Review: ESPN NBA 2K5 (XB)

ESPN NBA 2K5
Genre: Sports
Platform: Xbox [PS2]
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: 09-28-04

While debated by some, the NBA 2K series has sustained a loyal fan base until the misstep of the 2004 edition. The ESPN NBA Basketball 2K4 version, with the close up picture of Allen “The Answer” Iverson, was a step backwards for the series ” bad enough to cause me not to buy it after a short rental though it always baffled me as to why Ben Wallace was in the commercial for the game but Allen Iverson was on the cover.

Can the series bounce back? Is the $20 price tag and memories of the greatness from 2K1-2K3 enough to lure back those disappointed with the 2004 edition? Those are just some of the questions must be asked.



Modes:

The usual exhibition mode (Quick Play) and street ball modes are all present and accounted for, so far so good. However the meat and potatoes of any sports title in contemporary times is the franchise mode (renamed The Association)…except that Visual Concepts wanted to give you more last year and created the new 24/7 mode (sans terrible Tracy Morgan commercials which mercifully are no longer around).

There have been some major changes incorporated into the Association. The list of features is as follows: team chemistry meter, weekly training, player to general manager talks, Full Authority coaching mode, and dollars instead of points for player contracts.

While 24/7 mode has gained new unlockable items, new challenges, and a few tweaks to last year”s great introduction model. The gist of 24/7 mode is that you create a basketball player and take him through the ranks from nobody to big time baller. With Xbox live you can take your boy and pit him against other created basketball players.


The street ball games can be done 1 on 1 to 5 on 5 with full court, half court, and tournament options. These can be fun when you pit Dr. J and Isiah Thomas against Shaq and Tracy McGrady, a nice diversion from 24/7 and the Association modes.

All in all the new refinements in the Association and 24/7 give ESPN NBA2K5 quite a few ways to kill some time.

Modes Rating: 7.0

Graphics:

Simply put: beautiful. The player models are well animated and well drawn, looking like their counterparts in the real life NBA. Movement is fluid and the limbs of the players flow realistically enough that it sometimes you will be sucked into a particularly acrobatic lay up or dunk. In lieu of using player photos in game for the statistical updates and announcements, Visual Concepts created digitized versions of the players” faces and the detail in which they went in creating these digital headshots is very nice. Rasheed Wallace has his front tooth gap, Ben Wallace is afro”ed out. Allen Iverson has his braids and Kobe Bryant has a little subpoena in his hand…okay, maybe not the braids, those are hard to see.

Player movement is fluid and the natural looking back stepping coupled with the free flowing arms and hands when defending an opposing player really help to keep the illusion of there being an actual NBA game on the screen. Top notch effort in the graphics depart from Visual Concepts, as is their modus operandi.

Again there is a bit of clipping, especially when you use the replay feature but they usually are not glaring enough to notice that often during game play, but keen eyed players will notice the occasional ghost hand or ball.

Graphics: 7.5

Sound:

Squeaks from sneakers, grunts from players working for the offensive board, calling for a double, shouting for the rock, they are all here. Unfortunately so is Bill Walton. The menu music is not that bad, a mixture of hip hop and rap that is par for the lifestyle course of most NBA fans and players. Definitely not your run of the mill hip-hop, more on the end of lesser known but very good bands, the soundtrack had me looking up some of the bands as it is very apropos for this game. Still…Bill Walton is probably the worst color man not named Tim McCarver in the world. He”s wooden, his weird throaty, yet nasally voice irksome, and just annoys this reviewer to no end. Walton”s own brand of stupidity comes out loud and clear. Unfortunately I could not convince myself to stab my ears with knitting needles at this point, in some strange aural ode to King Rex but the thought did cross my mind more than once from having to hear the inane voice of Bill Walton over and over again. Having Walton around instead of keeping with the fictional announcer style of pre-ESPN licensed 2K games is a bad choice. The play-by-play flows well and in the hours upon hours of playing games there the commentary stays somewhat fresh and interesting, though it is understandable if someone would want to listen to something else after awhile. Enthusiasts, of course, will enjoy the experience.

The crowd plays a role in this year”s game as well. When you are at home and go on a scoring run the audience comes alive with electricity, urging you on. When you are in a close game they chant “DE-FENSE” and when you get fouled the requisite murmurs and cries ring out. This helps in immersion but I would definitely like to see a crowd meter in future games ala NCAA Football 2005.

As if Walton wasn”t enough the annoying Stewart “Urban Cliche” Scott rambles on in the pre-game with his annoying attempts to sound like a hip guy with loads of street cred. If they add Stephen A. Smith to next year”s game I will drive to Bristol and start strangling people.

Another problem I found was that Visual Concepts elected to just use generic “number so and so” spoken monikers for created players in franchise mode instead of giving NBA 2K5 the same treatment as NFL 2K5 by having created rookies last names spoken. While this is nothing new it is a bit disappointing and can jar you out of a game when “number 8” scores instead of Hutchinson.

Sound: 5.5

Controls:

The new IsoMotion maneuvers take some time to get used to, especially for those of us whom elected to forgo the 2K4 experience. There are more low post options that can be done by utilizing the left trigger to back down the defender then either using the Y button for a drop step, B for a blow by, or X and the left thumb stick for low post moves. You may also alter your dunk into an acrobatic lay-up by using the left thumb stick and pressing the X button.

This does take some getting used to because of the hand work needed to time low posts moves when you first start but the learning curve is not that great. The 24/7 mode can be utilized as a trainer for these maneuvers.

One glaring problem is that when you start a player down the court for a fast break transition basket your player may do odd dribbles and stutter step, causing you to lose your chance at a break away. This does not happen all the time but often enough to cause some frustration.

Also the awful free throw mechanics that debuted in 2K4 are back, a tad more forgiving (you no longer have to have the two halves make a perfect circle around the basket) but still irksome and quite cumbersome. Having practiced free throws in 2/7 for an hour or so the conclusion I had on free throws is it would be easier to shoot free throws blind folded out in the back yard than consistently hit free throws in this game.

Major glaring problem of free throws aside the game plays very well and the addition of the hop step to take a shot definitely is welcome as it adds more offensive options. Sadly the removal of the defense positioning button creates an imbalance towards the offense but maybe that is just the months I spent playing NBA2K3 talking.

Controls 6.5

Balance:

Fresh out of the box with zero adjustments NBA 2K5 does not accurately reflect the NBA. The AI will routinely shoot 65% for a game while you shoot around 35% (if you are a schmuck like me and use the Charlotte Bobcats). While the shooting percentage for your team varies on its quality the AI will continually shoot lights out.

I once started a game going on a 22-4 run only to have the AI come back in the second as my entire team went cold and made a paltry 3-19 while the AI controlled team went 12-14. This is not only frustrating but harkens back to the slam dunk bug in 2K3 when, if your team is up by a large amount of points, your players will routinely miss slam dunks in an effort to bring the game back to within reach for the computer controlled opponent.

The fact the AI can shoot 65% while an NBA team shooting 45% is par for the course just goes to show you that those ballers just are not trying hard enough.


Another balance issue at hand is the lack of fouls called. A team like the Detroit Pistons, who are notorious for offensive droughts but stay in games thanks to driving to the basket and getting to the charity stripe would be dead in NBA2K5. Until I actually adjusted the game play sliders for foul frequency the most free throws I had in a game was 4. The most fouls that were called on my team was 3.

Why is this a balance issue? The main reason is that when you drive the lane and have a shot blocked or missed you can sometimes get a foul called and get points from the free throw line. Having that aspect lessened by default makes mounting a comeback more difficult.

There is one more major problem with the balance and that comes from the transition game. The default sliders are set all the way to the maximum for defensive and offensive transition, meaning that if you are running and gunning trying to emulate the Showtime Lakers of the middle 1980s you will find three defenders set up in a zone waiting for you to come and try to make your way towards the bucket. This immediately removes an entire style of basketball from the game, for the most part. Early games I played quickly turned into half court plodding Utah Jazz style basketball, with me hoping that my power forward or center could make head way in the paint. In fact a common complaint of many players was the abundance of points scored in the paint as opposed to in the mid-range or three point arch (though there is the old lament of the lost mid-range jumper, it is probably stored with all those copies of the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh and Amazing Grace and Chuck). Again you can adjust the game sliders to make the game more like an NBA game should you choose but the default settings are a high road to frustration.

A huge oversight was the inability for the AI to call time outs. This makes some parts of the game very unrealistic as the CPU cannot call a time out to try and slow down momentum if a large scoring run is rolling over the AI team nor can it call a time out to try and win close games late. Sometimes the AI will also do strange things in a close game, like stand at half court dribbling or intentionally fouling a tad too early.

The overall play balance of NBA2K5 out of the box is lacking, but adjusting the game play sliders and setting the speed to slow does make the game much more enjoyable.

Balance: 5.0

Replay ability:

A deep franchise mode, the addition of unlockables for achieving certain feats during played games, and 24/7 modes add to the offline replay ability. Xbox Live adds online leagues (either simmed or played) along with challenges from across the land gives this title plenty of shelf life…if you can stand some of the cretins out there in internet land.

Replay Ability: 6.5

Appeal:

The NBA 2K series has been lauded as a game that tries to mirror actual NBA games and with the new features in the franchise mode Visual Concepts is trying to make sure that it keeps that recognition.

Since this is a sports game the appeal factor for non sports fan is slight at best, but for those that enjoy sports games more on the simulation side, NBA2K5 is definitely going to be right up your alley. Those wanting more flash and fast arcade like NBA Jam-like action may find the 24/7 mode fun and may be able to find some game play slider adjustments but this game really is not geared towards arcade basketball aficionados.

Appeal: 6.5

Originality:

In discussing originality for NBA2K5 analyzing the new twists and turns to the Association (franchise) mode is necessary.

First: The team chemistry meter, weekly training, and player to general manager talks are lumped in with each other at the beginning of each week during the regular season. While I found the chemistry meter to be an interesting gimmick it can sometimes be annoying. The meter is directly affected by both the weekly training and player to coach gab sessions. The player-GM talks is a digital sports version of a choose your own adventure story, without the chance of coming to an abrupt end by falling into a ravine but also without the ability to peek at other pages to see where the choices lead.

Each player on your squad can come into the general manager”s office and solicit advice from the sage GM who is probably more worried about the current 26 game losing streak than whether or not Mark Jackson is going to “step up his game” (note to self: quit trying to turn the Charlotte Bobcats into a real team). After reading what is on the players mind for this conversation you get three choices for your response ” one ambiguous, one positive, and one not quite negative but definitely not positive. Each player, on the other hand, is listed with a personality type, either 1, 2, 3, or ?. A look through the manual to find out what exactly these personality types meant turned up information on how perform an Alley-Oop shot by pressing X and A together when another player is going towards the basket. Information on the franchise mode is lacking and there is no information on the player personality types anywhere in the manual. All I found was handy dandy tips on how to do an alley oop pass. This lack of any sort of instruction manual depth is par for the 2K course as most every manual for every 2K game I have played has only had a cursory mention of game mechanics and nothing else. Through trial and many errors a slight bit of understanding dawns on the player: just pick one choice all the time for every player and 2 out of 3 times it works and your team chemistry improves. That is the whole rub for this little endeavor: improving your team”s chemistry by stroking a few egos…just like the real NBA!


Training is a somewhat different beast. The team is given an option on hiring staff members who help with the training from a masseuse, biorhythmic specialist, defensive guru, passing guru, player mentor, shooting coach, passing coach, and several others, all with rankings from A to C. These staff members will help improve an overall attribute of the team when you select that attribute to train (inside/outside/midrange shooting, passing, defense, free throws). Contrary to most rating systems, the C class coach is the best of the bunch, giving more of a chance to seen improvement. The gains from training last only for that week and there is a chance that a player will be injured during said training, which is why you have a masseuse on hand to lessen that likely hood. The training also comes in different flavors: rest, light, normal, intense. The more you work your players, the more of a chance they have to injure themselves. A good work out session (not too heavy) will increase team chemistry as well, opening up advanced training options (rebounding, stealing, others). The usual chemistry needed to reach this is 85 and it is rather easy to watch that chemistry go down with a few misplaced words or wrong training schedule.

The problem comes when you have injuries during training every week. Mind you not just small injuries but injuries that keep your players out for 2 months on an every three weeks basis. This problem would be somewhat understandable if you kept training your players hard every week, but when you do a light work out three weeks in a row and have three players out for a month or more following each work out it becomes frustrating.

Second: the Full Authority coaching mode is definitely interesting. In this mode you substitute players in and out as in most modes but you also select how many shots each player on the court for your team takes, what sort of shot they take (inside, outside, mid-range), and what kind of defense they will utilize on their counterpart (again inside, outside, mid-range). Some players have special options for offense or defense that you can choose to use when giving orders. Most offensive specials require the player to have a certain number of shots allotted for the part of the quarter you are playing, most seem to require 6. The defensive special moves do not require anything more than having them, but both offensive and defensive special moves eat up massive amounts of stamina for the players using them and require management in order to have your best players out on the court during crunch time. After everything is chosen the game will then show you a highlight reel of your team and your opposition and how your choices panned out.

If your team did well during the part of the quarter you managed you may be awarded extra shots to distribute but if you do poorly you will lose shots from your total of 10 ” showing the momentum your team has in the game. This can be frustrating when you are down -3 shots and only have 7, making it very hard to coach your way back into the game.

The problem with this mode is that it ends up being a glorified paper-rock-scissors. You select mid-range jumper, give your player 4 shots, and hope that your opponent selected inside defense. While intriguing and definitely a new way of looking at game play there could be much more done with this mode. Playing with the expansion Bobcats yielded some terribly lopsided scores in this mode (A 138-57 drumming at the hands of the New York Knicks comes to mind). As a fan of text simulations I find this excursion into a more hands on simulation mode interesting but hopefully there will be more refinements (like the option to double team an opposing player) in the future.

Overall the new additions to the franchise mode add some depth, but there are problems with the mode, namely the clunky trade interface. Instead of using the old trade interface, the one in ESPN NFL 2K5, Visual Concepts revamped the trade screen making it a bit hard to tell who you are negotiating with. To get to trade with another teams means going through all trade slots to the other side of the screen then trying to figure out which team you are trading with because on the other side of the screen is player ratings, while your side of the screen is now filled with an opponent”s roster. This configuration is not backbreaking, but more mildly annoying, like a slightly off target kick to the groin that ends up hitting you in the upper pubic bone.

Another annoying factor on trades it that if you try to get a little more from AI trades and it rejects the offer the original offer may not be given enough approval percentage so it will be rejected. That is bothersome but not backbreaking. Back from 2K4 is the hiring and firing of staff (coaches, assistants, etc.) but they replaced player introductions with Bill Walton commentary on the upcoming game. This is like replacing a good tasting pizza with a bull”s testicles.

If you are looking for the great SportsCenter weekly show you are also out of luck, a very original and engrossing part of the NFL2K5 game that Visual Concepts decided not to include in NBA2K5. Hopefully they will include it in next year”s version.

Originality: 8.5

Addictiveness:

Once you get into the Association mode, set your game play sliders, and begin unlocking items this game becomes a time sink. When correctly configured I felt as though I was watching and participating in an NBA game. The ebb and flow of the game is the best effort yet that I have seen in capturing the feel of an NBA game. If they added suspensions for substance abuse, having a Shawn Kemp-like illegitimate child simulator, and Chris Webber soda can bong it would be even better.

Addictiveness: 6.0

Miscellaneous:

As mentioned earlier NBA 2K5 is Xbox Live enabled. There are roster downloads to update the default rosters to mirror those of the NBA and supposedly there is a patch coming up for the time out bug. The patches and roster updates are definitely a bonus, should the patches come about.


Online leagues and rankings are very nice as well as the ability to play friends over Xbox Live.

Miscellaneous: 6.0

Ratings:

Modes: 7/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Sound: 5.5/10
Controls: 6.5/10
Balance: 5/10
Replay Ability: 6.5/10
Appeal: 6.5/10
Originality: 8.5/10
Addictiveness: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10