Developers are often criticized for seemingly doing as little as possible from one year to the next with their sports games. That is not the case with NBA 2K8. It's superior to last year's game in almost every way; there's loads of new content and the gameplay is better than ever. Issues, such as missed shots close to the basket and atrocious documentation, hurt the overall package. But this is still a game that's sure to please both casual and hardcore hoops fans.
There's no shortage of ways to stay busy in 2K8. The series has had a street ball component to it for a number of years and it's back again. It's called NBA Blacktop here, but it has been revamped and improved upon in a number of ways. You can participate in a three-point shootout or play street ball using real NBA players. The goofy story from last year is gone--you just play ball. The big addition to the mode is the dunk contest. Up to four players can choose from current stars and legends, such as Clyde Drexler, Dr. J, or Dominique Wilkins, for a three-round dunk contest that takes place in the streets of Las Vegas.
There are three parts to each dunk: the gather, in-air style, and the finish. A gather is how you start the dunk. You can bounce the ball to yourself, hop off of one foot, toss the ball in the air, and more depending on what direction you move or rotate the right analog stick. In-air style is determined the same way. Here, you can pump fake, spin, windmill, spread your legs à la the Jordan logo, and a host of other actions. To finish the dunk, you press R2 or the right trigger in the highlighted area of the meter. The closer you are to the center, the better your finish. You can also place props, such as ball racks and benches, to add a bit of flair to your dunks. It takes a little bit of practice and the game does a poor job of letting you know what you need to do (though it does tell you what you did wrong after the fact), but once you've spent some time experimenting, you can pull off some amazing-looking dunks. Because the judges are all over the place with their scoring, this mode is best played against friends offline or online when you can trash-talk your opponent and argue over scores. Losing to computer-controlled opponents on a weak dunk is no fun at all.
NBA Blacktop is nice, but it's more of a bonus--the association is the bread and butter of the series. It's still the deepest basketball sim out there, but not a whole lot has changed and it's starting to feel a bit stale. The menus have been redone, but they are still a chore to navigate. A lot of the tasks aren't much fun either, like scheduling practices and scouting future draft picks. The way you negotiate contacts is more realistic than ever and you now have the ability to include no-trade clauses. Hooray! Now you can be saddled with a bunch of horrible contracts--just like Isiah Thomas! You'll also need to assign roles (starter, star, sixth man) to your players in an effort to keep their morale up--unlike Isiah. All of these options may make it seem like going through a season of the association is a lot of work, but the effect they have on your team is minimal. It's possible to use the default roles, never schedule any practices, and scout very little yet still do just fine. But you get what you put into the mode. If you really immerse yourself in the life of an NBA GM and coach, there's a lot to enjoy here. Should you want to only worry about the rigors of a single season, you can do that in the aptly named season mode.
Once again, the NBA 2K series sets the standard for online play. There's something for everyone to enjoy here. Hardcore fans can participate in an entire season, complete with online draft. You can create tournaments, as well as play ranked and unranked matches. The game never really bothers to explain how to do it, but if you go to the online lobby page and scroll down, you'll find that you can participate in all of the NBA Blacktop modes too. Up to eight players can play together on the Xbox 360 and up to 10 players can team up on the PlayStation 3. All of your stats and progress are tracked on your player card, making it easy for you to scout prospective opponents. 2K8 takes a proactive approach to getting player feedback, not only asking you if you want to give Xbox Live feedback on a player after a game, but also giving you its own series of questions to help ensure people know what kind of player they're going up against in the future. None of this would mean a thing if the game didn't run well. Outside of free throws being a little more difficult and the referee sometimes not wanting to put the ball in play, our online experience was quite good.
2K8 boasts some impressive options, but how the game plays is most impressive. The signature jump shots in last year's game were nice, but this year, Visual Concepts has raised the bar with signature style animations. There are countless new layups, dribble moves, passes, and dunks. These new animations complement the already great-looking jump shots. You'll be amazed at how realistically the game plays and moves. The CPU does a great job of taking advantage of all these signature moves by making the players play just as they would in real life. Even though we were on the wrong end of the beating, we were dazzled as Steve Nash threw no-look passes, squeezed bounce passes through tiny openings, and drove the lane with reckless abandon. Other players are just as lethal in the game as they are in real life. Shaq's an absolute terror near the basket, throwing down vicious dunks over anyone who stands between him and the hoop; Kobe will take over a game, owning entire quarters at a time; while LeBron will beat you with his passing and scoring. It's one of those things you've got to see in action to truly appreciate how everything comes together.
You wouldn't know it from the game's horrible instruction manual (save for some load screens, there's no in-game instruction either), but there are a number of new gameplay features this year. We didn't find this particularly useful, but you can use the right stick to raise or lower your defender's hands. You can also control other players at any time, get them open, call for the ball, and then drain a shot. Another addition that will help you get open shots is a diagram that shows you where players need to go when you run a play. This is a great way to learn the proper way to run plays and should encourage you to do more than drive the line or toss up endless three pointers by making it easy to run an offense like the pros. You'll also need to run plays because your players don't do much on their own to get open. They'll shuffle around out near the three-point line, but they don't work hard down low nor do they cut to the basket much on their own. The big change to the way the game controls is that you now perform crossovers and other dribble moves strictly with the left analog stick. If you're playing from the sideline camera, it can be a tough to get the players to do what you want them to do. The system is much more responsive from the baseline view because your actions more accurately mimic what the players are doing. It's a good change because the controls were getting overly complex, but Visual Concepts needs to just swallow its pride and copy NBA Live's use of the right trigger.
These changes and additions are not huge on their own, but how everything comes together is what makes 2K8 such an amazing game. Once you get a handle on the controls, you have a wide array of moves at your fingertips. The artificial intelligence is great--it's more challenging than last year, but it never feels cheap. Even free throws, which were frustrating last year, have been made more forgiving this time around. If you toss in the fantastic signature style moves and the way they're implemented, you've got a great game on your hands.
It's too bad, then, that there are some nagging issues that keep the game from being truly remarkable. Once again, there are too many blown layups. Whether you use the shoot button or the shot stick (it's a little less of an issue with the stick), players will miss wide-open dunks and layups. They'll turn around midair and throw up a circus shot for no reason. They also seem to have an aversion to going strong to the hole. This seems to be the developer's way of keeping overall shooting percentages realistic, but it comes at the expense of completely unrealistic percentages from in the paint. It's such an obvious problem that even the game's announcers see what's going on, chiding players for missing such easy shots. There are also some smaller flaws that bring things down a bit. When double-teamed, ball handlers are too quick to pick up their dribble and often turn the ball over as a result of being tied up. Defenders charge into the ball handler to push him over midcourt for a backcourt violation, the AI does a poor job of helping you rotate defenders to cover the open man, and there are a lot of questionable foul calls. None of these issues ruin the game, but imagine how great it would be if they weren't there...
2K8 doesn't look a whole lot different from last year, but the addition of all the new signature style moves does wonders for making the game appear more realistic. Many sports games have great animations, but none of them react so realistically to what's happening, apply physics, and then transition from one move to the next so seamlessly. Player models are generally quite good, though many of the Caucasian players look downright horrifying, as do most of the coaches. The weird bug where the shorts the players are wearing tear and vanish still rears its ugly head once in a while too. Arenas look fantastic, thanks to great-looking courts, cheerleaders, dancing mascots, players on the bench reacting to the action on the court, and (ugly but active) individual crowd members. The frame rate is generally steady, but it does choke a bit during free throws and replays. The announcers do a nice job of calling the action and mix in a fair amount of game analysis as well. They do occasionally miss some big plays and there are a few situations where you'll repeatedly hear the same call, but they're generally quite good.
It is rare to find a sports game where you're in awe of the moves you see onscreen, but it's something that happens routinely with 2K8. Rather than get upset about how the CPU is picking you apart, you'll find yourself admiring how it happened and then resolving to return the favor the next time down the court. It's just too bad that such problems as missed layups, poor instructions, and a somewhat stale association mode are present because even with these problems, NBA 2K8 is one of the greatest basketball games in recent memory. Whether you're a casual basketball fan or a total hoops nut, this is the game for you.