As any knowledgeable caveman will tell you, it's tough to reinvent the wheel. Some might say impossible. The developers behind the yearly stable of sports games that we all love struggle with a similar problem every season. How do you change a videogame enough to make it worth sixty bucks while still staying in the confines of the given sport? It's a lesson that 2K Sports learned the hard way last year with NBA 2K8, a game that underperformed in the eyes of most critics.
Luckily NBA 2K9 is here to return the series to its once comfortable perch atop the basketball world. While no one will argue that it's a massive overhaul from what we've seen from the series in the past, the additions that have been made advance the gameplay enough to conquer the competition.
The biggest changes, surprisingly enough, actually do come on the court. It's a welcome switch for a genre that so often on its established laurels. NBA 2K8 was home to plenty of issues including gameplay that felt a step too slow and a newly adapted defensive mechanic that nearly broke the game. Lockdown defense is back again, but it's been changed for the better. Shaq can no longer guard Steve Nash by simply slamming down on the left trigger.
The new system still relies on the left trigger for activation, while it uses the right stick to determine how you orient yourself with relation to the person with the ball. That leads me to my main complaint with the mechanic, that being that it's only usable when the man you're guarding actually has the ball. Why can't I hold the left stick and, based on my opponent's position, deny him the ball on the right or left side? Still, the lockdown stick is much better than it was and it allows you to pick out the tendencies of an AI player and exploit them easier than before.
Moreover, AI as a whole has been tuned up during the off-season. Dual player control is a much larger part of the gameplay as you can now tell your guys to screen for you and either pop out for a jumper or cut to the hole and the specialized animations that follow look great. Not only that, but your players also make solid cuts off the ball if they notice a defender is overplaying them on one side. Running plays is also streamlined so it's a bit easier to hit the open man.
The shot stick, a staple of the series, has been modified a bit to allow players to change their shot in mid-air. It works very similarly to what you remember in year's past, but it's now more responsive if you get stuck in mid-air with no place to go and need to go for the fancy up-and-under move.
Keeping the conversation on the offensive side of the ball, you'll immediately notice that the speed of this year's game has been ratcheted up. It's not to the level of an arcade basketball title, but there's certainly a stronger propensity to get out on the open floor and run the break. That's not to say that there aren't annoyances when players won't keep their momentum going down the court when catching a ball, but seeing two players explode down the sidelines and calling for an outlet pass on a rebound is authenticity at its finest.
The animations, like in all NBA 2K games, are great to watch. They're realistic, they almost never falter and the little nuanced actions that you see when players interact are great. If the refs make a call, a player will get upset. Get knocked down and they'll help each other up. Run out of bounds and run into the mascot and there's an animation that players there too. Same goes for the coach. It's these little touches that help push 2K9 beyond what we've seen elsewhere.
One issue that has also been corrected for NBA 2K9 is that of missing shots that pro players should be making. This happened all too often on drives to the basket or shots from within ten feet. This season is the first time where 2K Sports seems to have gotten the skills of the players right. Kobe and Lebron are going to score their points, there's little that you can do to stop that from happening. This game realizes that and, while it doesn't take defense out of the equation entirely, there's much more leeway on hitting some of those tough jumpers. Build up some momentum and you'll really see some buckets start to drop.
The Association, dubbed this year as The Association 2.0, is back with as much depth as you'd expect. The immediate change to the mode has to do with the user interface which now incorporates NBA.com into the presentation. Sadly that's one of the biggest follies in NBA 2K9. The system does provide some cool updates as to what's going on around the league (updates to actual career milestones) but it's incredibly hard to navigate. It's made worse by the 2K Nav feature, something that I've never been a fan of. All in all the off-the-court presentation is easily the weakest part of 2K9.
The other "under the hood" additions to Association 2.0 are where the mode sees its main improvements. First, you can now scout players to get a needed edge for an upcoming game. Gone are the specific number ratings for every player and they've been replaced by more generic letter grades. To get a precise number you'll need to invest in some of those crucial scouting reports.
2K Sports has also tweaked the financial and trading systems a bit to be more authentic. There are now Bird Years and Bird Rights that flesh out NBA 2K9's CBA to mirror the genuine article a bit closer. There are also clauses within contracts and the ability to construct trades between three teams that offer more than the typical one-to-one offers. This all ties into the new player ambitions that help you to better gauge the mindset of the athletes on your team. For instance, while playing as the Celtics I was offered a straight up trade: Ray Allen for Michael Redd. I accepted but Ray Allen refused to waive his no-trade clause because being on a winning team was part of his set of ambitions. It's a cool system that's made all the better by the fact that it actually works.
A staple of 2K Sports games has been its ability to churn out impressive multiplayer experiences and 2K9 is absolutely no different thanks to the new five-on-five gameplay. It's not all that dissimilar to what other games have done this year in that every player on the court is controlled by a human player. During my several games it was clear that the fluidity of the game breaks down a bit when every play has to succumb to a different user, but the gameplay was still fast and fun. Defense has been ratcheted down a bit, or so it seems, to keep things as fun as possible. It should be interesting to see how this affects the stats of the online world once the community gets their hands on the game.
While I've already called the off-the-court presentation values the worst part of 2K9 (and they are), when you're on the court you're going to be treated to a great looking game. The player faces are still hit and miss, though they're now more hit than miss, but the crowd has been pumped up considerably and does a great job of adding life to the scene. Then there's the new duo of Cheryl Miller and Clark Kellogg who join Kevin Harlan for commentary duties. The trio does a good job but doesn't pack as much excitement as other virtual commentators are able to. Finally there's the new highlight reel generator that essentially takes every scoring play for a star player and compiles them into a clip show. It's cool and you can skip it if you want; what's not to like?
Note: NBA 2K9 also touts itself as having Living Rosters, a clear takeoff on NBA Live's DNA system that allows you to stay up to date with player tendencies and contract moves. There's no real way to test the Living Rosters system until the NBA season starts, so that feature has not been considered for this review.
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