NBA 2K9 - Ballin'!

October 21, 2008

No sports team wants to peak early. Yet, that's the problem facing the NBA 2K series. The hoops franchise has endured few missteps throughout its long-running history, first with Sega and now with Take Two, so it hasn't had to learn from its mistakes. It has dominated the competition since its inception, enjoying both critical and commercial success as a result. So don't be surprised if NBA 2K9 looks awfully similar to NBA 2K8. It does, and well, it is. There are no rim-shaking, backboard-shattering features or radically reinvented play mechanics, in part because they really aren't necessary. Could the series be a victim of its own success?NBA 2K9 features a mix of useful, interesting, and somewhat silly features. In the silly department is the Gatorade "thirst meter" icons that appear if a player is getting tired. Previous games already had fatigue meters, so this is apparently a creative way to get some extra ad revenue. Enhanced lock-on defense is a more useful addition, with the right analog stick used to cover a player in nine different positions after holding down the shoulder button. This allows you to subtly adjust your defender's coverage to cut off passing routes to a specific side, shut down open lanes, and so forth.

The deep franchise mode known as the association has graduated to 2.0 for NBA 2K9, but it's not necessarily twice as nice. The mode is mostly the same as in previous versions, with development drills being the most notable new feature. Each month you can participate in one of 13 drills to improve an athlete's ratings in specific attributes. You have a set amount of development hours per month, and each drill costs a certain amount of hours. Drills range from weaving through cones to making shots from hot spots on the court. In addition to the association mode, players can embark on a single season, jump to the playoffs, play a rookie challenge game, practice, and create custom situations to complete.

New York City's Rucker Park serves as the backdrop for the NBA blacktop option, which lets you compete in pickup games, a Sprite-sponsored dunk challenge, a three-point shootout, a game of 21, and dunk school. These mini-events are a nice break from the main title--especially the dunk challenge. One gripe about the game's design is the annoying interface, as there are more menus here than a food court. Features get buried in several screens worth of options, and you can easily get lost unless you know precisely what you're looking for.

NBA 2K9's gameplay is easily its strongest feature. The computer AI is even better this year, as it does a great job in trying to exploit your defensive schemes and match-ups. Your teammates are also improved--especially on defense. More importantly, each team you play against utilizes its strengths, making each game different, exciting, and true to life.

As with previous NBA 2K games, you can further customize the AI by adjusting an assortment of sliders. From game speed to shooting tendencies, you'll be able to address just about any perceived flaw you find to make the action as realistic or as unrealistic as you desire.

A potentially interesting option in NBA 2K9 is the ability to download real-time updates. This living rosters option sounds a little creepy, but it ensures that the latest trades, roster moves, hot streaks, and other changes make their way onto your teams. We did have problems with the game freezing at the team select screen while trying to connect to online games, but it was inconsistent, so hopefully they're isolated incidents.

As with previous versions, 2K9's most striking feature is how lively the on-court action is from the tip-off to the final buzzer. Individual player models are good but not great, with jagged edges interfering with smooth, rounded shoulders and heads. Court surfaces are blurry, but its overall look is solid. Crowd members are not simply pasted in the background. They look different and will react in various ways instead of in robotic unison. You'll see multiple people wearing foam fingers, for instance. But one will wave it gently back and forth, while another quickly spins it in the air. People will jump up out of their seats, cup their mouths, and criticize bad calls. Sideline activity is also amusing, with teammates on the bench relaxing, clapping, and pumping up the crowd.

The variety of animations also impresses. It's not just the signature-style moves you'll see from the league's best and brightest, but the little details that elicit the "oohs" and "aahs." Players will lunge, dive, grab, swat, and drive with lifelike motion. Deflections, tips, and rebounds all look and behave realistically, and it seems you're never seeing the exact same move the same way twice. Players feel "heavier" than in previous NBA 2K games, making their movement more deliberate. There is an unwanted side effect of the new animations, however. Slight hitches during transition sequences after a steal or a basket, are apparent, and some of the moves suffer from delays. Statistical overlays also lack pizzazz, commentary is too generic, and lines are repeated too often.

The NBA 2K series has seen modest improvements since NBA 2K7, primarily due to the level of quality achieved at such an early phase in the next-gen life cycle. Because of this, casual hoops players aren't going to be wowed with this latest iteration of NBA 2K9, but it's meant to satisfy those who live and breathe basketball, as the improvements in the AI and atmosphere alone are sure to tickle the inner twine of dedicated fans.