Inside Pulse 12

Review: NBA 2K9 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

NBA 2K9
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Genre: Sports Simulation
Release Date: 10/08/2008

Another year, another battle of basketball giants. It’s almost refreshing that, with EA’s habit of buying up exclusive licenses for any sports federation they deem fit, that they still have to compete with 2K when it comes to NBA games, after it was reported a few years back that the NBA rebuked their efforts for exclusive license. It was a wise move, as NBA Live was regarded by critics and gamers alike as being decidedly inferior to the 2K series.It really hasn’t been close for years. This year, Live came out with an improved effort that still had some issues, such as sluggishness and bugs. However, it’s at least playable, which past versions of Live couldn’t boast. Meanwhile, last year’s version of 2K8, while good, was a bit too ambitious, with it’s Isomotion controls getting in the way more often than not.

Did 2K9 answer the bell this year? Not only does it answer the bell, but it once again scores a TKO over it’s beleagured opponent.

A note before I go any further: NBA 2K9 and NBA Live are pretty much tied at the hip. Therefore, it’s important for me to point out these differences between the two games; I’ll be doing the same exact thing if I were to review Live. Bear this in mind as I go through this, in case you’re looking for which game does X, Y or Z better.

On the surface, not much has changed. One major difference, which you could say is ripped off from Live, is the ability to download “live” rosters. What this means, is that any roster changes, any injuries, any changes in form, are available to download daily. For instance, Devin Brown was signed by the New Orleans Hornets on Friday; in the next day’s update, there’s Devin Brown on the Hornets, with accurate ratings. The accuracy of the ratings during the season is something I’m unable to test, mainly because the season hasn’t started yet; we’d have to be a month in for us to see any significant changes, and it doesn’t start for another couple of weeks. What I can say is that the changes that are reflected aren’t quite as deep as Live’s; 2K9‘s changes are just for rosters and ratings, whereas Live has tendancy changes, the ability to recreate the previous night’s games, etc. Overall, I think the option is a bit overrated; if you don’t play a lot online, or in multiplayer, you’re not going to notice this much. Most single-player games are in Franchise/The Association mode, and that mode is isolated – for good reason – from these changes, as the players in those modes are going to have their own isolated changes within the modes, as well as their own isolated roster moves, etc. Why bother forcing a trade for Kobe Bryant when your next roster update is going to invalidate it? The other difference I noticed is that 2K9 didn’t require a code in order to activate it’s live rosters. Why is this relevant? Because Live does; it comes with a code on the back of the instruction book that you have to put in before downloading rosters. This is nothing for those that bought the game new, but for anyone that either rents, uses Gamefly, or buys used, this is BAD. Once you put in the code on the back of the book, that code is used. So what happens when I trade in my copy of Live (and I WILL be trading it in), and some poor schmuck buys it? He can’t use Live 365 out of the box… but he’ll be able to buy a new code online! ONLY for 800 MS Points, or $10 in real-world money! That means, considering Gamestop charges $55 for their new releases when they’re used, it literally costs more to buy the game used to get the most out of it, than it does to buy the game new. That’s some dirty pool on EA’s part, and I commend 2K for not nickel-and-diming their gamers.

Once you get past the live rosters, the modes in 2K9 are similar to what was around last year. Association mode? check. Blacktop mode? Check. The assorted single game and season modes? Check. Really, if you’re looking for lots of different things to do outside of franchise mode, you’re not going to find it here, but then again, really, the only game you’re going to find that in is the All-Play version of Live, which sucks with a ferocious, almost professional quality fervor. I will say this off the bat: anyone that wants NBA 2K9 will want it for the gameplay; the actual, on-the-court game is the main draw of this game.

If you’re going to be primarily a one-trick pony, make it a hell of a trick. Simply put, NBA 2K9 is the absolute best game of basketball I’ve ever played, and blows last year’s game away, let alone Live. It’s not even close.

The first thing I noticed on offence was that responsiveness to my controls was improved tenfold from the previous version of this game. Last year, Isomotion was so intricate that it literally got in the way. You’d cut left, and your player would decide to make a big to-do about doing a crossover. This got messy, and led to a lot of possessions that involved me telling my TV screen “OK, cut left… no, don’t cross-over, I don’t need some And 1 crap here, just go left, OK, there’s the screen, cut ba– no, no damn crossover! There goes the screen! OK, I’ll send it to the blocks to– GOD DAMNIT YOU’RE KENDRICK PERKINS DON’T CROSSOV– great, he got stripped, two on one going ba– awesome, they scored, and took the harm. Lovely. I need a drink”. Thankfully, that’s been fixed, and what it means is that your player does Isomotion only when you WANT him to (ie: when in conjunction with the sprint button), and the rest of the time, the player you have, depending on his skillset, is extremely responsive, or at least realistic; I expect Chris Paul to be able to dribble through four players, but if Michael Doleac were to try the same, I would expect to have enough comical mishaps to put to Weird Al music and put on Youtube, and 2K9 recreates that beautifully. Furthermore, players respond to my requests to send picks a lot better now; press the B button, and a big guy will set a pick for your ball handler; from there, you can react by either driving, getting space for a shot, or going Mailman + Stockton, and dishing to the rolling forward for a quick two. It sounds so simple for anyone that knows basketball, but it hasn’t been done right since I can remember games being particular about actually setting picks. I feel like I’m obligated to mention the shot stick here – for those that haven’t played a 2K game, you can shoot with the right analogue stick – but I don’t personally use it, so your mileage may vary. Thankfully, unlike in games past, the game has a very good idea of what to do if you’re one of those weirdos like me that insists on the classic, use-X-to-shoot style. Before, if you wanted to do one style of shot, the game had a habit of making you do something completely assinine, as if to say “yeah, if you’d used our Shot Stickā„¢, you wouldn’t have had your shot sent up into the ninth row!”. This year, the game’s very intuitive of what is the best move to do, or at least the one I want to do, making it so that you don’t have to force yourself to use the bloody thing if you don’t want to.

I do have some niggles offensively, but they’re minor, and one of them, long-run, is a benefit of the game. Every player has their real-life shooting style in this game. That’s a good thing, but a pain in the neck to get used to. For example, I managed to pick up Sacramento swingman Kevin Martin in one of my Franchise modes, a very good player who’s just a bit underrated because he plays in one of the worst locations in the NBA. Unfortunately, I forgot that Martin has one of those weird, Shawn Marion-like shots which are a lot closer to 60s-era set shots than they are to actual, modern jumpers, and because of that, it REALLY threw my timing off to get a good shot. On the one hand, he’s virtually unblockable as long as he has some room, but on the other, until I got used to it, I was off a lot because I was holding onto the button too long. Secondly, if there’s one thing that Live does unequivocably better than 2K9 on offence, it’s play calling. In Live, you press the RB button on the way up, and pick one of a few plays, which the players execute near-flawlessly. In 2K9, you can use the D-pad, but you can also end up calling up one of a few other screens, showing substitutions, pressure, gameplan, etc., and they’re impossible to cancel out of, leaving you ten seconds of your twenty-four to cancel as you want for the bloody screen to go back to normal. You can do the quick play, which equals selecting a player and either making him post up, get open, set a screen or get to the outside, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as Live’s system. Personally, I just let my players do whatever they want, and act accordingly, unless I want to pick-and-roll.

Going to defence now, where there’s been a resurgence of the “lock down” defence that Live made famous a few years back, but has just been perfected. Now, holding the left trigger while your player is near the ball handler initiates a lock-down mode, which puts nine squares next to his name; picture a perfectly shaped square with nine litle squares inside it, and then drag the outer corners towards you, so it resembles an arc, and you have what I’m talking about. You can use the right analogue stick to determine the depth of your coverage, from in-his-face to slagging back to allow the jumper, and also any side preference. To casuals, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but let me assure the hardcore crowd, this is IMMENSELY useful. Let’s say you’re guarding Kirk Hinrich of the Bulls. Hinrich likes to go from the left side of the court, come off a screen, dribble to his right and square up. A quick flick of the stick towards his right, and bang, you’re shadowing him off, and making him either dish the ball off, or retreating back and eating some clock. In the post, this works even better, and for this, we’ll use a fat piece of crap who’s mother knows him as Eddy Curry. Curry likes to get the ball on the left block and spin to his right where he can use his somewhat soft touch to his advantage. If you can force him to his left – or even better, force him to the right block – then he’s either going to either spin into a double team, or have to pass off; either way, it benefits you, because Curry’s an abominal passer, and an exceptionally stupid player (Biased, jilted Knicks fan? Me? Naaaaaaah). Past that, defence in 2K9 is similar to what it was last year, in that it makes you focus on timing, intelligent usage of match-ups, and not being overaggressive. Any player that falls into the video game trap of abusing the steal button, and jumping early for blocks is going to get run off the court at every level but the lowest one, as players react to the early jump and go under, or even learn to pump-fake more to get you off your feet. Stay in front of your man, use double teams smartly, keep the other team out of the paint, and keep them off the line, and you’ll win more often than not. You know… just like real life. I’ve never had a basketball game make me think this much. Again, my issues are small; sometimes, when defending in the post, my player backs up along with the offending player who’s backing up, which leads to the player with the ball sometimes having an easy conversion, since he’s more or less walked to the rim, but that’s very rare. There’s also the issue of players sometimes bunching up, and making player selection hard. Too often, I’ve had shooting guards covering power forwards in the low blocks, while the power forward on my team switches to the two-guard, causing major mismatches all the way around.

There’s one thing this game has that should be familiar to anyone that’s been playing sports games for a long time, and it’s a bit frustrating, though considering the career of Kobe Bryant and other superstars, it could be considered realistic: the “No F***ing Way Game” (NFWG), as coined by ESPN’s Bill Simmons. What is the NFWG? That’s when the computer decides that there’s no f***ing way you’re winning this game, and decides to turn either it’s entire team into the ’86 Celtics, or any superstar into a modern day Wilt Chamberlain. It’s infuriating to deal with, because you can throw two players at him, get a hand in his face on every shot, knock him on his butt, it doesn’t matter; he’s going to score, he’s going to score often, and you can burn all the time-outs you want, because that’s just going to make him angry. As I’ve stated, it’s kinda realistic, considering what Kobe’s done in the past, but anyone wondering why the balance rating isn’t higher, there you go.

The real crux of the single player mode is what 2K likes to call The Association 2.0, signifying that it’s a full upgrade over the last Association mode. For the most part, that’s apropos. The main source of your information is going to come from the NBA.com portal, which has some headlines, which lead to box scores, or the transaction wire, or a player’s profile, etc. I wish there were some boilerplate articles behind those links, but the headlines are often informative enough as it is; for example, I learned from that portal that David Lee wanted to re-sign for a long-term deal; since I have a virtual mancrush on Lee, I was quick to do that as soon as I saw the message. The interface is sloppy, though, as it is with the rest of the menu interface throughout the game; I really never have liked getting around the menus in any of 2K’s games. That’s minor compared to some of the other changes throughout the mode. For one, the ability to look up accurate, specific number ratings on every other player in the league is now gone; instead, you have to scout those players to get those ratings. Otherwise, you only get a standard letter rating; for example, instead of seeing that he has an 82, a player can have a B in outside shooting, and some of the letter ratings are conglomerates of similar ratings, like how athleticism, on the ball defence, and post defence all go in together. You have limited chances to scout, and they take time, so it helps to learn whatever you can about a player you’re trying to acquire before you pull the trigger. It makes things a bit more realistic. Also, they added in the Larry Bird rules when dealing with contract negotiations; what that means, is that a player has to have three “Bird years” with a team before a team can go over it’s salary cap to resign that player, named after how the Celtics were able to have the NBA bend it’s rules so they could keep Larry Bird. There’s also the fact of the player’s own motivations, and how they affect roster changes. Players have three ratings, rated from not important to extremely important: playing for a winner, financial security, and their loyalty. Character players like Kevin Garnett don’t give a crap about a big contract any longer; they want to win, and playing for a winner is extremely important for him; for some players, they won’t waive their no-trade clause to go to a team that doesn’t have as good a record. On the other side is perpetual malcontent Darius Miles, who could care less about winning or loyalty as long as he’s getting paid. The differences don’t stand out for most players until they get deep, but The Association works beautifully in practice. While Live has more things for the player to do, and unlock, it’s not as realistic as 2K9, so it’s a matter of personal preference which mode is better; my vote goes to 2K9.

Graphically, the game is absolutely stunning. The game looked good last year, but this year, facial mapping has been improved, detail is finer on the court, bodies look almost life-like, and the whole package comes together into a game that I would use images from to sell High-Definition TVs. Furthermore, the presentation has been improved dramatically; replays are better, celebrations are better, and between periods, there’s a TV-like concoction of highlights and player-focused reactions that looks almost exactly like an NBA on TNT broadcast. This game is a visual masterpiece, and the only thing holding me back from a perfect score in this area is that the framerate takes a hit in some arenas, usually those with a lot of colour on the court, like in Washington. Audibly, the game sounds good, with on the court sounds being true-to-life, and even 2K Beats beating out EA Trax, though that’s more Live‘s fault than 2K9‘s benefit, as Live‘s soundtrack is absolutely daffy. I expect to hear some hip-hop when I play my basketball games; what’s with the punk? What’s with the emo crap? 2K Beats in this game is better just because it’s given us more of the same from years past, with a notable appearance from Gnarls Barkley. Kevin Harlan comes back for the play-by-play this year, but the rest of his team is different, with Clark Kellogg as his colour commentator and Cheryl Miller as the sideline reporter, which I’m sure must just be a dandy assignment for one of the pioneers of the women’s game. Miller and Harlan are great, but Kellogg replaces the superior Kenny Smith, and almost all of his regular lines are the exact same as last year’s game. Announcing isn’t a big strength of this year’s game, but it’s better than Live’s, if only because I got extremely sick and tired of hearing Steve Kerr tell me how often players were going left, even if he was completely and totally wrong.

Finally, online mode comes back, and comes back strong. 2K is actually doing a contest, where ten weekly winners have a chance to win a bunch of prizes, including the entire 2K10 lineup of games. One of the benefits of this year’s game is the ability to play a full, 5 on 5 game with nine other humans. This is a great addition, and would be better if it wasn’t for the fact that you have to play with nine other humans; once again, the worst part of an online experience is – surprise! – the other players. Most games I’ve been involved with in this mode have regarded this mode as their own personal Streetball mode; dribble, dribble, crossover, funky move, shot over four pairs of hands. As a player on these teams, I thought to myself “hey, this must be how it feels to play for the Knicks”. There’s also the ability to upload sliders and rosters for other people, but this is a virtual afterthought in the long run. OVerall, anyone that wants to play 2K9 online will find whatever they want to here, though I had more connection problems here than with Live.

The Scores:
Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Very Good
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

NBA 2K9 doesn’t have the bells and whistles of NBA Live ’09, but in the one place that truly matters – on the court – it’s not close. NBA 2K9 is simply the best game of basketball I’ve ever played, and to top it off, The Association 2.0 is a good enough step up to warrant another mention. It’s not for the gamer that just likes arcade games, but any basketball fan would do well to pick this game up; it’s so much better than Live on the court that there’s really no excuse for anyone not to give this game a try, especially with a PC version coming.

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