Visual Concepts' NBA 2K series has been one of the crown jewels of Sega's sports lineup since it made its debut in 1999. The developer's keen attention to detail and its games' impressive combination of graphics and gameplay have won the series critical and commercial success. The franchise was expanded to the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox last year, and Visual Concepts is currently putting the finishing touches on the latest multiplatform installment in the series, NBA 2K3. We had a chance to test out a previewable build of the game to see how it's coming together, and we've come away with the impression that the developer's ambitious goal of attaining perfection is once again translating into an impressive console gaming experience.
If you're familiar with the previous entries in the series, you should have a good idea of what to expect from the latest one. All three versions of NBA 2K3 will feature the quick game, game modes, and Sega Sports challenge options, and the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions will also feature an online play mode. Quick game lets you start a game with a bare minimum of decision making--just pick some teams and set a few parameters and you'll be thrown into a game. Game modes lets you cycle between the practice, street, season, playoffs, tournament, and franchise modes. The franchise mode has been tweaked and should let aspiring coaches hone their skills to championship-winning perfection. The Sega Sports challenge lets you try your hand at a variety of challenges in the game. The game's online option will be different in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions, as Xbox Live supports voice chat and a few unique game features such as optimatch.
As with every entry in the franchise to date, Visual Concepts has taken a "who cares if it ain't broke, we can do it better this time" approach toward the gameplay for NBA 2K3. The series' passing mechanics have been tweaked to add more control. You'll be able to execute bounce or chest passes by holding the pass button and overhead passes by tapping the pass button. If you want even more control, you'll also be able to use the right analog stick to pass--you'll be able to send the ball to a team member without having to change direction by simply pushing the stick in the direction of the teammate you want to pass to. You'll also be able to fake a pass to mess with your opponent's mind, or pass out of dunks and layups. Finally, NBA 2K3 will attempt to a marry style and substance with the ability to perform "showtime" passes. These fancy passes are context-sensitive and will be triggered in specific situations such as when an open player is cutting to the basket or when a player gets open on the outside. The game's selections of dribble moves has also been expanded and enhanced. The team has added reorienting crossovers that let you switch your direction mid-crossover if you do a crossover backward or away from the basket. Additionally, the team has added a new standing crossover that will let you perform a series of juke moves until you choose a direction to drive in.
You'll also find a lot more move options out of a pivot such as a jab step that lets you quickly move forward or to the side. When in the post, you'll new have moves such as the ability to back down defenders without the ball, use a double drop step, and front larger offensive players to deny entry passes. The shooting mechanics now feature a slick option to alter your shot in midair, which opens up quite a few new possibilities when playing, as well as context-sensitive shots. When defending, you'll have a new icon feature that will let you swap defensive control to any defender. Stealing has been smoothed out with new animations. One of our favorite additions was the ability to dive for a loose ball headed out of bounds and throw it back into play. As far as AI goes, Visual Concepts will be addressing some of the complaints leveled at the previous games by adjusting the game's AI. You'll also be able to adjust it yourself using sliders in the options menu.
The graphics in NBA 2K3 are the product of almost as many upgrades and refinements as its gameplay. The stadiums are modeled with the attention to detail we've come to expect from the series, and the player models are shaping up to be a cut above the models used in earlier games thanks to some redesign work. The heads of many of the player models have been redone and will feature fine details such as facial blemishes, moles, and different types of facial hair. The new modeling also appears to be on the cutting edge of afro rendering, judging by the look Ben Wallace's coiffure. The character models will be further enhanced by specular lighting, which is used to simulate sweat. The effect is subtle at first, but as you play through a game, you'll notice that players will get progressively shinier. Player movement will be enhanced by the addition of even more animation, and that animations will be blended with inverse kinematics to keep the action moving smoothly. In terms of how the game looks on the three different consoles, there won't be too many obvious differences. Given the differences in how each system renders its polygons, there are some subtle differences in image clarity, but nothing glaring. The Xbox version obviously looks the best, but the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions look quite good as well. Probably the biggest difference among the three versions can be found in the replay feature. The replays on the Xbox use a pixel-shading technique to offset specific players from the background, which is very cool.
The game's audio will feature a nicely layered experience that mixes crowd noise, commentary, and sound effects from the court. The Xbox's 5.1 support offers a meaty audio experience, especially if you have a nice home theater setup. The audio in the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions is also strong, although not quite as rich as 5.1.
Judging from what we've played so far, NBA 2K3 is shaping up well on all three consoles. The graphics are solid and the gameplay refinements add to the game's appeal. Obviously we're disappointed to see that the GameCube version doesn't have online play, but hopefully the online situation will be much improved for Nintendo's system next year. Fortunately, the work Visual Concepts has put into the offline game should offer plenty to explore.