To accept basketball games in the past, suspension of disbelief was an absolute requirement. Back in the 16-bit days, there were usually only 2 to 3 different-sized sprites to represent the entire physical spectrum of NBA players. This meant that the Olympically-chiseled David Robinson shared the exact same digital physique as the stocky Oliver Miller. The 32- and 64-bit age fared better with accurately sized 3D models, but motion-capture technology restricted all players to basically the same set of moves, which meant handle-impaired giants like Shawn Bradley could dribble with the grace of the much more elusive Allen Iverson. However, the 128-bit generation is now upon us and all of the old must change now due to the ground-breaking hoops title for the Dreamcast by Visual Concepts, NBA2K. This is a game so accurate to the actual sport of basketball that it requires no imagination on the part of the user and certainly made me a true believer.
Without a doubt, the first thing that grabbed me about NBA2K was the infinitely rich graphic presentation, which surpasses all other competition to date by an inconceivably wide margin (perhaps with the sole exception of NBA Live 2000 for the PC). From the pre-game player introductions (complete with stadium announcing and fireworks/light show) to the final whistle in the fourth quarter, I was in total awe as if I was watching one of Jason Williams' how-to-bedazzle-your-opponent dribbling highlights. The animation was ultra-smooth (almost to a fault) and the motion-capture as lovingly true-to-life as it was diverse. The 3D doppelgangers were dead-on accurate down to the tiniest details like Hornacek wiping his brow during free throws and LJ making his L-shaped arm gesture after pouring in a bucket. It literally sent eerie shivers down my spine to look at the digital recreations, especially when it came to my hometown Knicks like Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston (though Chris Dudley and a few others like Shaq and David Robinson could use some work). The best way I can describe the visual experience of NBA2K is to imagine 10 Virtua Fighter 3-quality models running up and down a full court including refs, coaches, and benchwarmers, who are all also 3D. It's also worth mentioning that the stadiums and arenas (also brilliantly recreated right down to the density of attendants) have some of the best looking and lively spectators, despite being typically two-dimensional as they are in all sports games.
Amazingly enough, the audio in NBA2K is almost as cutting-edge as the graphics. Without a doubt in my mind, NBA2K sports the best play-by-play commentary to ever grace a basketball game. By incorporating a pair of fictional caricatures (one is your typical, straight commentator and the other is a former coach-turned analyst) voiced by confident actors rather than stilted sports figures, the commentating reaches a level of fluidly and naturalness superior to any other offering and found elsewhere only in Visual Concepts' NFL2K. I was constantly amazed by not only how lengthy and seamless the commentators would describe the action without any 'hiccups' or delays, but I was surprised by their colorful vocabulary (i.e. "Oh, he pilfers it!"), accuracy (often using player nicknames and noting height mismatches as well as veteran reliability), and personality (i.e. "He got beat like he's stolen something.") that they each possessed. I was astounded that they almost never seemed to say the same thing twice (at least not until you've played a couple dozen games). Rounding out the aural presentation is the often riotous trashing-talking, coaching direction, reactionary crowd cheering, thunderous dunking, and, my favorite, the sweet swooshing.
Of course, all of this talk of graphics and sound would mean little if the gameplay didn't measure up. And again, you'll have to excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but I was totally blown away by the gameplay as well. NBA2K plays like a splendidly accurate basketball simulation, yet maintains a level of action and excitement that everyone 'loves' about the NBA. But don't expect any of that easy-to-score-on, El Matador defense that has become the trademark of poor basketball games (and the NBA Live franchise). Computer AI is tough even on a medium difficulty setting. If you leave your player assignment or have even a slight lapse in judgement, the computer will almost always exploit your mistakes and drive straight for the basket. It's very refreshing to play against a computer opponent that seems very focused on scoring and will dynamically adjust its game plan to do so rather than automatically carrying out some elaborate drawn-up play to the point of looking like prerecorded footage (like in NBA Live 2000).
The control scheme in NBA2K closely mirrors (though not entirely) the one in Kobe Bryant's Courtside (what I considered to be last season's best B-ball game) and that's a good thing because this is a control scheme that allows for picks, shot fakes, switching hands on the dribble, a turn-around spin move, direct icon passing, alley-ooping, on-the-fly play calling, protective elbowing swinging off a rebound, and, most importantly, posting-up offensively as well as defensively. Largely ignored, or at least non-integral, in other games besides NBA2K and Courtside, post-up play adds a whole other dimension to the game (the renowned 'battling in the paint'). NBA2K incorporates post-up play brilliantly by allowing a player to 'roll-over' on the defender or physically pump his way closer to the hole (of course, player sizes factor in immensely).
Another long-standing issue with the basketball genre has been the way defenders can unrealistically and rapidly karate-chop players into coughing up the ball for a steal. This just doesn't happen in the NBA and it doesn't happen in NBA2K as it is realistically stringent (though negotiable) when it comes to defensive steals. Wildly hand-checking an opponent is sure to draw foul-calls. Instead, what's necessary to pilfer the ball is timely and positional precision. Just like in the real NBA, steals in the game rarely occur while players actually dribbling forward with the ball. A defender stands a far greater chance of success by intercepting passes or slapping it from the blindside of a big man posting up. Even if you keep that bit of knowledge in mind, you can still expect frequent fouls to be called equally on both human- and computer-controlled contenders. Foul calls are, again, very loyal to the NBA model and will almost always reward the offense driving valiantly to the basket with the occasional cheesy charging violation. So while trips to the free throw line are frequent, it's interestingly resolved by a unique method of squeezing the L and R shoulder triggers symmetrically in order to shoot accurately. It can be nerve-racking to do so successfully under the pressure of the clock and it adds an extra dimension to the game by simulating the free-throw experience, which is so often the bane of those less heart-endowed (like Shaq).
Despite all my gushing, NBA2K isn't pure perfection. There are little bugs that typically plague sport games of the sort. Errant passes by players will unnaturally rocket their way out of bounds. The audio voices does, once in great while, get garbled like a broken record. Calling for picks and alley-oops requires a bit of finger acrobatics and is often unresponsive and even obvious backcourt violations are often not called. Other critics have already overly criticized the way centers have to backtrack to inbound the ball even if he's standing in mid-court which makes for minor delays. The play modes are somewhat sparse as well, without the likes of any extensive franchise mode, three-point contest, or the one-on-one matchups found in NBA Live 2000. Scores do tend to get pretty high due to the quick pacing, but this should be expected of any games unless the human players have the fortitude to carefully trot to the ball upcourt the way they do in real life. And finally, there's my own personal peeve; the lack of dancing cheerleaders or a half-time show. Yet all of these issues still only represent about 3% of the overall package. The other 97% of NBA2K is still mind-boggling and brilliant and easily overshadow the minor and even defensible flaws.
Like I said earlier, you check your imagination at the door with NBA2K because it's no longer necessary. This is as real as it's ever gotten for video basketball and had me fully believing in its authenticity. Anyone who overly penalized NBA2K for flaws like the ones I mentioned above should take a good look at all the other games currently on the market. I mean, these guys aren't even close to matching this game's magnificence! NBA2K is light years ahead of any of them and is so great that I have exhausted my vocabulary of positive adjectives to describe it.
- Fraud Alert: Pete Smith, Content Producer - September 9, 2014
- Observations from PAX East 2012: What’s old is new again - April 12, 2012
- Observations from PAX East 2012: Are video game gimmicks finally maturing? - April 11, 2012