The NBA season is just around the corner, which means another season of Vlade Divac flopping on the hardwood every time the likes of Earl Boykins breathes on him. The new season also means another release in ESPN's NBA 2K franchise is pending. Visual Concepts recently brought a beta version of NBA 2K5 by our office, and what we saw of the game left us hungry for more.
This year, the developer has performed a substantial overhaul on several aspects of 2K5's on-the-court gameplay, including player movement and both the offensive and defensive artificial intelligence. In addition, there are a number of control tweaks that have further enhanced gameplay.
Player movement has been given a considerable upgrade this year. What the Visual Concepts folks refer to as "the next movement" basically means that players move with a much more tangible sense of weight. No longer can players accelerate instantly to a full sprint simply because you have pressed forward on the thumbstick. Instead, movement is regulated by a more realistic sense of weight transfer, which is especially noticeable during stops and starts. Players must work up to full speed and, conversely, take a bit longer when stopping.
While this momentum-based movement system will affect your offensive moves toward the basket, it may also change your approach to defense. No longer will a slowpoke like Rick Fox suddenly burn you out of nowhere with a turbocharged drive toward the basket, as was the case in previous years. Instead, the "wind-up" movement of an accelerating player will be a tip-off as to the direction he is headed, meaning you'll have a better shot of cutting him off if you pay attention and react accordingly.
While defensive options have improved, Visual Concepts was quick to point out that there are just as many tweaks on the offensive side of the ball. Basically, the entire approach to game development has been focused on balance. As a result, a large number of interesting and realistic ball and player movements have been incorporated into the game. However, to ensure even, balanced gameplay, there is always a counter to offensive plays when on D.
Fans of the NBA2K series either loved or hated the isomotion feature, which was introduced just last year. This dribble feature let you pull off complicated juke moves and crossovers as you drove toward the basket. This year, the system is back in the form of isomotion2, and it offers more moves, more multiplayer animations, and a number of different ways to change the ball position as a play unfolds. We were fortunate enough to have witnessed the dramatic midair isomotion options, which even let you change the direction of a layup while the offensive player was in midleap.
In an effort to improve (and perhaps to reintroduce) play-calling in the NBA 2K series, Visual Concepts has simplified the controls for calling plays. You can still adjust your strategies on the fly with a few simple button presses. However, for those who can't tell the difference between the triangle and a full-court press, the inclusion of an adjustable tempo meter is a welcome addition. By taking the tempo down a few notches, you can have your players crash the boards and make extra efforts to grab rebounds. Conversely, speeding up the game means your players will head down court as soon as a shot is in the air, looking to open up the court to create some fast-break opportunities. Tempo also affects your offensive game, so a slow tempo forces the offense outside to take more Js, while an up-tempo defense is always looking for the steal and is hustling to block shots. As you might expect, a quicker tempo means players fatigue quickly, so you'll need to adjust your lineups accordingly, depending on your style of play.
NBA 2K5's franchise mode returns under a new moniker--the association. The biggest change this year is an alternative method for simulating games that you don't want to control directly. In previous versions of the NBA 2K series (and in most sports game franchise modes, for that matter), simulating games you don't want to play leaves you with minimal control over their outcomes. As such, the result can be a painful losing streak if you're not careful.
By using NBA 2K5's "full authority" simulation mode, you will still be able to simulate one or more games, but, much like a coach mode in a football title, you can have indirect input in the outcome of your simmed games. In fact, the amount of coaching options you have is surprising--and you can even control the number and type of shots a given player will take per quarter. Once a quarter has been played, you will be shown a brief video recap of the highlights (or lowlights) of that quarter. You can then make adjustments accordingly, subbing in fresh players off the bench, tweaking shot attempts, and making defensive adjustments as needed.
A typical game simulated via full authority takes around three to five minutes to complete, depending on the number of post-quarter video recaps you want to watch (they can be skipped if you like) and the adjustments you make. Full authority mode should be an effective method for getting through a large number of games on your schedule while still retaining a modicum of control over your team's progress. Of course, if you're interested in skipping the regular season altogether, you can still go the traditional route, take your chances, and sim your way in to the postseason.
Here's an understatement for you: The NBA contains many interesting personalities. Visual Concepts is taking that wide spectrum of player temperaments into account in association mode as well. As the boss of your chosen team, you'll be counted on to ensure your team's success not only on the court, but also off the hardwood as well. Players will regularly come to you to offer their opinions on the state of the team, the frequency and intensity of practices, playing time, etc. Based on their comments, you are presented with three possible response types for that player: positive, neutral, and negative. The trick is in matching the correct reply to the player's comment. Some players need to be encouraged with positive feedback, while others may need a kick in the pants to get them fired up.
This question/answer system can affect team chemistry either positively, negatively, or not at all. At first glance, this system of matching your response to the question seems a bit too "rock-paper-scissors" for comfort, especially early in the season. However, Visual Concepts assured us that once you get to know a particular player's personality and you subsequently learn which response will elicit a positive result from him, that player's behavior will be consistent for the rest of the season. This should eliminate the guesswork in dealing with your players as the season progresses.
With NBA 2K5, 24/7 mode returns with fewer restrictions than last year's version. For example, you won't have to play a full game of 21 to up your stats this year. Instead, many of the challenges are held against a relatively short time clock, which lets you quickly upgrade your created 24/7 player right out of the box. A unique feature in this year's 24/7 mode is the inclusion of a create-a-shoe mode where you can fully design your custom scoots, right down to details such as fastener type, heel color, and logo.
Graphically, one of the most striking things about NBA 2K5 involves the player models. The quality of the facial mappings is amazing due to the individual mapping of every NBA player's head. Instead of using a set of stock heads and pasting a face on to it, 2K5's variety in head size and shape creates an additional layer of realism for the player models.
Other, more-subtle, graphical touches include billowing jerseys and shorts and lighting effects that provide the illusion of numerous folds in the jerseys. NBA 2K5 also includes improved dynamic shadows, where players not only cast shadows on the floor, but also on themselves (such as when players pass their arms over their legs while dribbling) and their opponents, which presents a subtle but effective lighting trick.
The ESPN style of presentation gamers have come to expect in the series is evident here in NBA 2K5. Bob Fitzgerald returns as play-by-play announcer, and he's joined in the booth this year by Bill Walton. Meanwhile, Michelle Tafoya is on the sidelines. The halftime show has received a big overhaul this year; where star players and key moments from the first half are focused on in a series of dynamic video recaps.
Visual Concepts caught some heat last year for the limited camera angles available in NBA 2K4. This has been addressed this year in a big way, with fully customizable camera options that allow you to tweak the camera angle and zoom level so that you can find the perfect viewpoint for your preferred style of play.
Based on what we saw, NBA 2K5 seems to be heading in the right direction. The minuscule $20 price tag, recently confirmed by Sega, is additional good news for thrifty gamers looking for their roundball fixes this fall. Look for our final verdict on NBA 2K5 when the game ships in early October.