Now three months into its life span, the GameCube has yet to receive a true simulation-style basketball game. Nintendo's NBA Courtside teetered on the fence between arcade game and simulation, but up until now, the console has yet to receive a rigid b-ball sim. Normally, that wouldn't be cause for alarm, but with both competing consoles already having more than one basketball simulation available, GameCube owners could feel like they've arrived a bit late to the party. But what better way to break the ice than with what many consider the best basketball simulation available? Sega's hoops simulation, NBA 2K2, may have been a long time coming to the GameCube, but as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.
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 standard 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--it requires almost an entire GameCube memory card just to save it. 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 streetball 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 GameCube version perpetuates this. Zone defenses are new to the NBA this season, and NBA 2K2 lets you call a 3-2 zone on the fly to clog up the lane. Virtually any offensive or defensive play can be called by pushing down on the C stick and then pressing the coinciding button. Calling the right offensive play against the proper defense can immediately open the lane for a wide-open 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 too enthralled with the gameplay to control your team's strategy on the fly, you can simply use 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 several 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 and the ability to square up with an offensive player with the L button, 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 as with 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 seems a bit easier in the GameCube version of the game--especially when the opposition is performing a special dribble or is double-teamed. The largest complaint that can be lodged against the gameplay is that 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. Sometimes it can seem almost impossible to make a jump shot inside the lane with a guard--regardless of how open he is. 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, so 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. In any difficulty setting, the computer's shooting percentage tends to be much higher than it should be.
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. Making matters worse, these bugs occur more frequently in the GameCube version of the game. The computer will even push its own players out of bounds or throw the ball to a player who has long since cut into the lane and is no longer standing in the same spot. It makes defeating the computer a bit easier at times, but it detracts from the realism. 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 and certainly the best-playing GameCube roundball game. 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. Hopefully more control will be given to the player for next year's game to avoid performing the wrong special dribbles or post moves at the wrong time.
NBA Courtside may not feature realistic gameplay, but its graphics set a standard for the GameCube that NBA 2K2 fails to live up to. Not to say that NBA 2K2 looks bad on the GameCube--it's simply the PlayStation 2 version with crisper textures. The players are generously modeled with enough polygons to create accurate facial structures, making animations like Kobe Bryant chewing gum possible. Player bodies use flat-shaded textures that can make them appear cartoonlike, but they're correctly proportioned for each player. The arenas are basically accurate but fail to include small details found in NBA Courtside like fully modeled press boxes. While the monochromatic crowds look better than those of the PlayStation 2 version, they're still ugly when viewed up close.
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 make players continue to run after a failed steal attempt or react realistically to being jostled by another player. Players also call for the ball down on the low post when they're in a favorable matchup and celebrate big baskets in a variety of ways. NBA 2K2 may not represent what the GameCube is truly capable of from a visual perspective, but thanks to its impressive animation, it can still hold its own against NBA Courtside. 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. However, the ambient sound effects are excellent. Players can call for a pass while running down the court, and after especially impressive plays, you can hear them talking trash to each other or the coach offering them words of encouragement. Team-specific chants are included, 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.
It may not have much competition, but NBA 2K2 is the GameCube roundball simulation to beat. Its wealth of gameplay modes dwarfs that of the competition, the gameplay can be slightly buggy at times but remains predominantly tight, and the graphics are more than adequate. Thanks to the streetball mode, it's like there are two games in one. Visual Concepts still has a few slight bugs to work out and can improve the game's AI, but when it does, the NBA 2K franchise will be hard to top.