The core gameplay isn't the only thing that's getting a major overhaul in 2K Sports' upcoming basketball sim. NBA 2K6 is also boasting a large number of changes in association mode, which is its version of franchise mode. Last year's association included a ton of interesting but ultimately flawed features, such as weekly practices that increased stats but reduced team chemistry, and player meetings that didn't make a whole lot of sense. This year's association has done away with a lot of that stuff, overhauling the interface to make information more accessible, while adding new features that promise a more sensible and enjoyable experience.
The first thing you'll notice is the completely revamped interface, which revolves around the monthly calendar schedule. Your default view is the current month, which shows all the games you've got, or, if it's the offseason, you'll view special events like free agency period and the draft. You can easily navigate back to past months to get quick and easy access to previous box scores. Instead of separating info into the less intuitive coach's desk and general manager's desk as in past years, you can access everything you need via a menu that slides in out of the side. League standings, your roster, recent transactions, coaching options, and more are accessible from these menus.
One of the biggest changes to this year's association mode is the addition of year-round scouting, an idea borrowed from College Hoops. You can have up to three scouts on staff, each of whom may have varying levels of skill. You can then send these scouts to check out the top prospects for the NBA draft at the end of the season. As you scout out players, the ratings you have on file for each of them becomes more and more accurate. The amount of time it takes to evaluate each prospect also varies depending on geography. Players from the United States will take about a week to scout, while international players can take 10-14 days to scout, depending on their locations.
So what happens once you reach the offseason? Again, much like College Hoops 2K5, you can bring in your top prospects for predraft workouts and actually play with them to get a firsthand feel for their skill levels. You can schedule a variety of different types of workouts, each of which takes a certain amount of time on your predraft schedule. You can do a simple shootaround, a one-on-one between two different prospects, or even a full five-on-five game with 10 different prospects. The new level of detail afforded you with year-round scouting, as well as the hands-on, predraft workouts, promises to give you more than enough information to make intelligent decisions come draft day.
Team practices are handled differently now as well. First of all, they are no longer linked to team chemistry, so you don't have to worry about your team grumbling every time you set up a simple shootaround. They're also done on a day-by-day basis now instead of weekly. This gives you more flexibility to plan for big games. So you can take a peek at your calendar, and if you see you have a big game against the Spurs coming up with two off days beforehand, you can set up a couple of practices to try to boost team stats before heading into the showdown. The primary option is, of course, the type of drill you want to run, depending on which areas you want your team to improve on. You can also set the intensity of the workout, which determines how long it takes before your stats improvements wear off. A light workout can benefit your team for a couple days, while an intense workout can pay dividends for a week or more. Of course, the more intense the workout, the more fatigued your team can get, so you need to be careful that your squad has enough in the tank when it comes time for the 4th quarter. You can also set a specific player that the drill will focus on. And that player will slightly benefit more from the practice than the rest of the team.
Related to team practices is a new player development feature. Each month your team is allocated 10 hours' worth of player development time. You can spend these to do individual workouts with a player that can impart a permanent boost to statistics. These workouts play out like minigames. The example demonstrated to us was a shooting workout for Devean George of the LA Lakers. In this minigame, we had to shoot from three set places on the floor. One was a short-range shot in the paint. Another was just above the free throw line, and the third spot was beyond the three-point arc. In a given period of time, we had to score a certain number of baskets for the development workout to be successful. We were able to complete the workout, but mostly by shooting the short jumper. As a result, George's shooting improved across the board--three-pointers, mid-range, and short-range--but his short-range game was improved most dramatically because that's what we shot the most in the workout. There will be a good variety of different workouts you can try, each of which costs a varying amount of development hours, usually correlating to how many attributes you can improve. A simple free-throw-shooting drill may only cost one development hour, but a more complex drill may cost three or four precious hours. It's also worth noting that younger players in general have more potential for improvement than crusty old veterans, so you may consider carefully before you waste development time on a 35-year-old journeyman point guard.
The last major new addition to the association mode is a set of stats called "bottom dollar." These charts show you how much money your team is spending (mostly on player and staff salaries) versus how much your team is taking in from ticket sales and merchandising. This doesn't mean you're going to have to start setting prices for hot dogs, beer, and parking. Instead, the moves you make with the franchise will naturally affect how your finances shape up. Winning is strongly (but not completely) correlated to ticket sales. Likewise, the popularity of your players contributes to how your merchandising operations work. So if you do something nutty like trade away Shaq for Lamar Odom and a bunch of stiffs, you can expect that the amount of money you take in from merchandising will take a hit. Each player in the game will have a specific rating for marketability.
There are other considerations you need to make before you go hog wild with trading in NBA 2K6. Team chemistry is still in the game, but it's now tied to how often you win and how successful you are at keeping a team together. If you choose to shuffle star players in and out of your roster like a deck of cards, you can expect that your team chemistry rating will suffer, and your player attributes will take a corresponding dive. This aspect of the game, along with the ability to take control of player development, should encourage you to bring in a core of good young players and try to mold them into superstars.
The 24/7 mode in the game has also been tweaked a bit. You still take a fresh-faced baller and attempt to bring him up in the ranks of streetball courts around the country. The ultimate goal now, however, is to reach the finals of the EBC (Entertainer's Basketball Classic) at Rucker Park to become the ultimate streetballer. You'll have plenty of options for designing your created character. And along the way, you'll be able to outfit yourself with a range of real-life Nike basketball shoes, which can be customized via the Nike iD system. So when you get to the end of the game against the Ruff Ryders or Terror Squad, your created character will be wearing some nice-looking Shox or Huaraches instead of generic kicks.
So far we're pretty excited by what we've seen with the changes to association mode. They promise to keep the game accessible to players who aren't interested in a lot of esoteric drudgery to develop a franchise, while keeping enough depth to engage the true hardcore basketball fans. NBA 2K6 is currently slated to release on the Xbox and PlayStation 2 this fall. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more details on the game as they arrive.