Ever since 2K Sports decided to take on the sports juggernaut that is EA Sports, the former has fared quite well in straight-up comparisons. While EA’s NBA Live series has lagged in recent years, the NBA 2K entries have satisfied more b-ball fans with its accessibility, technical polish and overall sense of realism. This year, though, considering how promising NBA Live 09 appears, NBA 2K9 has to step up and jam it through with authority if they want to maintain that upper hand. Well, thankfully, the game does just that, and despite a few lingering issues regarding control and a few bizarre presentation flaws, NBA 2K9 delivers the goods on a number of different levels. Not only will fans of the franchise enjoy the tightening up of the gameplay (they fixed the Lockdown defense; yay!), but newcomers won’t be bludgeoned over the head with certain simulated aspects that take a big bite out of the fun factor. In October, NBA followers will have a tough decision to make, but in our eyes, you can’t go wrong with this one.
The graphics are excellent, although there are several aliasing problems when you get up close and personal with the players. The highlight of this visual presentation certainly centers on the super-fluid animations; they’re both numerous and a wonder to behold, and that’s a huge benefit, especially if you’re using a closer-than-average camera view. Furthermore, players will get the benefit of the home advantage as the crowd backs their team with roars and applause, and certain sweeping camera angles will show the frenzied fans during a hotly contested playoff game. The color is great, besides the aliasing there’s little in the way of technical issues, and everything is so very slick and nicely refined. If you’re one of those anal types, we’re certain you’ll find a few tiny errors, but if they’re holding up your entertainment, than we strongly suggest rearranging your priorities. In the end, fans of the sport will be content with the graphics in NBA 2K9 , and the best part is, they don’t suffer from a laggy framerate, which would’ve resulted in the dreaded herky-jerkies. It’s smooth, pretty and well depicted, with the exception of some off-the-court visuals that hold little appeal (discussed later).
The sound is fantastic, but the soundtrack is – not surprisingly – mostly subjective. If you’re a fan of hip-hop, you’ll enjoy the soundtrack but if not, there’s not much to get excited about. The good news is that the gameplay effects are very good: we’re not assaulted with the constant sneaker squeaking we’ve experienced in previous installments, and the grunts of effort, bone-shattering dunks, and even the subtle shifting of bodies on the court is all beautifully orchestrated. And as we just mentioned, the fans play a much bigger role than we remember, and their impact on the game is quite pronounced. We would’ve liked more in the way of player and coach involvement, though; they never really say anything, and if we understand the NBA correctly, that’s not exactly realistic. At the very least, we would’ve expected some trash talking on the Blacktop, but it’s all disturbingly civil and quiet. What’s up with that? Even so, there’s no denying the quality of the gameplay effects from top to bottom – even tipping a ball away sounds right! – so we’re not about to complain any further.
The gameplay won’t be unfamiliar to fans of previous 2K entries, but there are several significant enhancements that must be addressed. First of all, that lockdown defense is back after making its debut in NBA 2K8 , but everyone agreed last year’s system was seriously flawed. Essentially, all you had to do was hold down on the left trigger to have the defenseman lock down into an impossible-to-circumvent, hounding stance. Even if the defender was a slow-footed center and the ball-handler was a speedy, savvy guard, that guard was turned away at every…well, turn. This year, no more of that nonsense. Basically, you still use the same mechanic but this time, when using the right stick to position yourself, the ball-handler does have a chance to find an opening. Of course, you can’t execute a lockdown defense when the opponent doesn’t have the ball (still a major issue), but hey, one step at a time. Better AI is also included in NBA 2K9 , which means you will have to work to effectively drive the lane.
If you want to get all scientific, you can utilize the Dual player control, which lets you send out commands to your comrades in arms. If you’re coming down the court with Rondo and you want Pierce to pop out to the perimeter to prepare for a quick jumper, you can make that happen. Want Garnett backing into position, ready to take advantage of a defensive weakness? Feed him, watch him intuitively “feel” the fact that the defender is shying to the left or right; they try to reach in on the left, and he’ll explode right for a two-handed jam. The latter is a testament to the great animations and more intelligent teammate AI, and you’ll never get tired of driving the hoop, pressing the shoot button, and watching the player perform a fall-away, one-handed, high-off-the-glass layup. This leads us to the shot stick, which has returned and like other gameplay aspects, boasts a slight upgrade. This time, you can change your shot in mid-air, and that will let the crafty player change a regular shot into a side-steppin’ jumper if the situation calls for the sudden alteration. 2K Sports really works to embrace many of the most authentic features of the sport at hand, and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
There’s more incentive than ever to play the ol’ run-‘n-gun, and that’s all thanks to a game that moves more like an old NBA Jam , yet still managers to be a true-blue simulator. One of the biggest complaints from basketball aficionados over the years is that simulators tend to move a lot slower than one might expect; certainly slower than the real thing. But NBA 2K9 may be the fastest b-ball simulator ever, despite the fact we lose a bit in the way of control. Thing is, the momentum physics aren’t exactly spot-on, and we’d often step out of bounds or suffer an irritating backcourt violation because the players would sometimes execute special maneuvers without being prompted. As usual, you use the left analog to control movement, but it’s easy to get a little too spastic, and this is where the ramped-up speed can actually become a hindrance. When you’re double-teamed, for instance, it can be a tricky proposition to pass or shoot without turning the ball over, and it can be difficult to make the right decision given the speed of the game.
As for the options, there are all kinds of things to do. You can enter the Blacktop mode, which features several street ball modes like a classic Dunk Contest, pick-up games, classic 21, and more. If you want to sample some of the goodness before diving in to the Association and/or Season modes, you can always try the Quick Play or go through a Playoffs. Also, let’s not forget the multiplayer, which is a blast but is sometimes bogged down by weird camera angles, and if you want all that off-season depth, it’s here in full force. We get the now-standard sliders to adjust gameplay settings like 3-point accuracy, mid-range accuracy, dunk-in-traffic success, etc., and if that’s not enough, log on to the Network and receive continual updates that will keep your virtual Season up to speed with the real-life NBA. How cool is that? The only completely strange part of this whole production is the fact that 2K decides to pass on the little things; the extras that sim fans would appreciate. Where’s the commentating crew at halftime? How come the coaches and players never say anything?
In that way, we really don’t get a good representation of the patented NBA vibe and lifestyle. It’s a major drawback and quite noticeable, even when you’re only fooling around in Quick Play mode, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t worth playing. Quite the contrary in fact; NBA 2K9 has set the bar quite high and EA’s NBA Live 09 will be hard-pressed to leap over it. In comparison to last year’s title, 2K’s 09 effort presents a faster, smoother, livelier, and perhaps most importantly, an even more accessible and realistic depiction of basketball. There are a few problems – we once watched an opponent try to back down our locked-in defender for the full remainder of the shot clock – but nothing that will deter you from having fun. Slowly but surely, developers are starting to produce simulators that are both accurate and entertaining, and it’s something we’ve been waiting for since this new generation kicked off.