NBA 2K6 Hands-on

We get our first in-depth look at all the gameplay changes being made to 2K Sports' basketball franchise.

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We had an opportunity to get hands-on with an early build of 2K Sports' upcoming basketball sim, NBA 2K6, at a recent press event. We were quite surprised by the number of changes being made to both the game logic and the core mechanics. When you put them all together, NBA 2K6 may end up being the biggest face-lift the franchise has seen in years.

The most significant and noticeable change is that shots are now mapped to the right analog stick, which is now aptly named the "shot stick." Most basketball games have one or two shot buttons, and when you press a button, the game simply picks what it thinks is the best possible shot for the situation. The shot stick promises to give you the flexibility to choose which shots to take to fit a given context. The most basic use of the shot stick is for jump shots. Pull back on the stick to start the motion, then release when your player has the ball at the apex of his jump. It sounds like a natural motion, analogous to popping a jumper in real life, but it may take some getting used to. The shot stick starts to make more sense in the case of driving layups and dunks. As you make your drive to the basket, sometimes a big man will step into your lane, getting in between you and the hoop. By tapping left or right on the shot stick, you can force your player to lean to either side and attempt to shoot around the defender, much as you would do in real life. If you think you have an elevation advantage on the defender, you can instead press up on the stick to try to go straight over the top with the layup. If this sounds too scary, don't worry. The shot button is still there, like a security blanket for those who prefer to let the computer call the shots.

So if the right stick is mapped to shots, what happened to isomotion juke moves? Before we explain that, we should mention that the standard turbo button as you know it has been scrapped altogether in NBA 2K6. In its place is the "aggressive button." What's the difference? Instead of giving you a speed boost and draining an energy meter like a standard turbo button, the aggressive button merely acts as a modifier. Hold it down while going for a driving layup, and that layup becomes a dunk attempt instead. Need something fancier than just a basic chest pass? Hold down aggressive while hitting that pass button. Want to challenge a shot but not risk a shooting foul? Just press the block button. But if you want to make that block attempt a Ben Wallace-esque volleyball spike, that's when you engage the aggressive button with the block button.

That brings us back to isomotion, which has now moved over to the left analog stick. When you combine the aggressive button with the left analog stick, your basic dribbles and motion across the court become more forceful jukes and fancy dribble moves. The moves you do with the stick are now more closely tied to what happens on the screen than past iterations of isomotion, which seemed to unleash canned animations as you tapped the analog stick. Now if you sway back and forth with the stick, you'll cross the ball over in front of you. Hesitation dribbles are possible by jabbing to the same side as your ball hand. You can also execute 360s, wraparounds, and more. Want to do a half spin, then spin back around in the same direction? You can do that. It's all context sensitive and dependent on which hand the ball is in. The best part of it all? If you control a skilled-enough ball handler, you can easily chain a few of these moves together, then flick the right analog stick to cap everything off with a layup or dunk attempt. In our brief hands-on time with the game, it didn't take us long before we were able to chain together several dribble moves to break down defenders. Of course, it'll probably take a considerable amount of time to master the mechanic and get beyond just mashing the stick around in the heat of an intense game.

The passing game promises much improvement over last year's game. There will now be two distinct pass buttons in NBA 2K6. The regular pass button will throw the ball to where the recipient is standing, as in every other basketball game on the market. The second button is your lead pass button, and that will lead the receiver toward the basket. As you can imagine, throwing an alley-oop is done by holding down aggressive plus the lead pass. As it currently stands, the lead pass button feels quite powerful. You can drive to the basket, recognize a teammate with an open lane, and hit him with the ball as he's already moving toward the hole. This gives the computer-controlled defense much less time to react and lets you take better advantage of dump-off opportunities close to the basket as the defense collapses.

There's a new dual player control mechanic in NBA 2K6 as well. By pressing the Y or triangle button, you can cycle through all the players off the ball. Once you have your man selected, you can issue him several simple commands, such as set up in the post, set a pick, or pop out to the three-point line. This will be useful as you control guards--imagine being able to tell your three-point specialist to clear the lane and camp out at the line, then calling for a pick from your big man just before you drive the lane. Instead of being committed to taking the shot off the drive, you'll have the option of kicking it out to your shooter with the confidence that he'll be behind the arc.

The developers have also improved the amount of flexibility on the defensive side of the ball. We already mentioned the ability to select between challenging a shot and aggressively going for a swat. Positional defense has also been improved. You can body up on the ball handler with a defender and try to force him in one direction. You can also try to flop for a charging call while guarding in the post, strip the ball, or tie up your man.

NBA 2K6 will also let you vary how you attempt a steal. As you body up against a ball handler, you can press left or right on the right analog stick in order to poke with either hand; it actually matters which hand you use, too. Just like in real life, if you choose to reach with the opposite hand to the one your opponent is dribbling with, you could find yourself reaching across your body awkwardly while you get crossed over. You can also tap up on the stick in order to pop the ball loose, or tap down to slap down at the ball. Slapping down at the ball is particularly effective if you can time it just as your opponent goes up for a layup or dunk. At any other point, you'll likely get whistled for a hack.

The artificial intelligence of individual players and teams is also being addressed in a big way in NBA 2K6. More so than in past years, the developers are focused on trying to get teams to play the way they would in real life. The dev team on NBA 2K6 includes veterans of the old Microsoft Inside Drive series, as well as 2K Sports' own College Hoops 2K5, both of which are known for how faithfully they model real-life team behavior. When you play NBA 2K6, the developers promise that the Phoenix Suns will release their guards off shots and try to fast-break at every opportunity. They're also more likely to take shots early in the shot clock than a team like the Detroit Pistons, which will try to grind you down with defense and lengthy possessions. Each individual player also has unique AI tendencies programmed into him so he'll play like his real-life counterpart. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire will execute the high pick and roll in the circle. Rip Hamilton will spend all day running off staggered screens and curling off the last pick to get his midrange shot off. Shaq will make his living in the paint, while Tim Duncan may spend at least some time out at the elbow area for his patented long bank shots. In our brief time looking at the game, it was difficult for us to say how effective the developers have been at getting this down, but you will at least be able to make adjustments to individual player AI. We took a peek at Dwyane Wade's AI sliders and found his drive tendency set to 90, his midrange shot set to 80, and his three-point shooting tendency set to a conservative 10, just as you'd expect.

The game will also monitor your own tendencies. Taking a page out of dearly departed ESPN NFL 2K5's playbook, NBA 2K6 will feature the VIP profile system, which stores data on all your playing tendencies. You can trade profiles around with your friends and have the computer attempt to mimic your playing style.

With all the changes being made to the core gameplay in NBA 2K6, it's safe for us to say that it currently plays nothing at all like last year's version. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more information on NBA 2K6 as it becomes available, including a look at the changes made to the game's franchise modes. The game is currently slated for release this fall on the Xbox and PlayStation 2.

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