NBA 2K6 Review (Xbox)

Everyone knows all about clouds and silver linings, right? Well, the agreement that gave EA Sports an exclusive deal with the NFL was one heck of a dark cloud, and it didn't appear to be lined with much of anything, except perhaps more clouds. When that deal put the kibosh on the stellar ESPN NFL from 2K Sports, a portion of that development team went to work on the NBA title. With some of the finest minds in sports gaming adding their genius to a title that was already a sim-gaming favorite, would there be a silver lining after all?

Controls often get short shrift in gaming reviews, but it's impossible to talk about NBA 2K6 without discussing the fantastic scheme implemented here. It's with no doubt the high point of the game. Though there's a steep learning curve that may prove a barrier to the casual gamer that just wants to throw down dunks with buddies and beverages on a Friday night, it's one of the most rewarding control schemes in sports gaming for those who invest the time and energy to master it. It quickly becomes second nature, and you will pull off moves that make complete sense without needing to "translate" in your head before doing so. Revisions to the "Isomotion" system and to stealing/blocking are incredible, but it is the "Shot Stick" that makes this game the most intuitive basketball game I’ve played. The right stick is used for shooting, and will either put fine control on dunks and layups, or act as a perfect simulation of the jumpshot motion. In a jumpshot, you'll pull back to start the shot, then release the stick at the top of the jump – the same time you would release the ball if you were really shooting. It's simple and feels completely "right". The other wonderful thing in this shot system is that it's been used for free throws, as well. It's always been a problem in basketball games that you shoot one way while on the floor, and then some other (usually needlessly complex) mechanism takes over once you're on the line. In NBA 2K6, free throws are just another shot: pull back and release at the right time. It gives the game a much more unified, natural feel and still presents a challenge.

One area of the game where sim fans might take exception and slider fans will quickly go to work is shooting percentages. It's not impossible (or even uncommon) to see both players and the CPU shoot 75% or more, even on the higher difficulty levels. When comparing it to an NBA where the jumpshot is a lost art and even the best teams shoot under 50% with regularity, it's completely out of whack. If you want something approaching a true statistical simulation, you'll need to adjust the game in a big way. However, though it doesn't match real-life stats, it makes for fun, rewarding, and educational gameplay. The game promotes a clear emphasis on uncontested shots, and will reward you for making that extra pass and getting an open look. This is also a real-life rule, but the probability of making those open shots is exaggerated in NBA 2K6 in order to drive the lesson home. While it may not be a valid statistical model, it's an excellent gameplay one that rewards the player for playing the right way.

One of the problems in past years has been the AI, and it’s gotten a sizeable boost. Teams will now play much more like their real-life counterparts, and detailed player tendencies mean that Shaq will play like Shaq, and Steve Nash will run the floor with abandon. Your CPU teammates also do a lot better at off-the-ball movement, and will work to present opportunities instead of making you do all he heavy lifting. There are a few weaknesses, though: you'll find your teammates lunging for steals in the passing lanes too frequently, leaving them out of position in a man-to-man defense, there are some substitution glitches where teams don't sub starters back in realistically, and some odd matchup bugs where the center will end up covering the point guard in man-to-man. There are also some issues with the late-game AI when playing the CPU. Losing a tight game, the CPU won't necessarily take the needed three, and they will often shoot early in the clock when they should be milking out a win. Though there are a few steps still to go, this is by far the best AI I’ve seen in an NBA game.

The most noticeable improvement that the NFL development team made is the VIP system, last seen in ESPN NFL 2K5. This tracks every move you make on the floor, and builds a picture of you as a player and a coach. You can play against your own VIP to discover your own tendencies, or download a friend's to do some scouting for an upcoming game. The feature's even been improved from its NFL iteration through the introduction of detailed scouting notes. Looking at a VIP, you'll get a detailed breakdown of tendencies, strength, and weaknesses in the same format that NBA scouts use. It's fascinating information, and really helps you to improve your own game.

"The Association" is NBA 2K6's franchise mode, where you assume the role of general manager and try to guide your team to success through multiple seasons. It's gotten a complete overhaul, from menus on up. One new feature that adds a lot to the mode is the addition of development drills where you'll actually control your players in minigames to improve their ratings in certain areas. If you're getting beat on the boards, run your big man through some drills to increase his rebounding, while at the same time increasing your familiarity with rebounding. The fact these drills use in-game mechanics (as opposed to minigame rules never seen again) means that both the gamer and the player increase their skill, and that's a neat trick to pull off. The other big innovation is in the offseason, where you can invite players in before the draft for workouts. You can run 1-on-1 drills against players on your roster, 5-on-5 games composed entirely of draft candidates and a lot of options in-between. You really start to get a feel for the rookies, and identify with them much more than in many other sports games. By the time a rookie hits the floor in pre-season, you've run him through a number of drills and are excited to see how he performs.

The returning "24/7" mode has been drastically revised, and not necessarily for the better. You'll still create a baller, and play on street courts across the nation against increasingly tougher NBA players towards your ultimate goal of making it to the Entertainers Basketball Classic at the legendary Rucker Park. As you defeat these NBA players (and some celebrities), you'll receive their cell numbers so you can recruit them as teammates, some accessories like sunglasses and retro jerseys, and points to spend on drills to improve your player. Though it's still a fun alternative to full games of 5-on-5, the mode has lost a lot of its appeal this year. The main reason is that "24/7" now isn't so ... "24/7". In previous versions, the whole mode was based around a real-time clock: your player would degrade if not played frequently, and every hour would see the challenges available at each court change. It was a cross between "virtual pet" games and NBA Street, and its uniqueness set it apart from every other mode seen in a sports videogame. That's all been done away with this year, and the clock has no bearing on the mode at all. It plays like any other ladder-based mode in any other game, and can't match up with the addictive fun of EA's Street titles. The other major issue in the 1-on-1 games throughout the mode is that the impressive player tendencies shown in full games don't make the leap to "24/7". When players like Adonal Foyle and Greg Ostertag are trying to beat you off the dribble and shooting long-range jumpers with frequency, there's something lacking in the AI. What's more troublesome is that even when they see success in a post-up game and score on consecutive possessions, they will eventually return to an outside game. It's a flaw that manages to cripple both believability and difficulty all in one fell swoop.

Graphics are excellent, pushing the edge of what this console generation can offer. The player models are the most lifelike seen in a basketball title, and the animation is generally excellent. This looks as good as we'll see until the Xbox 360 and PS3 come along. The sound design is also top-notch, with the crowd noise during a game really telling a story. They will go quiet as the home team loses, surge as the game is close, and go mad as the home team pulls off some clutch scores.

2K Sports lost the ESPN license last year, and has had to revamp their presentation as a result. Though the presentation no longer has the feel of watching games on the "Worldwide Leader In Sports", it's still well done. The sponsored segments throughout the game are particularly great, and end up giving the exact feel you get from watching the local broadcast of your game. Kenny Smith and Kenny Harlan make a good team, and Craig Sager's virtual self is just as insipid and brightly hued as the one you see on TNT.

The online section of the game is simply the best the industry has to offer. Once you get past lobbies and QuickMatch games, there is nothing available that can match the league experience that 2K Sports offers. Along with living rosters that mean injuries and trades can be part of any league, there is also now the option to do a fantasy draft. The statistical presentation on the website is excellent, and after playing in 2K Sports leagues, everything else seems second-rate.

NBA 2K6 is by far the best version of what has become the best NBA game on the market. There are still small issues with the AI that holds it back from “must buy” status, but this is a fun game that also delivers a rewarding simulation experience.

NBA 2K6 Score
out of 10