ESPN NBA 2K5 Review (Xbox)

I’ve only been seriously disappointed in two games in my many years of playing video games. One was "NBA Live 2001" and the second was last year’s "ESPN NBA Basketball". Both games were follow-ups to two of the best pro basketball games I’ve ever played and I had high hopes for both of them. Both games were also examples of game companies making the decision to change their games after the previous versions were universally loved. So going into this season, I have to say I wasn’t that excited for "ESPN NBA 2K5". Well, after playing the game for a while I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

As with every Visual Concepts (VC) game, the graphics are the best of any sports game. Every player face and every tattoo is extremely accurate and true to life. The player models are also well done and very realistic. The arenas are also on point, with the exception of some of the color of the courts. For example, the Wizards’ court has a black outline, but the court in ESPN NBA 2K5 isn’t dark enough. Still, there isn’t really much to talk about when it comes to the graphics of a VC/Sega game. I don’t think you’ll find a single person who isn’t impressed by the graphics.

Thankfully, VC decided to replace the horrible Tom Tolbert with Bill Walton. Now I hate Bill Walton and what makes it even more impressive is that I actually enjoy him in this game. His comments are always relevant to the play occurring and they don’t seem to be repetitive. I think the reason that I actually enjoy him in this game is because he isn’t going on any of his nonsensical rants in the game. A restrained Bill Walton is a good one and it works well in this game. One disappointment involves the custom soundtracks function. I am a huge fan of the custom soundtracks option in "ESPN NFL 2K5" and I assumed that it would work the same way in "ESPN NBA 2K5". In some ways it does and in some ways it doesn’t. The game allows you to place songs in game the same way you would in "ESPN NFL 2K5", however, when you are playing the game it appears to be impossible to turn down the sound of the custom songs. Lowering the PA music meter only works on the songs that came with the game - not on the custom songs, so it defeats the purpose of having the option. Maybe I’m just stupid and couldn’t figure out how to turn it down, so if anyone knows how to, please shoot me an e-mail.

Up front I want to say that I’m not going to focus on the presentation of the game. Just know that it’s the best of any basketball game you’ll play this year. The "Gametrack" and post game highlights are well done and add a lot to the game. Thinking back on last year’s game, there were a number of problems that I had seen in the game. The lack of playbooks, the lack of camera views, the nonexistent post game and every team playing the same way were just a few reasons why the game remained in my Xbox for only a short time. The good news is that VC fixed the majority of problems in the game from last year. Every team has different playbooks and you can assign different plays to each team’s playbook. After making the horrible decision to remove the option last year, thankfully, VC put the camera zoom and movement options back in this year’s game. While I refuse to give them credit for adding a feature back into this year’s game that should have never been removed, I will give them credit for one thing. This game features the single greatest camera angle I’ve ever played. For years, I’ve used the baseline view for basketball games just because that view was the only one that allowed me to see up the court easier. I’ve always wanted to be able to play form the sideline or TV views but haven’t been able to because those views never show enough of the court for my taste. ESPN NBA 2k5 has a TV view that is absolutely perfect. It’s at a perfect angle and matches an actual ESPN broadcast so closely that I’ve had members of my family walk by while I was playing and mistake it for an actual game.

The problems with the post game have been fixed, but it's still not as user friendly as I would like. In last year’s game, you could have Shaq posting up Earl Boykins and Shaq couldn’t move him back. This year, the game does a good job of allowing the more powerful player in the post to determine whether he gets moved back or not. The problem this year is what happens after you’ve established post position and try to make your move. If you don’t immediately do a drop step (the Y button on the Xbox), the post player will step back and shoot a short jumper or hook. So to execute a power post move, you have to manipulate three buttons (the left trigger, the Y button and the B button). But even if you attempt a power move, it doesn’t mean your player will take it to the basket strong. Just imagine my frustration when after doing a drop step with Shaq and he’s alone at the basket, he attempts a lay-up instead of a dunk. VC has taken a step in the right direction when it comes to the post game, but they still have a way to go.

Team play styles have frustrated me with every VC pro basketball game I’ve ever played. Every year, every team played exactly the same way. There was no difference between the offensive style of the Pistons or the Mavericks. This year, this aspect of the game has improved but still isn’t exactly where I would like it to be. For example, when playing the Mavs, you will see them "run and gun" and take quick shots. It seemed that every time the Mavs had the ball they were pushing it up court. However, when I played the Pistons, I saw the same thing. Now once in a while, the Pistons would slow the ball down, run a play and use ball rotation to get an open shot. This does not occur enough for my taste and shows that this aspect still needs improving.

When discussing play styles, the focus isn’t only on the pace and speed at which at team plays. It deals with who and how often the AI gets the ball to its key players. Any NBA fan knows that the Heat will focus their offense around Shaq, the Lakers around Kobe Bryant and the Spurs around Tim Duncan. Knowing this, most NBA fans want the videogame they play to show this. "ESPN NBA 2K5". In the games I’ve played, the AI has given its players a realistic amount of shots and shot opportunities. I’ve seen many people post in the OS Forums that the AI doesn’t focus on its star players, and I just don’t see it. I’m sure that there are going to be games that you will play where Shaq or Duncan don’t get the lion’s share of the shots just like in real life. Still, I have yet to see back-to-back games against star players where the star did not get the majority of the shots.

I could talk about this game for hours, but this would be less like a review and more like a novel, so quickly here are a bunch of the positives that jumped out at me after playing this game for a while. There are a few small things that "ESPN NBA 2K5" does better then any other game. The substitution patterns are the best I’ve ever seen. Teams like the 76ers run a three-guard rotation (Aaron McKie, Allen Iverson and Willie Green), never bringing in a fourth guard to sub for either guard spot. Most teams only play eight or nine players a game, usually having one player sub in for both forward or guard positions. "ESPN NBA 2K5" handles this well and it's rare that you’ll see a team that only plays eight men in real life play more than eight in the game. The AI also doubles the hot player when appropriate. Playing with Kobe, I had twenty-four points at the half. In the second half, the AI called constant double teams at Kobe and forced me to use other players. This is the first game I’ve ever played that called loose ball fouls consistently. This is also the first pro basketball game I’ve ever played that has players make realistic mistakes, like throwing the ball away. "Isomotion2" is a much-improved version of last year's feature. This year, it’s a lot easier to use and every time you use it doesn’t result in a charge. The defensive rotation is the best that I have seen in a video game because it’s not overdone. You won't see the AI overrotate or not rotate at all. The rotation is handled very realistically and you won't feel that the AI is cheating when it's playing defense. Finally, small touches like fans leaving when the game is a blowout and the jump ball systems are great additions and add to the realism.

I do have to talk about the negatives and what is keeping "NBA 2K5" from becoming a truly great game. The major problems are bugs, and this seems to be a problem with many VC/Sega sports games. The biggest bug involves timeouts - or a lack thereof. The very first game I played was a great game between the Lakers and the Wizards. Down by twelve, I led the Lakers to a three-point lead with 4.7 seconds to go. I was surprised to see that the Wizards waited until I crossed half court to foul, but I ignored it and just continued to play. Imagine my surprise when the Wizards didn’t call a timeout after the free throws. Seeing this, I switched my controller to the Wizards and called a timeout for them and switched back to the Lakers. On the last play of the game; down by three, the Wizards in-bounded the ball to Kwame Brown and shot a two that fell short. Game over. There are a number of things that went wrong in that sequence; and all of them are due to bugs that should have been caught by VC’s Quality Assurance guys and fixed by their programmers. For some reason, VC programmed the game to have timeouts set to manual for the CPU - meaning that the CPU will never call timeouts. This problem can be fixed in Exhibition mode by switching to the other side and changing the timeout settings. However, you can’t do this in Franchise mode unless you control every team. That means no timeouts will ever be called by the CPU in Franchise mode. I’ve heard people downplay this on the forums and let me make one thing clear: TIMEOUTS ARE NOT A SMALL THING! Timeouts are not only used for late game situations, but to control fatigue and to stop momentum. The lack of timeouts dramatically hurts the realism of this game.

Late game AI is an extremely important part of basketball. The number of games that are decided by late game decisions is huge and for VC to miss something that I found out after playing one game is troubling. Now, I’ve heard that VC may be planning to release a patch that will fix the timeout bug and that’s great news for those of us with Xbox Live, but what about those without it?

The timeout bug isn’t the only major problem with this game. The amount of blocks, steals and turnovers are way too high - even with those sliders turned all the way down. To compound this problem, there is a stat bug in the game that counts each turnover as two. Imagine my shock when in the second quarter of a game I had twenty-four turnovers. What also adds to this problem is the constant reaching in of the AI on any pass that enters into the passing lanes. While I like the fact that the AI plays the passing lanes, the percentage of time that they're successfully breaking up the pass is ridiculous.

I’ll give VC a little credit when it comes to their Franchise mode, “The Association.” You can see that they put some effort into trying to improve this mode. The problem is that all the changes didn’t work out in the end. VC added two features to this year’s franchise mode, Full Authority and Team Chemistry. Full Authority gives you a little control over simulated games instead of leaving the result totally up to the computer. The player is allowed to assign the number of shots, type of shot and type of defense for each player on his team during different parts of the game. While many will find this to be helpful since most people feel helpless when simulating a game, I feel it’s unrealistic and doesn’t account for random occurrences during a game. For example, if I’m the coach of the Lakers, I may not call a play the entire game for Chucky Atkins but because of the breaks of a game (a wide open shot or an offensive rebound), Atkins may get a few shots during the game. In my opinion, Full Authority doesn’t take into account those things and that makes it flawed. As for Team Chemistry, it’s a fluff feature. During the course of the season, different players approach you and make a comment about how they feel. A player could be very happy with the way the season is going or unhappy with his playing time. Your choice of one of three responses determines whether the player walks away satisfied. While I applaud VC for attempting to include chemistry and add to the realism, they failed in execution. I’ve yet to see chemistry have a real on court effect. I’m sure negative chemistry has some effect on player ratings but even when I purposefully lowered the team chemistry to 50%, I saw no change on the court. Hopefully in a year, VC will fine-tune these features just like they did with Isomotion.

Unfortunately, we've been treated to a pro basketball game by VC that doesn’t get the amount of foul calls correct. I usually play ten-minute quarters and I only average between ten and fifteen fouls total for both teams. I rarely see teams in the penalty, and that's with the foul sliders maximized. I’ve been calling for VC to work on adding a realistic number of fouls to the game for years and I guess I’ll have to wait another year for them to add this aspect to the game.

I’ll run through a number of the smaller negatives quickly. I’m not a big fan of the shot and some of the dunk animations. The jump shot animation looks too upright and stiff for my taste. The new dunk animations for this year are well done, but for some reason VC decided to leave in some of the dunk animations from last year. Those animations were horrible, as most players were up too high and their heads were above the rim. Another negative is that every point guard seems to over dribble on every play. Charlie Ward should not be crossing over every time he brings up the ball or sets up a play but he does in "NBA2K5". Many of the animations out of the post and pivot positions result in what would be a travel or double dribble in an actual NBA game.

Well VC is right back where it was after "NBA 2k3". They have a solid pro basketball game with a few big flaws. My plea to VC: Please don’t revert back to last year’s game. The game is a few steps away from being a great game. Just fix the bugs.

ESPN NBA 2K5 Score
out of 10