Sega Sports and Visual Concepts' NBA 2K series has made a name for itself with what many consider to be the most accurate reproduction of the sport of basketball on the market. However, since it left the now-defunct Dreamcast and started appearing on other consoles, the series seems to have been somewhat in decline, even though it has continued to produce quality games each year. This year's game, ESPN NBA Basketball, is poised to change all that and to give the series a hefty boost of forward momentum. Several new, key features are set to make their debut this year, including an all-new dribbling and defensive control system called IsoMotion control and a brand-new single-player mode titled 24/7, which lets you create your own personal baller and train him against the best the NBA has to offer. We've spent some time getting a feel for everything ESPN NBA Basketball will offer, and thus far, we're extremely impressed.
The gameplay system featured in last year's NBA 2K3 is largely intact in ESPN NBA Basketball. However, one major upgrade has been implemented: the new IsoMotion control system. Similar in concept to NBA Live's freestyle controls, IsoMotion will give you infinitely more control over your dribbling and defensive moves by letting you move your player to duck and dodge defenders when on offense and to match up to the ball handler when on defense. IsoMotion is effectively a test of reflexes, as the key to beating your opponent is largely based on timing. When on offense, you have to note the proximity of your defender, because if he manages to stand his ground in front of you, you'll take a charging penalty. To counter this, you can cancel your initial direction with a hesitation move, and then juke to the other side, leaving your defender with some nearly broken ankles.
The passing game has been upgraded as well. ESPN NBA Basketball features a new lead passing system that lets you throw a behind-the-back pass in front of a teammate heading toward the net by double-tapping the pass button. This is an especially key feature when playing the point, since it gives you a much easier method of getting the ball to players with an open lane. Also, this year's game actually lets you control alley-oops. By pressing the shoot and pass buttons together, along with the analog stick in the direction of the basket, you can perform an alley-oop if you've got an open teammate.
But the new game doesn't just add control and gameplay features. ESPN NBA Basketball also adds new play modes, including the all-new 24/7 mode. 24/7 gives you the ability to design your own player and put him on the road against some of the best ballers ever to hit the court. You'll begin by creating your player similar to the way you would in a standard create-a-player mode--naming him and giving him your desired appearance--and there are plenty of options to choose from, ranging from neck, arm, and forearm tattoos, to what type of socks you'd like him to wear. Once he's created, you're presented with a map of the United States, complete with a number of marked locations. You'll start at your home location, where you can view your player's current attributes, items, and other acquired goodies, though when you first start out, you won't have much.
In order to progress in 24/7, you'll have to challenge other players in different types of competitions; but before you can compete, you'll need to train. 24/7 mode has a training camp that lets you improve a number of different aspects of your game, including shooting, defense, passing, and offensive and defensive awareness, and it will give you a chance to become more familiar with the IsoMotion control system. In each section of the training court, you must refine one specific aspect of your game with a unique challenge. For example, if you opt to work on your close shots, you'll be placed one-on-one against an NBA player, and your goal is to make at least one dunk or layup. Each time you make one, you'll boost your player's dunk/layup attribute by one point. Training isn't required to bring your custom player into a game, but if you really want to ball with the best, you'll definitely need to upgrade your game.
Once you do start competing in ESPN NBA Basketball, you have plenty of different options. Although some locations are initially locked, you can find available competitions in places like Seattle, Pennsylvania, and Maine. However, which competitions are available depends entirely on when you play. 24/7 mode is tied in to the internal clock of your Xbox or PS2, and as such, depending on the hour of the day, you'll find different competitions with different players. So, at 7:00 in the morning in Seattle, you may find yourself in a tournament against five different players, but if you come back at 1:00 in the afternoon, you might find a one-on-one game where you have to win without having any shots blocked.
When you win a competition, you'll be awarded the cell phone numbers of the players you've defeated so that you can partner up with them later on in team games. Additionally, your player's ranking will also improve. Once your ranking reaches a certain level, you can take on fictional boss characters, and defeating them improves your status significantly. You can also unlock new items for your player, including a wide variety of appearance attributes, which can include anything from vintage uniforms to the kind of bizarre stuff that longtime Sega fans should be able to immediately appreciate. All in all, the 24/7 mode seems extremely deep, and with the added bonus of being able to take your created baller online in competition against other players, it's shaping up to be one of the most intriguing developments to hit a simulation basketball game in quite a while.
Aside from 24/7, ESPN NBA Basketball has the full range of standard game modes, including quick game, season, playoffs, tournament, practice, street mode--which can be played in full-court or half-court games, with one to five players on each side, or just as a game of 21--and the ever-popular franchise mode. This year's franchise mode has all of last year's features, and it also includes a few new additions, such as the ability to hire and fire not only your head coach, but also your assistant coach, rookie scout, and trainer. The game will also support online play for both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox and will feature all the benefits of its NFL and NHL counterparts, including downloadable content, voice chat, and online leagues and tournaments on the PS2.
ESPN NBA Basketball's graphics are also coming together very well and should be a huge improvement over NBA 2K3's graphics. For starters, every single player in the game has a uniquely designed face, meaning that all 500-plus NBA players will look like they're supposed to. Additionally, the game has many little touches, like skin texturing and even the animation of the players' jerseys and shorts, which help make the players look extremely realistic. Similar to ESPN NFL Football and ESPN NHL Hockey, ESPN NBA Basketball features the menus, stat overlays, and every other aspect of ESPN presentation, and this seems to give you the feel of a real-life broadcast. In many ways, in fact, NBA Basketball is actually looking like the slickest of Sega's three sports games this year in terms of overall visual presentation. The Xbox version is predictably better looking than the PlayStation 2 version of the game, but the PS2 version's graphics still show a significant improvement over the graphics in last year's game.
In terms of the game's sound, the biggest upgrade is easily to the game's commentary. Bill Fitzgerald provides the play-by-play, and ESPN's own Tom Tolbert gives the color, and though the pairing seems a bit stiff when compared with the superb commentary found in NFL and NHL, the commentary is still great. Additionally, NBA Shootaround and NBA Friday host Kevin Frazier will give you the pregame info, explaining how the two teams match up, which adds to the already robust ESPN presentation. Everything else in the game is sounding great as well, from the most subtle squeak of a sneaker on the court, to the nice range of hip-hop-flavored tracks available on the soundtrack.
From what we've seen, ESPN NBA Basketball has all the potential in the world to bring Visual Concepts' NBA franchise back to the top. The new 24/7 mode seems very promising, and the new IsoMotion control system adds a great deal of depth to what some consider to be the best basketball gameplay around. Add in the highly polished presentation and significantly improved graphics, and the end result could really be something spectacular. ESPN NBA Basketball is scheduled to hit stores on October 21 for both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2.