For a console that's just getting its feet wet in the world of video games, the Xbox already has an impressive list of basketball games to choose from. EA Sports' Live franchise was released for the Xbox back in November, but the series has been in the doldrums for years now, with no end in sight. Microsoft's Inside Drive franchise had an admiral first showing, but it falls short on many counts. Enter NBA 2K2, Sega's next entry into its NBA 2K franchise. It has been long heralded as the most realistic basketball simulation on the planet, and now Xbox owners have their chance to play it and see what all the fuss is about. And they won't be disappointed, because NBA 2K2 for the Xbox is the complete package.
Like any good sports simulation, NBA 2K2 has plenty of gameplay modes to keep players happy, whether they're squaring off against the computer or against friends. In addition to a rudimentary multiplayer mode for up to four players, NBA 2K2 includes a franchise mode that carries statistics and rosters over from one year to the next. There's also a single season option for those who like to build a dynasty from scratch each year, a playoffs mode for the impatient, and a fantasy option for those who enjoy redrafting teams for each season. Trades, free-agent signings, and the ability to scout college players are all at your disposal and are simplified just enough to make such transactions appeal to the average player. However, those who like every last statistic to be tracked will find some faults with the franchise mode. As in past installments of the NBA 2K series, there's a street mode that lets you play on nine of the most popular playgrounds in America and show off your street-ball skills. This mode is so fleshed out that it can almost stand on its own as a separate game. Practice and tournament modes round out the package--leaving virtually no stone unturned.
NBA 2K2 has earned a reputation for being the most in-depth basketball simulation on the market, and the Xbox version perpetuates this. Zone defenses are new to the NBA this season, and NBA 2K2 will let you call a 3-2 zone on the fly to clog up the lane. Virtually any offensive or defensive play can be called with a flick of the right analog stick, and calling the right offensive set can immediately open the lane for a drive. Each team has its own specific playbook, so it's entirely possible to run the triangle offense with the Lakers or run isolation plays to get the ball to Allen Iverson while playing as the 76ers. If you're unhappy with controlling your team's strategy on the fly, you can simply adjust the game's menu-driven coaching strategies. The inside postgame is excellent--you can back a defender down into the paint, only to spin off and perform one of the many dynamic post moves included in the game. The computer chooses which move is performed based upon your location relative to the basket and defenders, and hopefully this ability will be placed in the hands of the player in future installments. Defending against post moves is also possible thanks to a plethora of countermoves, but the advantage still seems to be with the offensive player most of the time, as it's fairly easy to roll off a defender and go for the dunk.
Special dribbles are included in the game, but like the post moves, the computer chooses which move is performed depending on the location and speed of your player. It works well the majority of the time, but other times, special dribbles will cause your player to run out of bounds or directly into the chest of a defender. Stealing the ball is almost impossible unless the opposition is performing a special dribble, and making or missing shots is often arbitrary. It can be frustrating to watch a forward or center make a three-point shot with two players in his face while your shooting guard misses a wide-open jump shot the next time down the court. The computer AI has undergone some adjustments that keep players from being fooled by pump fakes as easily as they were in last year's game, and the fast break has been fixed--players no longer stop, as they did in the Dreamcast version, when receiving the ball on the run. The computer can be difficult to beat on anything but the rookie setting, and a more gradual increase in difficulty would have been nice. In the early going, you'll either kick the computer's butt on the rookie setting or get yours handed to you in the pro and all-star difficulties.
NBA 2K2 still has some annoying bugs, which Visual Concepts has yet to squash. Teammates will stand out of bounds while you're inbounding the ball, goaltending is usually called only when the shot is blocked just before it hits the rim, and you can often push opposing players off the court. Passing with the analog stick can also be an adventure when you're on a fast break, so it's advised to master the game's icon passing. Despite these issues, NBA 2K2 is still the best-playing basketball simulation on the market. There are enough gameplay modes to keep most anyone happy, the controls are tight and intuitive, and the degree of team management that the player possesses on the court is staggering.
The Xbox and GameCube have been the unfortunate recipients of ports from the PlayStation 2 over the past few months of their existence, and NBA 2K2 is yet another example of this. Again, it's a case where the game features few visual improvements upon the PlayStation 2 version and fails to deliver what the Xbox is capable of from a visual perspective. Even so, NBA 2K2 is still the best-looking roundball game available on the console. The players are generously modeled with enough polygons to create accurate facial structures, making animations like Kobe Bryant chewing gum possible. Player bodies use flatly shaded textures that can make them appear cartoonlike, but they're correctly proportioned for each player. The arenas are basically accurate, but the monochromatic crowd can be ugly when viewed up close. But where NBA 2K2 separates itself from the competition is in its animation. Visual Concepts motion-captured more than 2,200 animations for NBA 2K2, and they truly bring the game to life. Beyond the excellent shooting, dunking, and blocking animations, there are a wealth of transition routines that will make players continue to run after a failed steal attempt or react realistically to being jostled by another player. NBA 2K2 may not represent what the Xbox is truly capable of from a visual perspective, but thanks to its impressive animation, it can still hold its own against other roundball games for the Xbox. The player models are accurate, the animations are second to none, and the speed of the game is nearly perfect.
One aspect of the NBA 2K franchise that has yet to live up to the standards of Visual Concepts' other sports games is the play-by-play announcing. The two-man team does an adequate job of keeping up with the action, but their statements tend to repeat too often and their analysis rarely goes beyond the current play. The ambient sound effects are excellent, however. Players will call for a pass while running down the court, and after especially impressive plays, you can hear players talking trash to each other or the coach offering words of encouragement. Team-specific chants are included in the game, and you'll often hear single fans making comments about the game. While the play-by-play can grate on the nerves, the rest of the auditory experience offered by NBA 2K2 is at the top of its class.
No matter how you like your hoops games, NBA 2K2 is the best basketball game available for the Xbox. Thanks to the street-ball mode, it's like there are two games in one--the graphics are on par with most any basketball game on the market, and the gameplay is tight and intuitive. There are still a few issues for Visual Concepts to iron out for next year, but when it does, the NBA 2K series will be hard to top.