When NBA 2K6 was released on the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 earlier this year, it brought forth revolutionary new control mechanisms in the shot stick and the new isomotion juke system. This allowed basketball fans to have extremely detailed control over their players. These new control systems were married to an excellent-looking game engine that shined in both graphics and realistic artificial intelligence. If you've been waiting for the Xbox 360 version of the game, then we have good news, and, depending on how you look at it, bad news. The good news is that the Xbox 360 version maintains everything that made 2K6 on the Xbox one of the best basketball games released in years. The bad news is that if you already own the Xbox or PS2 version, this version doesn't play a whole lot differently--it's pretty much the same game.
If you own an HDTV capable of 720p resolution, then NBA 2K6 is one of the best-looking basketball games you've ever seen…most of the time, that is. The court looks extremely sharp thanks to antialiasing, with great contrast on the lines and painted areas. The player models are extremely detailed, offering lifelike cloth physics on jerseys and shorts, and modeled sweat that intensifies over the course of a game. You'll see players look dry at the beginning, but as the game progresses you'll see sweat stains on the chest and upper back areas of the jerseys, as well as around the waistband of players' shorts. Sweat on skin is a realistic, glistening sheen that's easy to see when replays zoom in close to the players. The players' faces are also carefully detailed. Some players look more accurate than others, but whether you can agree with the likenesses or not, they animate well. You'll see players' eyes tracking the ball as it's passed or bounces off the rim, and even mouths open as you go up for dunks or jostle for position in the post. Skin textures do look a little bit like plastic or porcelain, but most of the flaws you see in NBA 2K6's player models are a result of the so-called "uncanny valley." That is, since the player models look so real now, it's the minute flaws that are beginning to stand out.
What also makes the game stand out from a visual perspective is the unparalleled wealth of animations used for player movement, collisions, and more. You'll find a ton of flexibility and variety in the way players move and act, whether it's dribbling the ball, defending, shooting, rebounding, or even saving a ball from going out of bounds. The animations do pop once in a while, and you will notice some clipping, which can be distracting, but overall the fluidity of the animation in NBA 2K6 is fantastic and unmatched. Frame rates are silky smooth at all times as well; we noticed no slowdowns at all. Where 2K6 falters is in the details. The models used for the crowd, coaches, and cheerleaders don't seem to have been updated at all compared to the Xbox version. When you see a shot of the crowd, you'll notice their lack of detail, which immediately stands out from the great-looking players you saw just a second ago. It is also a stark contrast when you look at the players huddling around their coach, who looks noticeably blockier and flatter than they do. Fortunately, you'll spend most of your time watching gameplay and instant replays, and 2K6 shines visually like no other basketball game during these times. If you have a good HDTV, 2K6 really looks a lot like a live basketball broadcast when viewed from a short distance away.
And that's the rub: "...if you have a good HDTV." Playing NBA 2K6 on a standard-definition television results in a game that is difficult to distinguish from the regular Xbox version. You can make out some of the cloth details as players move around, and the replays certainly look better, with player models that are obviously more detailed. But at the default camera angle, player models are noticeably fuzzier and less detailed. Even the court itself doesn't look so great, with ugly jaggies on the painted lines. The point is that you need an HDTV to fully appreciate NBA 2K6 on the Xbox 360, especially because the gameplay mechanics are so similar. Sure, there's the addition of a defensive crouch button (L trigger on defense), and there have been some refinements made to the shot stick and isomotion. However, the game is largely the same. If you're stuck with a standard-definition television, then you might as well pay less and enjoy the game on your Xbox or PlayStation 2 if you own one of those consoles.
The court sounds and crowd noise are as good as ever, and the announcing in the game has improved greatly. Kevin Harlan and Kenny Smith take over for Bill Fitzgerald and Bill Walton from last year's game. Harlan gets overexcited, as he does on TV, but he's still a vast improvement over Fitzgerald. Sure, the soundtrack is forgettable, but getting rid of Walton more than makes up for that. The one thing we're really not sure about is the egregious amount of advertising in the game. Having to see a "Powerbar replay" of all major highlights or the Toyota-branded starting lineups is a lot like TV, but do we need it in the game?
Moving on to gameplay, the change made to NBA 2K's isomotion system in 2K6 is likely the most dramatic one you'll notice if you're a veteran of the series. First of all, you no longer have a turbo button in the traditional sense. Instead, the right and left triggers serve as "aggressive modifiers," which change how the game interprets your input with the passing and shooting buttons, and most importantly, with the left analog stick. Instead of wiggling the right analog stick to unleash canned and stilted juke animations, the new isomotion combines your movement and your jukes into the left analog stick. Without holding down any trigger buttons you can simply move the left stick to move your player around. Holding down the aggressive modifier and moving your character in one direction will cause him to sprint. Wiggle back and forth and you'll lower your shoulder and do a crossover. Whirl the stick partway in one direction and then the other, and your ball handler will fake a spin and then come back the other way. Similarly, you can use the left stick plus a trigger button to "emote" wraparound dribbles, jab steps, and step-back moves. Finally, the 2K series has jukes that are just as natural and logical to pull off and chain together as in EA's NBA Live series--isomotion is no longer the redheaded stepchild to freestyle. It's just as good now, and arguably better. How so? Since your right thumb doesn't have to be used to make your juke moves, it's free to shoot or pass right out of your fake. It's a subtle thing, but advanced players will probably appreciate the added flexibility.
So what's the right analog stick used for now? Believe it or not, it's used for shooting. In the same way that basketball video game players have been emoting ballhandling moves for years in most basketball games, the new shot stick feature in NBA 2K6 lets players do the same with their shots. If you stand still and toggle up on the stick, you'll raise up for a standard jumper. Releasing the stick releases the ball, just as if you pressed a shooting button in any basketball game. Toggle away from the basket and your player will put up a fadeaway J. On the dribble drive, you can use the shot stick to attempt a dunk or layup right over the top of a defender, or you can toggle to either side to lean around for a cleaner look at the basket. Out of the post, the shot stick can be used to attempt turnarounds, hook shots, or even drop steps. It takes some getting used to for sure, and when you start, you may even forget to use it (a standard shooting button is still available for those who don't like this feature). But once you do get used to the shot stick, you'll appreciate the flexibility it brings.
The tweaks made to both isomotion and the introduction of the shot stick in NBA 2K6 represent what is probably the biggest fundamental shift in basketball game control mechanics since freestyle control was introduced in NBA Live 2003. These controls are not necessarily easy for a casual fan to pick up, but hardcore hoopsters will definitely feel rewarded for putting in the time to learn them. These interface changes all mesh well with the existing feel and design of the NBA 2K series. Players still move with a real sense of momentum. Aside from some of the backpedaling animation, there's no sense of ice skating at all in the movement. The presence of two pass buttons, both regular and lead passing (throwing a pass to a teammate heading for the basket), also contributes a lot to the game's authentic feel. Rebounding looks and feels right, with little or no "vacuuming" of the ball to the hand. On-the-ball defense is somewhat easier in this version of the game thanks to the addition of a defensive crouch button, but you still have to pay close attention to keep in front of your man. If you do, you'll be rewarded with realistic-looking player collisions, and you'll actually be able to steer your man in the direction he wants to move. Defensively, Visual Concepts has added a "strip and rip" steal system using the right analog stick, which lets you poke at the ball with either hand, slap down, or punch upward. This is also hard to get used to, but if you have excellent timing then you'll find that you can strip players just as they go up for a dunk or layup, or punch freshly rebounded balls out of the hands of big men.
Beyond the changes to the interface, one of the biggest improvements made to NBA 2K6 is with its artificial intelligence. If you're a big fan of the NBA, you'll appreciate that the teams and players in NBA 2K6 really do seem to play like their real-life counterparts. Remember how badly Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire would light up opponents using the high pick and roll? If you don't keep Nash's movement in check, they'll do it to you in 2K6. You'll see Rip Hamilton run through screens and attack off of curls; Dwayne Wade and Shaq will run their inside/outside two-man game; and you'll see Kobe as he tries to take over games by himself. As far as team play goes, you'll notice real nuances here, too. Teams like the Pistons and Spurs really feel like they crash the boards hard with their guards, while running teams such as the Mavs and Suns will often choose to release their guards and look for transition opportunities.
The AI in the Xbox 360 version seems like it has been toned down somewhat at the default difficulty compared to the other versions of the game. But taking the difficulty levels up a notch brings a satisfying challenge to seasoned basketballers. You'll really need to work hard to find open shots by breaking down the defense off the dribble or by working the ball around, and possibly even dipping into your team's playbook. Playing defense is also a challenge and requires a good amount of concentration, as the computer will look to exploit mismatches or just sloppy, lazy defense. If you don't get a hand in the face of good jump-shooters on every shot attempt, you can expect to get lit up by the likes of Peja Stojakovic or Mike Miller from the arc. You'll also see the computer often isolate its best ball handler on one side, so if you get beaten off the dribble, you'll need to be extra quick with help coming from weak-side rotation. You'll also see the computer adjust defensively and bring double-teams on your best offensive player if he gets hot.
Aside from the basic gameplay, 2K6 has also greatly overhauled its franchise mode, called Association. Last year's franchise mode gave some interesting ideas, like having meetings with players, and a card-style minigame to simulate individual games. Unfortunately, a lot of these ideas seemed out of place or just didn't work very well, so they've been scrapped entirely. What we've got instead is year-round scouting of prospects. Much like last year's College Hoops 2K5, you can send scouts to evaluate prospects over the course of the year in preparation for the draft. As you reach the off-season, you can bring in these prospects for individual workouts and actually play with them in games or scrimmages to see how they actually feel. There's also a great new system for developing your existing players. By spending training points, you can run your players through a series of drills that are actually minigames. Succeed in the minigame, and your player will gain in skills based on the drill. Put in enough time on a young player with a lot of potential, and he can blossom into a new superstar. Practices no longer weigh down on your team chemistry. You can schedule these on a daily basis in hopes of giving a temporary boost in skill to your team on an upcoming game. However, these practices can also be detrimental to your team's fatigue. Finally, there's a new system where the game's various owners are modeled. You must attempt to run the franchise to their specifications, whether it's winning a championship, being profitable, or just improving the team. A new nested menu interface also makes navigation easier this year. If there's anything to complain about, it's that there might actually be too much going on with Association. But, thankfully, most of these little details don't need to be handled manually.
The 24/7 mode has also been addressed this year, and it's now tied into the real-life EBC, or Entertainer's Basketball Challenge. At the heart of it, though, it's still a basketball RPG and it still involves a lot of work to create your player and to improve his skill by playing in various challenges against a ladder of real NBA players and celebrities. You'll earn new teammates and points that you can use to buy gear, like Nike shoes and clothes. The ultimate goal is to build up the best possible team to go into the EBC tournament at Rucker Park and win it. In the end, though, the overall feel and design of 24/7 is still the same. Some people are going to be really into putting time in a created baller and leveling him up. Most people will probably pass over this mode and see it as just a distraction from the real meat of NBA 2K6.
Other features in NBA 2K6 include the usual tournament, season, and street modes, where you can play street-style games like two on two, three on three, or 21 in various real-life and fantasy blacktop courts using NBA players. The crib is also back, and it gives you something semi-interesting to do with all those points you're earning by playing games of NBA 2K6. What's more noteworthy is that the VIP system popularized in the NFL 2K games has made its way into NBA 2K6. As with the NFL VIPs, here you can examine these and learn a wealth of stats about your own playing tendencies and trade them around with your friends. The online functionality of NBA 2K6 is about what you'd expect. You can jump into quick matches, tournaments, leaderboards, and leagues. You can also try setting up street mode games. Our testing on prerelease servers was mostly positive, with smooth gameplay and little latency to speak of on good connections.
NBA 2K6 brings everything that made the game so great on the Xbox and PlayStation 2 to the Xbox 360, with the same excellent control mechanics and challenging AI, due to realistic player and team tendencies. You also get a full-featured product complete with a franchise mode, online play, and the 2K series' signature 24/7 mode. The primary attraction to this particular version of the game is its sharp-looking player models and visuals, though you need a fancy TV set to see them in all their glory. If you have the proper equipment, though, NBA 2K6 for the Xbox 360 offers the best graphics and gameplay combination you're liable to find in a basketball game.