NBA 2K9 (PlayStation 3) review
"Though you can acquire almost the exact same experience from NBA 2K8, you have to play 2K9 to experience the living rosters (which allows 2K Sports to update your rosters as the sport evolves in real life), full five-on-five multiplayer and updated Association mode. Basketball fans will love how the game changes when every teammate and every opponent is controlled by a real player. Gone are the days of shouting at the screen because the AI screwed up – now you’ll spend these moments shouting at your friends."
Right now, in between layoffs and exporting jobs, one of the auto industry’s leading players is hard at work on the “new” Ford F-150. Sure, it’s sleek, attractive and pampered with the most luxurious interior next to a new Lincoln. But the major evolution came a few years ago; today’s model merely builds on that foundation for a more refined automobile.
Coincidentally, this is also the time when, in between lay-ups and exporting players (I’m looking at you, Detroit Pistons!), the NBA is hard at work on its new season. And with that season comes the latest video game update in the leading basketball franchise: NBA 2K. Like the F-150, NBA 2K’s major evolution occurred a few years ago. This leaves NBA 2K9 to carry on the annual tradition of noteworthy refinements.
At first glance, this year’s update doesn’t appear to be that different. At first touch, it doesn’t play that differently either. Much of this year’s praise can be credited to how the game feels on the court, which in turn goes back to what 2K Sports started with three years ago. The way these athletes interact with the ball is generally impressive and occasionally uncanny. Rebounds are given an extra bit of realism thanks to animations that simulate what happens when a player leaps into the air but isn’t quite able to get a grip on the ball. If he’s lucky his hand – or perhaps just the tips of his fingers – will strike the ball hard enough to knock it into the net.
Upon every shot, you can all but feel its power as it soars across the court. It’s impossible to tell if a great shot will be ruined by a slight miscalculation, causing the ball to hit the rim (or more depressingly, the very back of the net) and bounce off. But when your shot isn’t strong enough – when there is absolutely no way the ball can travel far enough, you know it instantly.
Though you can acquire almost the exact same experience from NBA 2K8, you have to play 2K9 to experience the living rosters (which allows 2K Sports to update your rosters as the sport evolves in real life), full five-on-five multiplayer and updated Association mode. Basketball fans will love how the game changes when every teammate and every opponent is controlled by a real player. Gone are the days of shouting at the screen because the AI screwed up – now you’ll spend these moments shouting at your friends. Despite this, team chemistry and player individuality are greatly improved when more than one human enters the fray. It can be very difficult going through a game when you only have access to one player at a time. But when the team pulls together and wins, the feeling is quite joyous.
For those of you seeking another kind of joy – the kind that only a single-player season can bring – the Association mode is very engaging. A standard season mode is offered, but only the Association lets you dive into the team management aspect of the game. Before the schedule screen appears, players can choose to automate or manually control 10 different features, including lineup management, prospect scouting, player roles and trading, pre-draft workouts, and staff and player contracts. Manually, most of the mechanics should be familiar to series veterans.
If there were awards for “Most Lively Audience” or “Most Realistic Game Presentation,” NBA 2K9 would be the winner of both. Take a close look and you’ll be able to spot the same flaws that plague every sports game right now. Bland faces (the shape, construction and texturing) and weak facial expressions are still present.
Take a few steps back, however, and you’ll witness an unimaginable level of detail. The crystal clear picture is wonderfully close to that of a real broadcast. Thousands of cheering fans fill out each arena, and not as cardboard cutouts or clones of one man who were all given $100 to wear the exact same shirt (at least that’s my theory – why else would they all look the same?). Instead, these fans vary not only in what they wear but in how they move, when they move, and the patterns that each person follows. It all comes together for one of the most impressive sights in sports gaming.
It would be great to end the story here with a fairytale conclusion. However, NBA 2K9 is not yet a perfect basketball game. It may look gorgeous but there are still a number of common mistakes (common for our industry) that have yet to be ironed out. For starters, the commentary hasn’t changed much from last year. It seems to be a tad less repetitive, but the annoying and unnecessary repeats (you’ll hear “[Player] inbounds the ball” a zillion times per game) have yet to be removed.
While guarding, some player models freeze and/or shake, almost as if they are pumped up on caffeine (causing the shake) but have gum stuck to their shoes (preventing them from moving). Mascots have a similar issue, as they may find themselves trapped behind a player before someone inbounds the ball.
Twenty percent of the time, none of the players (AI teammates or opponents) bother to approach the net after a three-point shot. Presumably, both sides assumed the ball would achieve that lovely “whoosh” sound, thereby eliminating the need to grab the ball or rebound. But why risk it? Players can manually control one of their own teammates to ensure that someone goes for the ball every time. However, that doesn’t make the AI opponents any smarter – their intelligence cannot be improved.
As a hardcore fan of basketball games but only a casual viewer of the sport itself, I couldn’t tell you how every team reacts when they start to lose. In NBA 2K9, however, they all react the same: foul, foul, foul. It’s unavoidable. But unlike hockey, where a foul may actually buy you time despite the creation of a power play for the other side, fouls almost never lead to a favorable conclusion in basketball. Free throws are very common, and though human players may have a hard time figuring out when to release the right thumbstick from its locked downward position, AI opponents do not have to endure this difficulty. For them it’s a matter of pre-programmed calculations.
This next one is a minor complaint, but I have to wonder: why does the AI call a timeout even when there is no way you can win? If there’s a minute or two left in the fourth quarter, go for it. But if you’re down eight points and there are only 6.9 seconds left in a short-length game, there is no need to prolong the torture. You are guaranteed to lose.
NBA 2K9 needs a bit more work before it can achieve a truly “perfect” status within its current form. By the time that can happen, it will likely need another overhaul to correspond with the next console generation, thus creating a never-ending battle for 2K Sports’ developers. Despite the flaws, they’ve created a wonderful gaming experience that will surely entertain series veterans and casual sports fans alike but may not have what it takes to win over those who prefer EA’s brand of basketball.
Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (November 10, 2008)
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