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NBA 2k9 Video Game Review

November 16, 2008 | By Herija Green | comment on this post

If one basketball game is good, then two must invariably transport me to a land of hoops bliss where the roads are made of parquet and the clouds are shaped like the Larry O’Brien trophy. Indeed, on the heels of playing EA’s NBA Live ’09, I found myself immersed in the welcoming embrace of 2kSports’ NBA2k9, which for the sake of fairness I will not be comparing directly to Live. Instead, I will be reviewing it on its own virtues after digging in for my second helping of hoopy goodness.

Controls (4/5)

Veterans of the series were likely able to scoop up this year’s copy of 2k9 and execute pick-and-rolls and alley-oops with the greatest of ease, but newbies (like myself) are going to be in for a learning curve…and a bit of a steep one at that. While you can still use the X button to attempt shots, the “shot stick” is how the game is meant to be played, which definitely took some getting used to. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me several games to finally pull off my first dunk despite some run-outs because you’ve got to hold down turbo (right trigger) and use the stick to rattle the rim. The RT+X combo doesn’t cut it.

Passing is assigned to the A button, though by holding down the right bumper you can pass to anyone on the court by pressing the corresponding button over their head. I absolutely loved the way defenders got in the passing lanes and deflected the ball – sometimes they stole it, sometimes they knocked it out of bounds and other times it was simply altered. The realism in that was fantastic and really made me think twice about making crosscourt passes, even on the easier difficulty levels.

You can change your offensive tempo, see who’s hot on your team or call plays by jamming on the D-Pad and making alterations, though I did find that process a bit clunky. The plays were also general and didn’t indicate who they were being executed for. Instead it was simply things like, “Quick pick and roll,” or “Quick post up.” You can call for a screen by tapping or holding down B, or do a pick and pop by holding down the left trigger before hitting B. The triggers are definitely used frequently in this game as you’ll be pressing them often to do some of the game’s more advanced moves, including the deep post up mechanism. It takes a while to get the hang of, but it’s beautiful to watch once you do.

Things are a bit more simplistic defensively, highlighted by Lock-On D, which is engaged by holding down the left trigger (see, I told you that you’d be using it a lot). Once you’re locked on, you use the right stick to press up or sag off, or you can also shade which way you think they’ll go. The steals and blocks occur at a realistic rate. That has long been a shortcoming in video hoops, but not this time – if you want to block a shot you’d better have your timing down.

While I do like the controls overall, they feel overly complex at times, necessitating multiple button pushes to execute moves and plays. Don’t believe me? Just check out the instruction manual, which has no fewer than seven pages of instructions on controls. In fact, with everything I noted above I didn’t even touch on all the things you can do off the ball. Bottom line, if you’re new to the series you’re going to have to exercise a little patience, but believe me, it’s well worth it.

Graphics/Sound (4.5/5)

Let me just say the on-court product is beautifully rendered. The details are lovingly crafted as players move without a hitch, lights reflect off the court with lifelike realism and players react to what’s happening in the game. You’ll see looks of frustration after the whistle blows, players engaged in mock conversation as they walk off the court and a thousand little touches that fully immerse you in the game – like timeouts where you see your team huddled as you quickly adjust matchups, double teams and make substitutions. It’s infinitely cooler than going to a glorified pause screen to do the same thing.

The in-game camera is rock solid, pulling back as the action moves from one end of the court to the other and zooming in when things get settled in the half court. At times it seemed a bit too tight as players in the corners would disappear from view, which is a pain if that happens to be the guy you’re guarding or thinking about passing to. It’s a small gripe, though, considering the zoomed in view just accentuates how gorgeous the in-game graphics are. As you might expect, there a few exceptions in player faces where they’ll look off at times – for instance, Andrew Bogut looked like he was a member of the undead on some of his close-ups as his eyes appeared to be rolled up into his head. It’s a little odd, but nothing to detract from the overall visuals.

Kevin Harlan lends his voice as the play-by-play man, and Clark Kellogg does colour, which I found odd simply because I associate Kellogg with college hoops. Cheryl Miller gives a couple reports per game as the “sideline reporter,” which adds little but is another realistic touch. They do a fine job, but they don’t really add anything to the overall product. They’re not bad, they’re just kind of there.

In a cool addition, the game allows you to make your own highlight videos (complete with any of the 2k Beats tunes) and upload them for other 2k players to view and rate. It’s pretty impressive to see what some people have done with this and it’s a great little extra for those that enjoy showing off their creative side.

Gameplay (4/5)

While I said I wouldn’t compare 2k9 to Live, the former’s Living Rosters feature is nearly a dead ringer for EA’s Dynamic DNA. The Living Rosters update constantly so that your current edition of 2k9 is never out of date – when Greg Oden got hurt in his first game, Oden went on 2k9’s injured list. Player ratings will fluctuate and as tendencies change, so will the way those players perform in the game. That means if Oden suddenly starts crossing over defenders and burying threes, that’s what he’ll do in 2k9.

As I noted in my review of Live ’09 in regards to its DNA function, this is a mode whose value will be tested over the duration of the season. Not enough has happened in the NBA to truly get a feel for how effective it will be over the long haul, but I think it’s a fantastic idea on paper.

2kSports’ dynasty mode is dubbed “The Association,” and a quick glance at the player contracts tell you it’s definitely slanted towards more hardcore players, which is great news for me. I loved the addition of Bird Rights, no-trade clauses and back-loaded contracts. When I low-balled Hakim Warrick on the free-agent market, he refused to negotiate with me. After burying Donyell Marshall on my inactive roster for a year he had zero interest in re-signing. One small gripe in the negotiating process is that this year’s second-round picks are only under contract for a year without a team option, so if you choose a team with talented players from that round – Luc Mbah a Moute, Chris Douglas-Roberts, etc. – be ready to overpay to keep them on board. Also, unless I completely missed it, you can’t renegotiate a contract until their existing one expires, which is unfortunate as it ruins your ability to lock up a young player long-term without breaking the bank. The game does give you a chance to re-sign your own players during the off-season tasks, but every one of my guys told me they were going to test the open market.

The game offers you points for accomplishing specific goals as GM, such as improving your record, reaching the playoffs or playing a rookie for 20-plus minutes per game. Those points can then be used to send your players to camps, improving their overall skills. The goals are the same regardless of the team you choose, so be ready for a disappointing haul if you choose a team in a rebuilding mode. You’ll also have full control over your coaching staff, scouts and trainers. The higher their abilities – scored by letter grades – the more accurate info they’ll give or the better they’ll develop your players.

There is a ton of potential for customizing your player’s roles, distribution of minutes, scouting talent for the upcoming draft and scouting your own players to get a better feel for their actual skills rather than the somewhat vague letter grades. With plenty of depth already in place, only a few minor tweaks – how exactly are players on my reserve roster getting injured in games? – separate The Association from being very good to being outstanding.

In addition to The Association, season and playoff modes, NBA2k9 comes equipped with a game type called “NBA Blacktop,” which transports you to New York’s legendary Rucker Park for three-point shootouts, dunk contests (complete with emcee) and games of 21. It’s no replacement for a copy of NBA Street, but it’s a fun distraction.

Online play is smooth, and the addition of five-on-five play where all 10 players on the court are human controlled is tremendous. It’s clear that this is the direction that online sports gaming is headed, and while it (like NBA Live ’09) can’t match NHL ’09 and its online league, the depth of off the ball moves put it at the head of the class for online hoops.

Overall (4/5)

With silky smooth player animations and fantastic graphics, it’s easy to fall in love with NBA2k9 at first sight, but things get a little ugly with the excessively intricate controls, and those without patience may get frustrated quickly. There are some other minor issues with the overall presentation and use of the right stick to navigate the game’s menus, but it’s not close to enough to dissuade anyone from playing. So while there’s still room to grow, NBA2k9 belongs in any hoop fan’s collection.

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