If only a hoops game the caliber of NBA 2K9 could have been released in the heyday of pro basketball: the 1980s.
Playing NBA 2K9 on Xbox 360 made me a little upset. That's because I was indulging myself in the unfulfilled fantasy of a hoops game the caliber of NBA 2K9 that could have been released in what I consider the heyday of pro basketball in the 1980s. At a time when legendary players like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley and others were ruling both the hard courts and the hearts of many sports fans, most of the best basketball games weren't even based on real players. Nintendo's popular Double Dribble for the NES featured make-believe teams like the "Boston Frogs" and the arcade game made console port Arch Rivals had cartoony 'street' players with no grounding in reality. If you wanted real NBA action, you had Jordan Vs. Bird, a simplistic one-on-one game in which the highlight was slam dunking hard enough to break down the backboard and watching the janitor sweep up the shattered glass.
That's why a single tear nearly dripped down my cheek after playing my first game of NBA 2K9. It's a deep, visually stunning game with a near inexhaustible supply of options, but I'm just not as attached to the current players in the NBA. My favorite players of this generation -- Shaq, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, and Kevin Garnett -- are aging or on the decline, and I just don't find the LeBron Jameses, Carmelo Anthonys and Dwight Howards of the world all that compelling.
But fear not my friends, for I have not come here to condemn NBA 2K9 through the lens of my own personal biases. I am here to praise it.
The aspect of the game that immediately jumps out is the slick presentation. The team at Visual Concepts has basically created an experience that makes you feel like you're playing a television broadcast of the NBA -- especially in the striking, realistic way the players look, move, and behave from the motion captured animation of Kobe Bryant's gliding fadeaway jumper to the disgruntled scowl A.I. usually has on his face. To add to the realism, players can be seen fighting through screens, diving across the floor for loose balls, and will occasionally come flying out of nowhere to dunk a rebound. There are also a lot of small little touches like the shimmery reflections of the arena lights on the court and the colorful mascots that hop around on the sidelines.
This year's gameplay remains good as well, if a bit on the complicated side (It's a pretty clear clue that's it's gotten to be a little too much when the instruction manual refers you to a more detailed online manual for all of the controls). There's lots of different moves you can do like changing your dribble on the fly or altering shots in midair, but you'll sometimes find yourself having to press more buttons than you'd like. Luckily, defense is much improved from last year. Lockdown defense is back again, but it's been upgraded from previous years when Dikembe Mutumbo could face guard Dwayne Wade simply by hitting the left trigger.
I also can't help but love the new timeout system because it further adds to the realism. Basically, when you call a timeout in NBA 2K9, you can now actually coach your team by substituting players, adding double-teams, and telling your team to switch into a full-court press while the ticker showing how much time left in the timeout is shown at the bottom of the screen.
I could spend about 10,000 words going into the game's many modes and features, but I'll just hit the highlights. NBA 2K9 features what it calls "Living Rosters", which in addition to updating player ratings and roster updates, they are promising that player animations and their tendencies will be modified intermittently throughout the season (I haven't seen this in action yet, but I will say it unfortunately adds to the long load time when starting up the game).
The brightest highlight, however, is perhaps the Total Team Control mode which lets you play online with nine other players for true 5-on-5 basketball. It's an incredible experience to play with flesh and blood teammates instead of relying on computer controlled players and it feels more like a real basketball game than anything I've ever seen. You simply owe it to yourself to try it if you're a basketball fan; though it's always best to play with people you know and trust because some online players love to ballhog.
My quibbles with NBA 2K9 are few. The menus are confusing and difficult to navigate, the aforementioned load times, and the framerate can get choppy sometimes, especially during instant replays.
Otherwise, NBA 2K9 is a near perfect rendition of a professional sports league. It's too bad I'm controlling Deron Williams on the 2008 Utah Jazz instead of the short-shorts wearing 1987 version of John Stockton I remember fondly from my youth, but you can't have everything.