Where do you start when talking about NBA 2K10? The thousands of new gameplay animations that were mo-capped to either replace older animations or be added to the game as new? The single-player "My Player" mode that puts you in the sneaks of an up-and-coming hoops player? The create-a-draft class option in this year's Association mode? Where do you start with a game that will mark the 10th anniversary of the long-running NBA 2K series? There are so many options to choose from, but I'd like to start in an unlikely place: commentary.
Commentary and Context
I think sports game commentary is one of the most underrated arts in the genre. When it's done well (as in Sony's MLB series and EA's NCAA Football series) it's an exquisite addition, and when it's mediocre (as in the last few years of the Madden series, Chris Collinsworth notwithstanding) it can often detract from the entire experience. Just as in real sports, commentary in games shouldn't be obtrusive and ostentatious; it should inform the action on the floor without getting in the way and, ideally, without repeating itself too much. Yet, even with the games that meet those basic goals, I've always felt there was another level that sports gaming commentary could reach: creating a back-and-forth between hosts that's at once believable as an exchange and insightful. After seeing NBA 2K10 for the first time at 2K Sports' HQ yesterday, it seems the game is as close to reaching that next plateau as I've ever seen.
As with NBA 2K9, Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg return for booth duties, and though I've never thought the two had great chemistry before, that's changed this year. Not only is there believable back-and-forth between the two but, more importantly, so much of the commentary is also better tuned to the context of the game situation. If you're playing a crucial game against a rival, for example, and both teams are vying for a play-off spot, a good chunk of that game's commentary--at least in the beginning of the game--will focus on the rivalry, the matchup records between the two teams, and the play-off ramifications for winning and losing. In the opening minutes of a game, the pair of announcers will spend just as much time setting the scene of your game as calling the action on the floor. If they're not setting up the context, they're having fun with each other--during one part of a game featuring the Lakers that I watched, Kellogg and Harlan went into a pretty extensive back-and-forth discussion on the somewhat controversial nature of Pau Gasol's trade from Memphis to L.A. in 2008.
The improved commentary is a big upgrade for the series, and it ties into NBA 2K10's presentation philosophy of "basketball first". That might sound strange--this being a basketball game and all--but from the commentary to the main screen you see when you first boot up the game, everything in NBA 2K10 is centered around hoops. That main menu, for example, isn't a list of game modes but rather a listing of that day's matchups in the real-life NBA, as well as the scores from yesterday's games. This "NBA Today" screen (as it's known) helps keep you up to date with what's going on in the real NBA. If you'd like, you can jump right into any of the matchups listed on the screen or simply bring up another menu that takes you to another area of the game. Whether you're playing "play now" games featuring today's NBA matchups or midseason games in your Association mode, the enhanced context and commentary will always be keeping you up to date on what's happening around your team and your league.
Know Your Role
Another big aspect of NBA 2K10's presentation is your created player. Whether you've created him and worked him out in the downloadable content game, NBA 2K10 Draft Combine, or created him from scratch in the full game, he'll immediately make his presence known, bumping aside 2K10 cover star Kobe Bryant and subsequently starring as the featured athlete in the main menu. Your created player will also be the star of "My Player", 2K's answer to EA's "Be a Pro" mode. The narrative here is similar to Be a Pro: from worst to first. You'll start off either as a drafted player or as a walk-on to a team's summer circuit games. In the summer league, your goal will be to impress the scouts in the hopes of getting an invite to a team's training camp. Once there, you'll be competing against NBA players for a spot on a team's roster. You never know which team will choose you, so if you happen to be a shooting guard looking to take Kobe's place on the Lakers, well… good luck.
As in Draft Combine, when creating your player in NBA 2K10, you'll have to decide early on what kind of player you want him to be--both in the position you wish to play and the type of player you want to be. Here's a list of the available roles at each position:
• Point Guard -- Pass first, scoring, defensive, three-point specialist, athletic, all-around
• Shooting Guard -- Scoring, defensive, three-point specialist, athletic, slashing, all-around
• Small Forward -- Defensive, three-point specialist, athletic, slashing, point forward, all-around
• Power Forward -- Defensive, athletic, back-to-basket, face-up, rebounding, all-around
• Center -- Defensive, athletic, back-to-basket, face-up, rebounding, all-around
The position and role you wish to play will determine how your player progresses over time. When playing in summer camp, training camp, or pick-up games (more on those in a bit), you'll be judged on your individual performance, as well as given an overall team grade. Playing your role successfully and contributing to the team will count for nearly as much as individual stats. Conversely, being a ball hog and calling for the ball at all times could result in a poor team rating, which might offset any impressive stats you earn. You'll earn skill points that you can then spend on specific attributes to improve your player. Depending on the role you've chosen, certain attributes will be cheaper to you than others. If you're a defensive center, for example, purchasing attribute points for such things as blocks and strength will be cheaper than, say, putting points in your three-point shot or your run speed.
In training camp, you'll have five games to compete in, and after each game, someone will be cut. The goal, obviously, is to make sure you're left standing after the roster trimming is finished, but even if you don't make a spot on the NBA roster, your season isn't over. If you're cut, you'll be sent to the NBA's Development League (or D-League). 2K has licensed the actual NBA Development League, with all teams and accurate uniforms in the game. Your time in the D-League will be spent trying to get more playing time--mainly by making the most of the minutes you do get (using a handy simulation feature, you can fast-forward to the point in the game when you actually do get on the floor, however). Of course, nobody wants to spend his too much time grinding in the D-league, so it's reasonable to assume that if you play decently, you'll eventually get your shot at playing in the NBA, where you'll once again have to earn your minutes and establish yourself as a superstar.
On the floor, My Player mode features a camera that focuses on your created player--though you do have several camera angles from which to choose. If you're playing point guard, you'll be able to call plays in your role as the floor general--other positions on the court naturally won't have that option. That said, the developers behind 2K10 said they're working hard to make sure that every role--even the defensive ones--is fun and immersive for players.
One other addition that ties into My Player mode is the pick-up games feature. Just as the name suggests, these are five-on-five games that can be played online at any time with your created player and the created players of your friends. You need at least two players to play a pick-up game (with the other team spots filled by AI players), but pick-up games can feature as many as 10 online participants. As with training camp and regular season games, you'll be earning skill attribute points in pick-up games as well, which makes them a great way to work on your created player away from the regular season.
The first time you hit the court in NBA 2K10, something might look a bit different. Yes, you'll notice things like the improved player likenesses, including animated faces, better skin textures, and greater lighting effects. But you might also notice a sense of space on the hardwood that simply wasn't present in previous iterations. As developers put it to me, that's because the proportions between player size and the floor had gotten a bit out of whack in older games, resulting in players that were slightly larger than in real life. The team took a look at all of the player models in NBA 2K10 and made size adjustments across the board, with the result of having a slightly more open feel to the play on the court.
Of course, correcting player proportions is just one of the issues addressed in this year's game. As gameplay producer Rob Jones told me, the team wanted to address animations in a comprehensive way this year. To that end, Jones said his mo-cap team captured something in the realm of 9,000 animations during the mo-cap sessions for 2K10. And while not all of those animations were entered into this year's game, a good chunk have either replaced older animations or been added to the game. As he put it, if an animation is pre-NBA 2K9, it had less than a 50 percent chance of making it into NBA 2K10. Part of that new animation philosophy had to do with providing further definition between players. Naturally, a point guard will have access to a different set of moves than a massive center, but developers didn't stop there. They also wanted to capture the differences between how a 7-foot player moves from how a 6-foot-9-inch player gets around the court. As a result, Yao Ming will move like Yao (assuming he ever plays again, that is), Nene will move like Nene, and Steve Nash will do his thing.
New animations tie directly into the signature style feature that the NBA 2K series has been working off of for years now--this year, the series is expanding the feature into something Jones likes to call "signature play." The essential addition revolves around improved player tendencies. This year, the team went out and partnered up with the NBA scouting service 82Games.com to provide detailed breakdowns on every team and every player in the league. The result is a better and more detailed understanding of how a player reacts at any point on the floor, with answers to such questions as, "Where does a player typically like to get the ball?" "When does he spot up?" "When does he post up?" The result, on the offensive side, is that players familiar with their team's individual tendencies will know how to best utilize them and where. On the other side of the ball, if you're facing up against Paul Pierce controlled by the AI, you'll know his tendency will be either to push in and shoot or try a pro step move. And, depending on your position on the floor, you'll know how to try to stop him.
Other defensive improvements include a better sense of physical play when leaning in on a guy, as well as double-team situations that aren't just canned animations, as they were in previous games. When double-teaming a ball handler, you'll have more control over what you do as you harass the guy. If playing online, one half of a double-team duo might try a steal, while the other keeps his hands up to block a potential shot. Essentially, you won't be waiting for a double-team animation to end--you'll be interacting within it and trying to make a play.
Then there's a new rating spread, which--similar to how the developers of Madden NFL 10 extended the attribute spread among players in the game--better differentiates among the NBA's elite, good, mediocre, and Brian Scalabrine. Jones told me that in previous NBA 2K games, the player attribute spread was basically from 50 to 99; this year, that spread has been extended from 25 to 99. This is in addition to tendency rating spreads that will run from 0 to 99.
Control and Creation
The controls in 2K10 have seen some tweaks as well, in the hopes of simplifying things. Post moves are all executed by holding the right stick in either direction, and you can tap to either side to fake when backing down an opponent. If you mix in the left trigger, you can perform an up-and-under move. The two triggers (on the Xbox 360 controller) modify the different types of moves--you use the left trigger for quick moves and the right trigger for power moves. The right trigger is also used for sprinting, but because turbo has been abused in the past (especially online, where you can essentially sprint endlessly), the developers are looking to make turbo more of a commodity than ever before. As a result, when sprinting, you'll notice your turbo meter depleting more rapidly than before, and if you use up your turbo completely, your player's energy will drain dramatically if you continue to sprint.
Naturally, Association mode will have its share of upgrades as well, and I'll have more details on that in the future. Before then, though, it's worth pointing out one significant addition to 2K10's Franchise mode: the ability to create rookie draft classes from scratch and import them into your franchise. There's little doubt that having this feature, plus the ability to upload and share your rookie class via the 2K Share feature, means that NBA 2K10 fans will have accurate rosters for the new class of NBA rookies on Day 1 of NBA 2K10's release. More Association mode details coming soon.
In a strange way the NBA 2K series has become a victim of its own success. With EA Sports' NBA Live series lagging behind for the better part of a decade, NBA 2K's worst enemy hasn't necessarily been the competition--though that might change this year--but, rather, itself. Why buy NBA 2K9, after all, when NBA 2K8 or NBA 2K7 were so good? As if to answer that question for the series' tenth anniversary, the team at 2K is concentrating not just on what's new in the game, but also on going back and reexamining what's made the game so great for so long and trying to make it even better. Look for much more NBA 2K10 coverage in the coming weeks.
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