Nobody is going to accuse the development team at 2K Sports for slacking off. When the Xbox 360 launched late last year, the team behind NBA 2K6 burned the candle at both ends in order to bring a basketball game for the next-generation system that was every bit as full featured as the long-running Xbox and PS2 versions of the game. For the next game in the series, the team has dedicated the full yearlong development cycle to transforming the NBA 2K series into a game that's worthy of the next-gen system. The result, due to hit stores in September, is NBA 2K7, and we got a chance to get some much-anticipated hands-on time with the game today during a 2K Sports visit.
When we fired up the game for the first time, it was immediately obvious that it has come a long way since NBA 2K6, and even since the work-in-progress build we saw at E3 2006 earlier this year. As you might expect, the player models still look great, the lighting effects have taken a step up from last season, and everything seems to be animating quite smoothly. It's when you take a slightly closer look at some of the less-obvious graphical touches that you get an idea of the amount of work the 2K team has put into the game's look. Take a look at the sidelines and you'll see the coach pacing up and down. Next to him you'll see the players on the bench who will accurately react to the action on the court. If you're in the middle of the game or if your team is down big, your benched players will slump in their chairs, or maybe they'll occasionally react to a nice shot. If there's a minute to go in a tie game, however, your teammates will be out of their seats and cheering just as loudly as anyone in the crowd. Cheerleaders and team mascots will run out onto the court during time-outs and do their thing, and even the crowd itself has a more varied and random look to it. In effect, it looks more like a real NBA atmosphere than ever before.
Then there's the NBA players themselves. Player likenesses are once again accurate and the overdone sweat effects of last year have been toned down a bit, but not too much, mind you. A couple of cool sweat notes for you perspiration aficionados: New effects will allow sweat to actually drip off your player when he's at the free-throw line, and if you look closely during a big dunk, you'll see sweat blasting off your player's body when his arm hits the rim.
But the authenticity of NBA 2K7's player models goes way beyond simple face modeling and shiny sweat effects. With this year's game, the development team wanted to harness the additional processing power and memory of next-gen consoles, such as the Xbox 360, and make sure that the NBA players featured in the game didn't just look like their real-life counterparts, but that they moved like them too. Every player in the game is thus the beneficiary of signature-style animations, as they're known, which seek to replicate the shot, spins, and moves of every player in the NBA.
The biggest players in the game--the Shaqs, Kobes, and KGs--of the league will all be immediately recognizable with their awesome hardwood arsenal of moves. Tracy McGrady's devastating crossover is in there, as is Stephon Marbury's behind-the-back dribble. Passes are also accurately modeled--a Steve Nash dish looks just like it does on TV. In fact, developers estimate they've added around 200 new pass animations alone to the game. Shot and dunk animations have probably received the biggest overhauls. Now Scott Pollard actually shoots with his flat-footed approach like he does in the real game, while Shawn Marion's thrusting, superquick shot is in there as well. But it's not just the big guys that have received their own signature styles--the 2K Sports team has gone to lengths to make sure that every player in the game shoots, moves, and defends just like his real counterpart on the court.
While new animations are nice and all, the signature-style feature should have some interesting effects on gameplay. Blocking against Marion's quick gunslinger shot, for instance, will be difficult when you're playing on defense. You'll want to spend some time getting to know your player's signature strengths. By playing with smaller guards like Jason Terry or Tony Parker, for example, you'll quickly learn to take advantage of their teardrop shots, which are deadly effective from anywhere near the basket. And don't forget the dunks. From Shaq's devastating inside slams to Vince Carter's reverse windmill, you can expect to see plenty of new dunks in the game.
Just as in any sport, player tendencies play a huge role in how any team performs and, with 2K7, the concept has been greatly expanded for both teams and players. Last year's game had only a handful of player tendencies that guided a player's actions on the court. This year, that number has been increased to include things like how often a player passes, how much he prefers to gamble on defense, his tendency to post up, and so on. All of these factors weigh into how the artificial intelligence handles a particular player.
This year, team tendencies play a big role as well. The 2K development team is quick to admit that teams in 2K6 tended to play like one another except in the more extreme cases (Phoenix's style, for example, certainly wouldn't have been confused for the Pistons in last year's game). Thanks to a robust team-tendency system, teams are rated on a number of attributes, such as perimeter, low post, foul tendencies, willingness to pound the ball inside, and so on. Even better, all of these tendencies are controlled by sliders that you can adjust at any time. So if you want your Pistons to play more like the run-and-gun Suns, you can make a few slider adjustments and let them go to it--just don't expect your players to be very good at it. Think of team tendencies as how the head coach influences the team. For instance, even if your team is full of three-point shooters, your coach can dial down the three-point shot for a game or two and have them try to work on different parts of their game.
Animations aside, 2K7 is still going to feel familiar to fans of the series when it comes to controls. The shot-stick system has been adjusted to be relative to the rim this time around. The controls you use will be dependent on your position on the court. If you want to shoot a J from the floor, for example, you'll simply push the right stick away from the basket. On defense, the strip-and-rip system from NBA 2K6 has been tweaked as well. Instead of attempting steals to the left or right by pushing left or right on the stick, you'll shade your coverage left and right on the man you're defending. By pushing toward your opponent, you'll attempt a strip, and by pushing away from your assignment, your player will stick his hands up in the air. What should be interesting are the rock-paper-scissors battles that will emerge using this new defensive system when playing in the post, for example. If a player decides to spin right or left, and you are shading your coverage to the correct side, the result will be a neutral collision. If you guess wrong, your opponent is going to leave you standing still as he makes his way toward the basket.
Another gameplay feature of note is the addition of more loose balls scurrying across the hardwood during tight possession contests. You'll even be able to dive for a loose ball by pressing the Y button. Should you gain possession of the ball, you'll roll into a sitting possession, where you can either dump the ball off or call an immediate time-out. Player spacing has also been addressed. On offense, players will look to create lanes to keep the ball moving around the offensive zone, while defensive players will be watching out for opportunities to fill those lanes up and prevent a drive to the basket (or better yet, draw a foul or two). The post game will feature a lot more fighting for space and more movement underneath the basket as players swim and jockey for position, and you'll have post triple-threat moves to choose from--such as Kobe's lean, the pivot to face-up position (where you can let loose with some Tim Duncan-inspired magic), or the always-fun butt bump to clear some space under the net. Feel like a sky hook or two down low? Take control of C-Webb or Zydrunas Ilgauskas and go to town.
New controls in the game aren't just for the players. As a coach you'll have access to a new coaching-on-the-fly system that is reminiscent of the feature found in recent versions of 2K's NHL 2K series. At any point in the game, you'll be able to access coaching menus to do things like call set plays, dial up or down offensive and defensive pressure, and make substitutions using a quick and easy-to-use menu system. Making subs without having to pause the game…now that's the kind of thing we like to see.
And speaking of easy-to-use menus, NBA 2K7 is also boasting a much-needed presentation upgrade from previous games in the series, which frankly, were looking more than a bit dated over the past few years. In addition to a newly designed front-end look, you'll also have quick access to the menus by using the right analog stick. During the games themselves, you can expect to see a new halftime show, starring Kenny Smith of NBA on TNT fame (sorry folks, Charles Barkley not included). During the show, Kenny will break down the big plays of the game, as well as call out those players who earn his official "stamp of approval." There's also a bunch of new camera angles (36 in total), ranging from on the floor (with a cool coach's camera angle) all the way up to the cheap seats (with the nosebleed camera). The best aspect of the presentation has to be the load times, which have been reduced to just a few seconds, even when moving from one game mode to the next.
Finally, while we don't know the full scoop on many of the game modes featured in NBA 2K7, the producers did drop a few hints about the online portion of the game, including more-efficient ways to schedule games between players in a league, the ability to save your preferred game settings when playing online matches, and team sliders for online play. The most exciting online feature, however, has to be the live online draft, which will let you set up a time for your league's draft and then conduct the event from either your Xbox 360 or PC via the 2K Sports Web site. We hope to see more surprises about the online portion, as well as more details on the game's many modes as we lead up to its release in September.