Developer 2K once again prepares to rip off its sweats, check in with the official scorer, and take the floor against the might of EA in what has become Basketball’s, if not sport’s, premier one-on-one match up. While NBA 2K8 gained great reviews and according to gamers and reviewers alike, dunked in the face of NBA Live 08, it’s a new season, and like anyone will tell you – you’re only as good as your last game.
Since the beginning of the millennium NBA 2K has been in direct competition with EA sports. Although EA sports has scored some points off court, signing a deal with ESPN not long after 2K started using the network’s name in their title, and also causing a major stir with a drawn out takeover bid, on court 2K has often taken the points with accuracy, innovation and execution.
The good news is that heading into its tenth season 2K still has game. The managerial features are deeper than ever, while the control system and graphics have also been tweaked. These, together with the sound and online content combine to make NBA 2K9 as complete a game as the franchise has seen, for hardcore ballers and casual gamers alike.
One of the great new additions to the mix this year is the control you have of your players while both shooting or driving to the hoop. The NBA 2K games have long used a two sick method of player control, with direction controlled by the left stick and shot selection and release controlled with the right. NBA 2K9 offers an incredible combination of moves and shots, and you also have a remarkable amount of control over crossovers, hesitation moves as well as reverses and fakes. All the moves available are wonderfully animated but amid all the stick combinations hitting the move you want often feels more like good luck than good management.
But now, not only can you change shots in mid air, you can also opt out of the shot entirely and kick the ball out to an open team mate. This is another great addition to the depth and accuracy of the gameplay, and is countered nicely by improved defensive AI. But don’t expect to be able to master these moves quickly, again, getting it right in game often feels as difficult doing it in the real world.
Speaking of the real world, game developers Visual Concepts have added a few nice touches to enhance the realism of the graphics. The way the uniforms move, the diversity and accuracy of players' body shape, the spectator and sideline reactions all look great. Players' faces are recognisable beneath a glistening layer of sweat and quirks and mannerisms add to each player’s uniqueness.
The game’s managerial mode, dubbed The Association, returns, also with some welcome additions. Through NBA.com you will get updates of player trades and injuries. Also, this year each player has their own goals and ambitions. A veteran star may be willing to play from the bench for a contending team while a top young prospect will go anywhere if the money is right. Getting the right coaching staff and scouts, staying within the salary cap, and winning the title is all there for players who enjoy crunching the numbers as much as they like banging the boards.
All the online features return this year, now with five-on-five games added. In the past there have been problems with the quality of online play, not only slow downs and glitches but difficulties in connecting and making matches. NBA 2K9 promises a better experience with an online ranking system not only helping to make matches but also to make matches more evenly balanced and competitive. However, the menus sometimes feel as tricky to master as some of LeBron James’ highlight reel moves.
The online difficulties however, reflect some issues within the game. Finding your way around the game requires the same level of prior knowledge as playing the game does. This may be the game’s most significant misstep. Like getting a delay of game on an out of bounds pass, the frustration is compounded because of such a simple error on what should be one of the simplest of tasks. Getting around a game shouldn’t stop you getting where you want to get and doing what you want to do, but in NBA 2K9 it happens.
However, for fans of the franchise this hiccup will be insignificant. If you have played and enjoyed any of the game’s last four versions (and we can fairly safely assume that if you have played them, you have enjoyed them) then NBA 2K9 delivers. It helps to have a few years experience with the two stick controls before you try to dump those passes off in mid air, but all the isolation moves, defensive patterns, crossovers, pop outs, kick backs and pull ups combine to make NBA 2K9 as realistic as a sports sim gets. It’s unfortunate that 2009 may be one of those years where the franchise rests on its past success. While its not quite the situation where the biggest difference is the cover and the updated rosters, there are no breakout improvements over the fantastic game that was, and still is, NBA 2K8.
In the end, if like me you’re of average height, average athletic ability and only have an average white man ‘fro then standing under the hoop while some sweaty guy in a singlet dunks on top of you, has reinforced the shear impossibility of basketball. Throwing a ball I get, catching, kicking, and hitting those same balls with a stick - no problem. But, dunking I have long resigned myself to never be able to do. However, with the insight and dedication the makers of NBA 2K9 have applied to their franchise, dunking from my couch has never been more fun, more rewarding or closer to the real thing.