Shaq is the best point guard in the NBA. You read that right. In Visual Concepts' NBA 2K8, Shaquille O'Neal can be turned into a dominant defender on the perimeter. No, this isn't meant to be some slick new feature added to open up unique gameplay opportunities, but an unfortunate misfire from one of 2K's new features. It's a shame, because if Shaq had to be Shaq (and every other player had to conform to their true NBA selves), NBA 2K8 would be one fine game. With an excellent and deep franchise mode, fun new Slam Dunk Contest, and refined controls, NBA 2K8 had the potential to be the best in the series in the past four years. But numerous minor issues and a few major ones hold NBA 2K8 back and ultimately make it inferior to last year's product.
There are a number of great additions to NBA 2K8 over last year that put it on the path towards hoops greatness. The animation system has been completely reworked to fit with the all new foot-planting technology. This new tech allows for more realistic dribble moves. So instead of the old days of using IsoMotion to perform a series of rapid-fire moves that allow you to get past a defender and to the hoop, things are more grounded. A player needs to plant his feet now and use his momentum to perform moves instead of easily popping through animations in an unrealistic fashion. This slows down IsoMotion somewhat, but leads to more realistic breakdown moves.
The foot-plant technology does have its drawbacks. Though Visual Concepts is known for offering smooth animations, there are some jarring moments in animation transitions this year. It's not severe, but there are enough minor hitches to be noticeable through the course of a game. The few uglier moments are easily forgotten when you see all of the sweet new pass animations, dunks, jump shots, dekes, and finger rolls.
While the animations aren't perfect, the details in game are stronger than in 2K7. Yes, there are still some bugs with the cloth technology, causing shorts to flip inside out, but it's less common than before. The crowds, while still not beautiful, look better this year and the sidelines are more animated. One nice touch is that the players and coaches on the sideline are truly part of the game. At one point in a game, Nash stumbled out of bounds after firing a fade-away three. As he turned to head up court he ran right into coach D'Antoni. Nash placed a hand on D'Antoni to steady himself, pushed passed him, and ran back onto the court.
Also improved this year is the post game. You have far greater control of your offensive player in the post; dribble, step out, turn and fire fades; back your man down, head fake left, roll right, and throw down a thunderous dunk. If you have a player with skill in the post, you can attempt to dominate down low. Granted, it's never been too tough to throw the ball in deep and get hoops in the past, but the wider range of post moves allows for more versatility and, ultimately, a more enjoyable experience. The new post play is as deep as IsoMotion now, allowing for a richer experience both around the rim and on the perimeter.
New off-the-ball controls allow you to better set up for alley-oops and screens giving the AI open shots or creating space for your own controlled player to call for the ball and drop some dimes. And for those who've had trouble learning some of the called plays in NBA 2K series, there is now a solution. You can turn on visual guides for set plays that show, in game, where and when to pass, and the proper positioning for each player. This isn't meant as something you use for the lifetime of your play in NBA 2K8, but more as a teaching tool so that after a few games you can turn off the visual aides and perform these plays on your own.
Perhaps the best most important addition to 2K8 are two ratings that most gamers will never even notice. For the first time, Visual Concepts gave ratings for shooting in traffic and shooting while moving. This helps to individualize players a little more, forcing you to play shooters more honestly than in the past. Nowitzki prefers to set and shoot. Kobe can stop and pop, but is just as comfortable firing an off-balance shot that should have no hope of finding net (but often does). At the same time, there are players that can finish even in traffic and those who, with a hand in their face, hit nothing but air. Again, Kobe is the kind of player who can cut through traffic and throw it down while running over a forward. You will see this quite often in 2K8. Iverson takes any shot he can, Duncan moves without the ball and shoots from a set position, and Shaq sits down low waiting to be fed the ball so he can overpower his opponent.
This, however, breaks when you use the one poor addition to 2K8 -- Lock-on D. Any player with a decent defensive rating (and from our experience, it doesn't take much) can lock on to any offensive player and guard them with unprecedented skill. On defense, a lock-on icon appears beneath your player when they are in front of the ball-handler. It's just a matter of holding down a trigger and the CPU will help position your player to keep them in front of the ball-handler. The only thing you have to do is nudge the thumbstick in the general direction the ball-handler is moving to stay on them. While this makes for some exciting guard play, it also allows you to do things that just shouldn't be allowed in a sim hoops game.
This goes back to my initial statement. I made Shaq the best defensive guard in the NBA thanks to Lock-on D. Cranking the difficulty to Hall of Fame level, I put Shaq on LeBron for an entire game. Shaq put on the full court press. So long as Bron Bron didn't get past Shaq on the inbound pass, I could keep Diesel in front of the NBA wunderkind with Lock-on D. In fact, LeBron rarely got the ball past half court before having to pass. On the perimeter, LeBron did spin moves like crazy, head faked, juked, but almost never got past Shaq. Yes, Shaq. And this is true for any good defensive center or power forward. Lock-on D is a broken gameplay aspect that creates completely unrealistic scenarios.
That's not as troubling as what occurred when Shaq went on offense. Wanting to continue proving that Shaq is the very best defensive guard in league history, I threw up prayers for threes at the arc with Shaq, eager to get back on D. To my shock, Shaq started draining some of his threes. Each time Shaq pulled up, the defense backed off (with good reason) and let him shoot open one-handed jumpers. But at some point, after Shaq has knocked down a few treys, the defense needs to adjust. And that's one of NBA 2K8's biggest failings. The defensive AI is easy to tear apart and doesn't adjust to any shooting tendencies.
Far too often players can pull up for jumpers with a man on them, and not have the shot contested. Guards will watch Nash shoot again and again, often not making an attempt to contest the shot or doing so far too late. This is unfortunate, because the offensive AI is absolutely brilliant. On offense, the AI takes advantage of mismatches, finds the open man, moves without the ball, and exploits holes in the D. It's really amazing to watch and requires your best defensive effort. How the AI can be so dynamically different on offense and defense is a mystery. On D, the AI is mediocre. With the rock, they can be deadly.
The visuals and sound also share a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde effect. The animations are often nice to look at, but then the game stops for a moment and you get a look at a player's face. If the real life Tony Parker looked as he does in 2K8, he'd have married Bea Arthur, not Eva Longoria; Steve Nash looks like he escaped from Area 51; and the Clippers' Chris Kaman... well, he looks like that in real life, so good job VC! And hey, guess what PS3 owners: NBA 2K8 looks identical between the two systems. Unlike EA's PS3 offerings, NBA 2K8 is a game that is of equal value graphically on both systems.
As for the sound, the crowds are something special. They act intelligently and follow the game. They boo and cheer at appropriate moments and the noise swells when things get down to the wire. The play-by-play from Kevin Harlan, Kenny "The Jet" Smith, and Craig Sagar, on the other hands, is merely passable.
NBA 2K8's true achievement is in the exceptional Association Mode. The revamped franchise mode is one of the best Visual Concepts has ever turned out. Many sports games in the past have attempted to factor player personality into team morale and contract negotiations. NBA 2K8 is the first game to really nail it. Players are grouped into a handful of different personality types: Laid Back, Neutral, Expressive, and Unpredictable. Players are then given roles (Starter, Sixth Man, etc.) and a sub-role to further define that position. This sets a player's expectation for play time and involvement in the offense. A player's personality determines how they react if their expectations are met (or missed).
A laid back player isn't going to pump up the team and give a boost in game seven of the Championship. At the same time, he's not going to call out his coach in the papers or demand a trade just because he's getting fewer minutes than expected. A player's personality has a definite influence on your team. So when you are shopping for free agents or attempting a trade, it's not just about finding the best talent. You don't want everyone on the team to be laid back, but too many unpredictable players could lead to disaster.
This also requires you to manage minutes so that even the role players get the play time they expect. Just because Gerard Cheaney is a rookie prospect, doesn't mean he won't be disruptive to the team if he starts bitching. Player morale determines whether or not they will consider opting out of a contract or outright demanding a trade. A happy player may even accept a contract extension for a little less money. Even better, young players will go for big bucks, but veterans (especially those without a ring) will take less money to be on a Championship-caliber team.
More importantly, you have to consider the playstyle of your team. When you first begin The Association, you'll find that pretty much every NBA team actually plays like its real-life counterpart. So you can't just start mixing and matching pieces to create a new-look Suns without potentially ruining the team.
If a hardcore sim franchise isn't your cup of tea, you can give the new Blacktop mode a try. Gone is the long-running 24/7 mode. Its replacement, NBA Blacktop, offers some simple street hoops but no prolonged story elements. You can play pickup games, 3pt Shootout, Game of 21, and the all new Dunk Contest. Only the Dunk Contest merits any significant playtime. Using the thumbsticks, you select from a wide variety of dunks to execute. Dunks take some time to get used to and you'll brick more than your fair share for the first hour. But once it clicks, the Dunk Contest can be a lot of fun, especially online.
And yes, once again 2K shines with its online support. There are tournaments and online leagues (for up to 30 players). Lobbies separate the rookies from the Hall of Famers and a feedback system should keep bad gamers from ruining things for everyone else. Games online are relatively smooth, though the occasional bit of slowdown will hit on both 360 and PS3.
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