NBA 2K9: Hands-On

NBA 2K9 takes everything positive from last year's game and adds a whole lot more. The question is, will that be enough?

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Each year the stakes get a bit higher and game developers are put into the difficult position of one-upping the games from a year ago. The best example of this may be basketball games, where both the NBA 2K and NBA Live series must top not only last year's iteration but also each other. Luckily for them both, they seem to be delivering year in and year out, and this year is no exception. NBA 2K9 takes everything positive from last year's game and adds a whole lot more.

Shutting down Chris Paul won't be as easy this year as the defensive lock-down controls aren't as effective as in last year's game.
Shutting down Chris Paul won't be as easy this year as the defensive lock-down controls aren't as effective as in last year's game.

As has been the case with each release in the NBA 2K franchise, the game's presentation has seen its share of improvements in NBA 2K9. While the player models are still not on par with those in last year's NBA Live 08, they do appear more lifelike than NBA 2K8's players. Players will now scowl after a disagreeable call and nod their heads tauntingly on "and-1" opportunities. There may be additional emotions that come out, but these are the only ones we have seen firsthand. There is a thin layer of sweat on everyone's forehead (independent of the player's physical exertion up to that point) that appears too glossy to be lifelike, but this may still be an element that 2K is tweaking.

Like the players, the crowds appear more dynamic in NBA 2K9. They react to events in the game, and it's difficult to spot any repeat fans at a quick glance (if they exist). After each game you will be greeted with a highlight reel of the biggest layups, dunks, and rejections from the game. These replays are shown at full speed from a variety of camera angles and are meant to mimic the commercial preludes used in TNT's NBA broadcasts. As a result, these segments don't include commentary that may have given the feature a more postgame recap feel.

Speaking of commentary, NBA 2K9 includes a new broadcasting team. While Kevin Harlan will still be bringing you the play-by-play, he is joined in the booth this year by Clark Kellogg, replacing Kenny Smith from last year's game. Similarly, instead of Craig Sager (colorful suits and all), Cheryl Miller takes over the sideline reporting this year.

The presentation improvements give the gameplay a more authentic feel as well. New animations have been added for backward dribbling (only when walking), reach-from-behind steals, diving out of bounds to save the ball, and even stripping a player as he goes up for a shot. An animation has been added for step-throughs if you manage to get your defender up in the air on a fake, and talented dribblers can dribble out of double teams.

While signature animations were included in NBA 2K8, this year's game applies the same principle to defensive players for the first time. Premier perimeter defenders like Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier, and Ron Artest now have access to unique defensive animations as will shot blockers such as Marcus Camby and Kevin Garnett.

In addition to the more-cosmetic improvements in the game, new gameplay features have been added to make the game more realistic than NBA 2K8. While the breadth of plays has carried over from 2K8, the off-ball movement of your AI-controlled teammates is more consistent with the real NBA. Players automatically set off-ball screens to free up open teammates, cut to the rim when their defender cheats toward the ball, and generally space the court better. For those who do prefer calling set plays, 2K9's addition of inbounds plays should make the final minutes of close games a bit more technical.

The improved AI applies to pick-and-rolls as well. After calling for an on-ball screen (done by pressing down on the right analog stick this year), players will either roll or pop depending on their actual tendencies.

While the shooting remains mapped to the right analog (shot) stick this year, NBA 2K9 will let you modify the type of shot in midair (by directing the shot stick in a different direction) to avoid getting blocked. Though the practical application of modifying your shots in midair may require an unreal understanding of how different animations interact together, it does open the door to some sick double-clutch moves.

The transition game should also take a turn for the better in NBA 2K9 with the ability to queue multiple passes. This should make give-and-goes more seamless in transition and even open up new possibilities in the half-court against aggressive opponents. In fact, there may be more application for give-and-goes than in years past. NBA 2K9 lets you set a defensive strategy for each of your players individually. You can direct your AI teammates to conservatively maintain position, to play aggressively to force turnovers, or even to leave their man to double a particular player when he receives the ball (yep, Rondo's inability to shoot will hurt Celtic players this year).

Like the AI defense, the user-controlled defense will see its share of changes this year. Gone is the old "lock-on defense" trigger that would enable Shaq to man up on Chris Paul. In its place is a new adjustable lock-on feature that simply directs your defender three to four feet in from of the ball handler. A small meter that looks like a cellphone bar will appear below your defender and will show you how far off you are from your opponent. While holding the lock-on trigger, you can push the right analog stick toward your opponent to close the distance and pressure the ball or even favor a particular side.

While 2K9 does include a healthy dose of gameplay improvements, the physics in the game are still not as sharp as they could be. These include herky-jerky animation transitions (especially when the user changes his mind mid-animation), offensive players not falling to the ground on a charge or block (the defenders do though), play immediately stopping when the whistle blows following a foul or violation (the ball immediately drops from the player's hands), and small guards sometimes sinking seemingly impossible shots while surrounded by bigs and other times getting rejected from behind (it seems arbitrary). You will still run into occasional clipping issues, but the 2K team has tweaked the game to eliminate the missing wide-open layups. The majority of the above are known issues, though, and are still being worked on.

All of the game modes from NBA 2K8 return in this year's game. While the blacktop and dunk contests are similar to last year's modes, NBA 2K9's franchise mode (the Association) has been improved to provide a more immersive experience. The Association includes additional in-game tutorials to make the mode more user-friendly (a knock against many 2K games in the past). In addition to a new trading AI, which should provide a more authentic franchise experience, trades involving more than three players/picks per team are now possible (though 2K wouldn't say how many). Although the Association has seen additional upgrades as well, the rest is still under wraps at this point.

One game mode that should add a new element to the game this year is five-on-five online play. Judging by some of the off-ball controls that 2K has added, the developers have clearly benefited from seeing a similar feature released earlier this year in NBA Live 08 (via a patch). Additional controls have been provided for players without the ball, including the ability to hold and grab your opponent (though a foul will occasionally be called). On the other side, players attempting to get free from a defender can slap hands away and make fake first steps to create separation. Even the controls for setting picks and drawing charges seem as though they will be important to online play. To provide you with a better view of what your player sees, each player will play with a unique camera angle that will dynamically reposition itself to follow the action, though you can always switch to the default camera if you don't like the perspective.

New animations, such as blocks from behind, will have you looking over your shoulder on every drive to the hoop.
New animations, such as blocks from behind, will have you looking over your shoulder on every drive to the hoop.

Going a step further, 2K has also added a grading system that will let you provide feedback on how pleasurable your online experience was with each of your teammates. This will allow users to flag teammates who never pass the ball, who put up wild shots, or who refuse to defend their man. These "grades" will appear next to each user's name the next time they join a game.

Fans of the 2K franchises will be happy to hear that NBA 2K9 now supports 2K Share. This will let you share rosters, sliders, franchises, and even created players with your friends online. Now instead of thousands of players attempting to make Jordan, one person can just share his created Jordan with the rest of the world. Hopefully this will lead to the creation of some realistic old-school teams.

NBA 2K9 is better than last year's game in every regard. Everything that made last year's game such a success has been brought over, and new features such as an improved franchise mode and online five-on-five should add to the game's experience. Though with all the improvements in NBA Live this year, consumers may have a difficult choice this season.

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