NBA 2K9 Review (Xbox 360)
The NBA 2K series has a lot in common with the San Antonio Spurs. They’re both consistently competitive no matter who pops up to challenge them. They’re also proven winners. The 2K series has been the undisputed basketball champion since at least 2005, while the Spurs have won four NBA championships since 1999. Both of them suffered slight setbacks last season, but these setbacks weren't enough to take them out of the game. Now for the 2008-2009 season, both sides are looking to regain their dominance.
Lebron and the Cavs are back and looking better than ever in NBA 2K9.
On the Court
We can all breathe a sigh of relief this year, the dreaded (pre-patch) layup bug is nowhere to be seen. 2K Sports has taken the cover off the hoop to the delight of (most) fans. There is a downside to that though: be prepared for career games from big men quite often. At the very least you can be sure you’ll never lose a game because you missed 10 shots two feet from the basket.
This year 2K has also improved the shot stick, allowing you to change your shots in mid-air to avoid would-be defenders. Due to this new addition it seems like blocking was made easier to balance out the advantage the ball handler now has around the rim. It seems like if gamers don't figure out how to change their shots in mid-air then they will be meeting the hand of the big man at the rim at a much higher rate. Passing out of shots is also easier to pull off, but don’t try it with a bad passer, otherwise a turnover is inevitable.
There are more signature shots and animations as well. Guys like LeBron James can pull off dunks that no normal virtual NBA player can even fathom. Also, it seems like shot after shot (and free throw) has been tinkered with to better represent the signature shots and free throws of the real-life NBA players. This is wonderful from a realism standpoint, but does make it overly hard to shoot with certain high-percentage players -- that is until you hopefully get the hang of their shots.
Knowing your playbook is very important in NBA 2K9.
The offensive game has gotten deeper while still being simple enough to have fun. Play calling is as effortless as ever, since you only need to press a single button to call for a pick and roll. If you tap the "pick" button you do a pick and slip, hold it for a pick and roll, or hold a trigger and the "pick" button to do a pick and pop. Occasionally a player on your team will set a pick for you without you calling for it, which plays into the dynamic player movement that now goes on within a game. It seems like now there isn't really a need to call many set plays because your teammates run sets on their own. You'll see Rip Hamilton coming off lots of screens, or the Jazz players cutting back door a lot of the time, playing into the real-life styles of NBA squads.
Sometimes there are problems with your teammates reacting to play calls when you do choose to do set plays though. Either they’ll go too slowly from point to point during a play or just simply go to the wrong spot on the court. If you’ve played any previous editions you’re used to it, but that doesn't make it all right.
Isomotion is also more difficult than it was last year. Moving the joystick in all directions will usually get you a nice dribble move but it isn’t consistent. There are also no overlays to help you during a game -- though the instruction manual now tells you how to do each move. There are tons of different dribble moves, each with a different purpose so if you can learn them you’ll be fine. But it will just take time to practice them and master them.
Another new addition is touch passing, which allows you to keep the ball moving like a hot potato. Just press the pass button right after throwing a pass and whoever catches it will then do the same. Keep doing it though, and you’re likely to get picked off.
The A.I. has gotten better too though -- merciless even in some cases. Computer opponents react to you just as you would to them. They’ll adjust to mismatches on defense and get it to the open man on offense. If you leave a good shooter open, he will bury the jumper over and over. The A.I. also seems to throw backdoor passes on you at a very high rate and pound the paint. It can be a bit frustrating at times, but it's better that the game be too difficult than too easy.
The AI is much more improved this year. Don't take your eyes off Yao.
You’ll also notice the A.I. handling the ball more realistically. It will hold the ball in the final seconds of a blowout victory instead of running up the score and aggravating you in the process.
Simply put, you’ll have to play a lot smarter if you want to be successful on the higher difficulties. Cross-court passes will be picked off and shooting in someone’s face will get you stuffed.
Defense has gotten better too. Lock-on defense is back and seems to be much more logical this year. Shaquille O’Neal won’t be stopping Chris Paul at the top of the key and you won’t see Yao Ming being shut down by Chauncey Billups. You can now shade the player you’re defending, so you decide how close you want to be and what hand to play towards as a defender.
Ball physics are more realistic as well this season. I didn’t have a problem with them last year but you’ll see more balls bouncing off shoes or bouncing off someone straight into the air. The same type of physics can be seen during blocks or steals. The animations and physics this year have created an atmosphere that feels very dynamic and more realistic than ever before.
After a year off, charging is back. It’s not as frequent as NBA 2K6 or as rare as NBA 2K8. You can draw a charge if you get the correct position, but if you try to weasel a charge, you're going to get called for a blocking foul.
The game looks and plays better than ever this season.
Players will now react to fouls like they would in real life. Players seem to fall more often after getting hit. They won’t flop like Manu but they will drop on a particularly hard foul. You’ll see less “NO WAY” three point plays as a result.
I noticed two tiny things new to 2K9 that make the game more realistic. There are now two different timeout calls. You now have the option of a 20-second break or a full timeout to rest your squad. 20-second timeouts are usually to stunt the momentum of the other team, while most coaches try to save their full timeouts for the end of a tight game.
Clear path fouls are also better implemented in NBA 2K9. When you’re on defense and a player is streaking towards the basket with the ball, if you foul him intentionally he’ll get one free throw and the ball. The same foul would net you a reach-in call in NBA 2K8 in most cases (clear path fouls did pop up in the most obvious of situations). Unless you were over the foul limit the action would benefit you in 2K8, but it’s no longer the case in 2K9.
If you want the most realistic game of NBA basketball, NBA 2K9 is where you have to be. The new features don’t make the game any more complicated (though it is still a complicated game for folks new to the series) and if you’re used to the other games you can still play your style.
The players look fantastic as always and move better than ever. 2K Sports has improved the body types; Kevin Durant is thinner than most players while Eddy Curry packs on the pounds. The faces are much improved over the past two years. Some of them aren’t perfect but most are stunningly realistic. This has to do with the improved skin textures, which make the white basketball players actually look human for the first time in a 2K game.
The coaches in 2K8 looked hideous, but that issue has also been mostly fixed in 2K9. The coaches still are a step behind the players, but the camera cuts to the coaches much less often than in 2K8 so it's not such an eye sore like last year.
Instead of the cardboard cutout fans from last year’s game, the crowd looks like it has been lifted straight from an NBA arena. They visually react to calls on the court with some wearing jerseys and waving towels or foam fingers. Now the crowd is a part of the game instead of an afterthought.
You also won’t see any of the weird graphical bugs from last year’s game. So this means Rashard Lewis will not be running down the court with his jersey off.
The overall package of graphics look much better this year.
I’d say the soundtrack is the best it has been in years. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I haven’t heard it a thousand times already. You can’t go wrong with the Beastie Boys, N.E.R.D. and Gnarls Barkley, along with the less mainstream artists that are a staple of the NBA 2K series.
I can’t say the same about the commentary. While it isn’t horrible, it isn’t anything to write home about. The addition of Clark Kellogg doesn’t do much for longtime NBA 2K commentator Kevin Harlan. If 2K wanted to replace Kenny Smith to make the commentary better, the company should have found someone much less similar. It is refreshing to hear Cheryl Miller as the sideline reporter though. In case you were wondering, the annoying “OOOOOOHHHH” after a thunderous dunk is still around as well.
The most positive addition on the audio side is the crowd reactions. I was playing as the Knicks at home and after a few boneheaded plays and missed shots the fans turned on me. They booed every time I got the ball and turned it up especially when I missed a shot or turned the ball over. A few positive possessions got them back on my side but the damage was done. It’s special when a video game can hurt your feelings.
For better or worse, the 2K Navigator is back. Using the right stick to pull up menus still feels foreign sometimes but you get used to it. The scoreboard is now located in the top of the screen instead of on the bottom.
The 2K Ticker is also back but it still needs work. While playing last Monday night, I saw consecutive listings of the live Vikings-Saints game each with different scores representing different parts of the game.
Stat overlays are still sketchy this year too. You’ll get a player bio during free throws and the usual statistics during the game. But, if you’re expecting a consistent flow of information you won't get it. This part of the game still seems a step behind the broadcast feel the rest of the game tries to emit.
They did add more TV-style replays during the game though, but they seem to be hit or miss. The end of quarter and halftime highlights are great and look just as they would on television but others don’t work. For example, you might be down a few points and they’ll cut to a Richard Hamilton highlight reel when he hasn’t scored in a few minutes. I understand that the game is trying to tie-in moments from earlier in the game, but the cuts don't always make sense. Nevertheless, the added amount of replays and presentation elements have definitely been improved this year
The halftime show is similar to last year’s. The game does cut to a set similar to one you’d see on SportsCenter but the table is empty. I don’t understand why it’s there but that is hardly a gripe. After the game there is a similar setup to last year as well. The one added element is the camera angles seem to change every time you watch a post-game highlight reel -- a nice touch -- and the cuts between signature highlights occur at a quicker clip -- another nice touch.
There is little you can say about the game that doesn't end with 'good'.
Basic online play is pretty much untouched from last year. The 2K Cam has been removed to the dismay of some fans but unless you used that camera angle you will be fine. You’ll be swishing and dishing just like you were in NBA 2K8. The general lobby system from last year was also removed, and instead a sort of matchmaking system is in place. I'm not sure how this new system will work yet because the 2K servers have been a mess during the initial release.
2K has also included two things new to the series this year. A new rankings system will start you as a Bench Warmer so you can try and work yourself up to Superstar. You can also use an animated picture as your avatar, putting him or her in any MLB, NBA or NHL jersey you want.
I did have trouble connecting to games at times. Since the game was just released I’m willing to give 2K Sports a chance to fix its servers and get it together. Based on the past, I’d say this problem will be fixed soon. I want to emphasize that you will be able to find games (if the servers are up), it just might take a few tries.
If you thought the franchise mode in NBA 2K8 was detailed, you’ll be amazed to hear that they’ve only added more to this year’s game.
NBA.com is now your main source of information within NBA 2K9. Here you can find out anything about your team and rest of the league. Does Allen Iverson want to be traded? Did Tayshaun Prince have successful surgery for his torn hamstring? Does Stephon Marbury want more playing time? You can find all that and more at NBA.com.
With roles and personalities added last year, NBA 2K9 now has player ambitions. Players can either want to play for a winner, get the most money possible, or play for the team they feel loyal to. The most interesting part of this is that the ambitions change throughout the Association. As a young player you might want to sign that huge contract for any team that will have you, but if you don’t win that ring you might be more motivated to play for a winner towards the end of your career.
2K Sports has also added "bird rights" -- which helps you re-sign certain players -- the ability to check where draft picks came from originally, and more realistic rookie contracts.
Trading also doesn't seem to be too out of whack. Sure the A.I. will still do some sketchy trades at points, but nothing that is too insane.
For players confused about the economics of the NBA, checking how much cap room you have is much simpler. You won’t be bogged down by things like ticket sales and jerseys sold where you didn’t have control anyway. Now there is a clear salary cap number and hard cap number that your squad cannot go over.
Veteran NBA 2K players must know that while the franchise mode looks different, the functionality is the same. Simming or playing your games is easy as it has ever been. In the offseason you’ll have the usual menu of free agent, scouting, draft, and coaching options.
If you ever wanted to be Isiah Thomas, this is the place. Just don’t sweet talk your colleagues.
Association 2.0 is a big improvement over the previous version.
Living Rosters and 2K Share
Living Rosters is the other new feature in NBA 2K9. Instead of waiting a month for a 2K roster update, you’ll always have the most up-to-date rosters. 2K Sports also promises constant updates to player ratings, tendencies, starting lineups and rotations. The service will offer access to unlockable animation packages for players in the game to reflect their progress during the season. The NBA 2K "Insider" will be there to give you your roster fixes 24/7.
You can also upload rosters, sliders and created players online with the 2K Share feature. If you’re looking for the best arcade-style sliders to play with or the '96 Chicago Bulls you can head online and start searching.
Team Up Mode
The most noteworthy addition to NBA 2K9 comes online via its Team Up mode. Here is where you team up with four others to play against a team of five. The camera stays focused on your player and if you don’t like the default angle, you can use the directional pad to change it.
If you play a ranked game you’re given a pair of teams while being randomly assigned a player. To weed out the bad apples, you’re given an A through F rating based on how you perform. If you’re Rasheed Wallace you can step back and shoot threes for a positive rating but don’t try it with Dwight Howard.
At its peak, this mode is worthwhile and great fun. My most memorable game came in a losing effort against the Oklahoma City Thunder. I got Amare Stoudemire and I enjoyed boxing out for rebounds, trying to contain Jeff Green and wreaking havoc on offense with huge dunks and put backs. However, there is a dark side to it.
In a game as the Nuggets, I was lucky to get Allen Iverson. The only thing is Allen Iverson isn’t as effective when he doesn’t get the ball. The guy playing as Linas Kleiza decided to run the ball up the court and shoot almost every time. When you have players like that it can ruin a potentially good time. The other detriment to the experience right now is the aforementioned server issues. If too many players are in a Team Up game it seems like lag can become an issue at times, or games simply won't be able to start and so forth. Once again, for now, I'll assume this ties into the initial launch rush and everything will be figured out in the coming days.
Either way, the experience is based entirely on the people you’re playing with. You’re able to communicate with your teammates through the microphone but you can also press a button to call for the ball or an alley-oop. You have no idea how fun it is working out plays over the microphone and playing them out in the game until you've tried it. Just hope Linas Kleiza isn’t on your team.
NBA 2K9 is exactly what you would expect from 2K Sports. The game brings over all the fun from past additions while adding to the game in most every way. The competition is heating up though, and for future additions 2K may not be able to afford being a year late on certain features (five-on-five for example). Still, NBA 2K9 is the best basketball game on the market right now. If you like the sport at all you’ll undoubtedly enjoy yourself, and even if you don’t, this game is worth checking out.
On the Court: The gameplay is as solid as ever. Little touches of realism make the game better and you can actually make layups this year.
Graphics: The players are more detailed than last year. The faces and skin textures are better and the arenas look like they should. White players don't look like mutants for once.
Sound: You won’t be wowed by the commentary but it could be worse. The soundtrack is very good but the crowd interaction is where the sound really shines.
Entertainment Value: The 3-point shootout is easier to play and the dunk contest is just as solid as last year. You’ll never get bored playing with friends or online opponents. The franchise mode got a major upgrade with Association 2.0. Living Rosters should mean that you have the most authentic game possible without spending hours creating players and making trades.
Learning Curve: If you’ve played any of the past additions you’ll have no problem picking this game up. Either way, this game is still hard and the CPU can be ruthless at times.
Online: Team Up mode is a great addition, just be careful who you play with. The core online game is the same as always, which is fine. Hopefully the 2K servers are cleared up after the initial launch chaos, and normalcy and consistent online play can shine through. For now, I'll assume these issues are the same pains many games go through once the masses go online for the first time.
Overall Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)