves were explained inside of the manual. This year, there is no explanation of moves to be found anywhere. That's a rather minor complaint compared to the more serious issue, which is the hit and miss nature of triggering the Isomotion moves. You have to be much more precise in how you maneuver the analog stick, or you won't actually perform some of the spins, crossovers or other moves that you wanted. In fact, your player may hesitate as he tries to figure out just what you want him to do.
However, you will also have to take a certain amount of the isomotion controls with a grain of salt, because 2K8 has a number of other issues that constrains the gameplay. For instance, officiating won't make some blatantly obvious calls, such as over and backs or stepping on the court via inbounds passes because it's not paying attention to the animation of a player. It can be particularly frustrating to put pressure on an opponent and see them bounce or spin over and back across the half court line a few times without a ref blowing the whistle. AI can be somewhat questionable at times; for instance, you may not see a defender put their hands in a shooter's face when he attempts to sink one from beyond the arc, but for the most part, it does its job, with many of your players trying to fight for their positioning during plays and rebounds, moving out of traps and double teams and trying to get open for passes.
It's just unfortunate that the game still suffers from its same old issues of basic shots and free throws rarely going in. Granted, you can tailor the sliders to make sure that this problem shows up much less frequently, but the simple fact remains that making seemingly easy or routine layups can be an exercise in controller breaking frustration. It doesn't matter whether you're fighting through a double team or you're on a fast break, successfully completing these shots is completely up to the whim of the gods. Nor does it matter whether you rely upon the shot stick or using the face button to shoot the ball; the result is about the same. Considering that the AI is affected by the same funky flaws of shooting, you can easily trade shots between yourself and the computer and not make a bucket on either side of the court. The same can be said about free throws, which can still appear to be based on a fractional degree of accuracy when you move the right analog stick forward to release the ball. One shot seems perfectly accurate, and the next is completely off.
You'll experience these issues regardless of whether you play offline or online, which is still as robust as it was last year. Players can leap into one on one matches, leagues, tournaments, or hang out in the lobbies and track stats. You can follow your opponent's successes thanks to their online VIP, giving you a sense as to their playing style and their tendencies in the middle of a match. While we didn't experience too much lag in our matches, we did run into a few situations where the game decided that our rosters weren't updated, which seemed to make our connection with another user harder to do.
The hardest slam against 2K8, however, has to be the visuals, which all look dated and sub par. Whether it's the out of focus Craig Sager and coach models compared to the character models of the players on the court, or overly grainy nature of the game textures, NBA 2K8 is highlighting that the engine for this series really requires a facelift if it's going to come out for next year or for a while to come. Then again, the fact that you'll frequently see render passes to sharpen up the image, frequently in the audience or along the sidelines, where characters will pop in or quickly disappear, doesn't particularly help the title look its best. There are a couple of graphical issues we witnessed, such as coaches poorly clipping through the scorer's table, even placing themselves waist deep into the object. Referees and some characters on the sideline appeared to have seizures at another time, continually repeating the same movements over and over again in place. Faces throughout the game can also be somewhat harsh, as certain stars will look rather close to their real life counterparts, while others can be utterly hideous.
The audio for 2K8, however, remains the same as it has been for the past few years, which is a good thing. Supplemented with a large soundtrack of 2K Beats, NBA 2K8 provides a decent aural experience. Kevin Harlan and Kenny Smith still do their standard job of calling the gameplay and do it well, although there is quite an amount of repetition that you'll find within their comments. Craig Sager chimes in before each half, and while he won't give you any serious insight, it's still a decent segment. There's plenty of ambient noise, with the crowd coming alive as their team performs well or makes the game close in the final seconds.
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