Reviewed: January 5, 2006
Released: November 22, 2005
There are dozens of famous rivalries in sports, but none so greater than the ongoing battle being waged on our consoles every year by EA Sports and (this year) 2K Sports. In the golden era of gaming (the past 2-3 years) we got to pick and choose our “teams” and stand by them. EA would continue to pump out yearly installments with little to no improvements while SEGA would practically reinvent their titles year after year.
Left with no other options EA, backed by a few million dollars, purchased the NFL and ESPN brand names quite effectively eliminating the competition…or so they thought. SEGA handed off their sports line to Take 2 Games who quickly formed the 2K Sports division and with the same great designers (Visual Concepts) behind the scenes; the franchise lives on in 2006. It might not have all that ESPN flavor but the gameplay has never tasted so good.
While the NBA license is still up for grabs 2K Sports had to figure out how to put a new non-EPSN face on their latest NBA 2K6 game. We lost a lot of the graphics and the professional commentators but the gameplay has been polished even further and we still have a decisive winner in this year’s annual bout for supremacy on the polished hardwood courts.
The Xbox 360 has become the latest frontline in this ongoing sports wars with several titles making the leap from Xbox to Xbox 360, but for some inexplicable reason, EA has literally slashed their own throats by releasing butchered versions of many of their sports titles, almost to the point where they could be classified as 360 tech demos. And while 2K Sports didn't put in their usual 110%, at least they didn't remove key features to make some arbitrary launch date. You'll get all of the classic gameplay from the Xbox plus some spiffy new graphics to make you drool as much as these new players sweat.
Of all of the new sports games in the 2K6 line-up, NBA probably sees the least amount of significant changes this year and that goes for the Xbox 360 port as well. Aside from yhe obvious visual enhancements, this is a dead-on port of what you likely have already played on the other consoles. And compared to the 2K5 version (for those that haven't played 2K6) the gameplay has been cleaned up, bugs removed, players and teams updated, but very little has changed at the core level. Then again, the game was already pretty solid, so not much had to change.
Depending on the chosen difficulty in past games you may have found an unbalanced gameplay experience that either made the game way too easy or terribly difficult. Things have been evened up across the various skill levels for this year and you’ll have to work much harder to find those rare glitches that let you walk all over the opposing team.
Control has been improved with the Shot Stick feature that allows you to control your shot with the flick of the right stick. This is an incredibly intuitive way to make many of your shots and literally allows you to draw the motion of the players and the shot with the right analog stick. You’ll also use this stick for the new free-throw system that actually has you watching the pullback of the shooter’s arm rather than some arbitrary meter. The controller also rumbles to give you some tactile feedback during the shot process.
The D-pad gives you access to the new Dual Player Control system that gives you fluid access to give and go’s, alley-oops or tricky passes that were previously impossible, even with the icon passing system. The level of complexity with this system allows you to pull of some impressive multi-man plays with only a few button presses.
Defense has been enhanced with the new Strip n Rip system that allows you to anticipate the opposing team’s next move and block or steal their pass or shot. With a little practice you can learn to strip the ball away from a charging player or fight for that wayward rebound. Again, the right stick is used here to draw the arcing motions of your man's arm to snatch that ball away in mid-dribble.
This year more attention has been given to the individual team members. If you know how certain NBA stars play in real life you will see those actions and skills mirrored in the game. It truly is a remarkable sight and creates a whole new level of realism. There is a definite physicality to these players now and they are forced to lean into turns and pivot for certain plays. Gone are the days of robotic animations and players that “skated” across the floor.
Also new are ability icons that will appear during the game indicating a player has a certain skill. Look for icons like a “3”, a shoe, or a star next to the player and try to move the ball to them for a fast break or an easy shot at the hoop.
The computer AI is better than ever but still exhibits a few glaring glitches that can make the game predictable and even a bit too easy on the lower skill levels. Veterans of previous NBA titles will likely need to head straight for the Superstar skill level to find a challenge.
The legendary VIP system is back and better than ever. This allows you to create a profile that stores not only your stats and crib points, but also key elements of how you actually play the game. Think of it as a continually evolving AI system that is programmed while you play. This VIP file can then be downloaded by others and assigned to the computer so you can effectively play other humans without them being there. Stick you VIP profile on a memory unit and you can take your team, skills, and history with you on the road.
The Crib is back with all of those fabulous mini-games, trophies, bobble-head players, mini balls, and other unlockables. You’ll earn plenty of crib credits as you play through the various game modes and you can spend them in the crib to unlock tons of extra material.
The biggest and most comprehensive franchise mode in NBA history just got deeper with the Association mode. Pick your team, hire your coach, scout your rookies, and draft your top picks. Train your team with an assortment of skill-improving drills and improve your overall chemistry with team drills. The game tracks a wealth of statistical information, more than you’ll probably want to know, but it’s all there if and when you need it.
24/7: Road to the EBC is another great mode that mixes NBA players and Def Jam Celebrities on the streets of Harlem for the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic. There is an impressive list of celebrities that appear in this mode as well as a large assortment of fun and challenging mini-games that might make this mode the best feature of the entire game.
The rest of the modes are all pretty common; season, franchise, fantasy draft, quick game, and one of my favorites, street hoops where you can custom create your team of 1-5 players picking anyone from any team in the NBA then head to the gym, park, or any of several other exciting outdoor locales like Venice Beach, Golden Gate Park, or even the White House lawn.
While the gameplay of NBA 2K6 was able to withstand the loss of the ESPN license the overall presentation is admittedly a bit lacking this year, at least in the stadium. The 24/7 and quick pick-up games in exotic locations actually became my favored modes of play followed by online gaming and then franchise and season modes.
The game visuals are gorgeous, and quite literally mind-blowing. They far surpass those of EA’s NBA Live 06, at least when it comes to the players and court graphics. This is where things get a bit weird. You see, Visual Concepts chose only to give 360 visual enhancements to the players. Everything else about the game is still very classic Xbox. So while you have these stunning photo-realistic players milling around the sidelines you'll see very dated cheerleaders, coaches, and fans filling in the gaps.
There are pre-game animations of fans milling about the stadium, going through turnstiles, buying concessions, and the players walking onto the court and warming up, then you have all of the pre-game celebrations, player introductions, sideline cheerleaders, and such, but anything that isn't an NBA player looks entirely out of place. Of course I could (and will) argue the point that we are here to play basketball and that the player models are the only thing that matter. After the first few ancillary animations and cutaways I am usually mashing the button to skip them anyway, so I could care less what the coach or fans look like.
Once the game kicks in the player animation has never looked so good with a real weight, momentum and physicality for all the players. The 360 manages to pack in more frames of player animations to make the action even smooth, which translates to better overall gameplay. Some of the more famous players, especially Shaq, have been mo-capped and you will recognize their signature moves. It gets really crazy around the net and the collision animation is still buggy. The game knows well in advance if a shot is going to be blocked and you can see the animation start to play out giving you a bit of fair warning to get ready for the rebound. It will be a glorious day indeed when the collision detection actually gets pared down to limb on limb rather than player on player.
Of course the big deal on this new 360 is "sweat". I supposed when you have a few million free cpu cycles floating around you may as well model individual droplets of sweat; sweat the will put a sheen on the players or create an angelic aura when lit from behind; sweat that will stain their free-floating uniforms that bounce and move independent of the player model. Of course, most of this is all too subtle to be seen during normal gameplay, so if you really want to see all of this finer detail you will need to explore the classic replay system that allows you to track players, the ball, and zoom in to where you can probably do a retina scan.
You can still play the game from multiple camera angles including TV, action, and angles from the side and ends of the court. You can also zoom in to multiple distances to appreciate the subtle details on players like textured jerseys and facial animations. You can even see the dimples on the basketball, the tattoos on the players, and the logos on the sneakers. Unlike NBA Live 06 where you have a 2-3 second window to hit a button to see a replay, NBA 2K6 automatically replays most every shot unless you turn this off in the menus. I much prefer hitting a button to skip a replay than to watch one.
ESPN commentator, Bill Walton is gone and the world (and the sport) is a better place, or at least it would have been if he hadn’t been replaced with courtside reporter, Craig Sager who appears to know less about the sport than my mother - sorry mom. Thankfully, Kevin Harlan offers up a much more convincing play-by-play and Kenny Smith mixes things up with his color commentary.
The ESPN theme music has been replaced with typical sports fanfare as well as more than a 40 licensed music tracks, mostly rap and urban hip-hop specifically created or assembled for this game. If you’re like me and don't really care for these thumping beats you can always opt for the custom soundtrack features, or just turn the music off.
Sound effects are good with an intelligent crowd response that fits the action. You can always tell when you are playing a home game versus an away game just by the thunderous crowd noise as you near the enemy bucket. The rest of the sound is just dribbling and a disturbing lack of squeaky tennis shoes. The squeaky sneaks annoyed me in Inside Drive 2004 but you don’t appreciate that subtle sound until it is gone.
As with previous Visual Concepts games, NBA 2K6 is presented in a wonderful 3D Dolby Digital sound mix that creates just the right amount of ambience and reverb.
Sports games last forever, or at least until you get tired of them or the next year’s installment rolls around. NBA 2K6 has some added life to it with the incredibly addicting and insanely fun 24/7 Mode. Plus, all of those other modes that EA stripped from their title are here and ready for your long-term commitment. The street hoops games are also a blast and the venues are as much fun to look at as they are to play in.
Xbox Live is fully supported with roster updates, online multiplayer, scoreboards, and voice chat during the game so you can talk your best smack while you drive the ball down court. But even if you aren’t looking to socialize, the core game modes, lengthy Association, season, and challenging Fantasy modes will keep any basketball lover on the courts for months to come.
There are 1000 Achievement points spread across a surprising few five achievements that are pretty easy to earn. In fact, you'll probably find the only real challenge is trying to earn all 1000 of those points in a single game. It can be done with a few tweaks to the rules and a two-player scenario. In fact, if you get multiple gamer profiles loaded onto a single 360 the Achievements are shared across all profiles currently logged in.
NBA 2K6 fixes a lot of problems of 2K5, but not all of them. The few that remain aren’t all that significant or even detrimental to the gameplay. You can overcome most of the AI issues by simply upping the difficulty level or playing other humans. And once you get a taste of the 24/7 mode and all the fantastic mini-games that mode holds, you’ll be hooked.
The graphics have gotten a partial facelift with some incredible players models. I'm sure the rest of the game would have received a similar treatment if there had been enough time, and it will be exciting to see what 2K Sports has in store for us with 2K7. NBA Live 06 might have an overall prettier package, but I'll take better gameplay and a complete package of game modes over flash courtside graphics any day.
Visual Concepts continues to make the best sports games on the market and this year they go on to prove that the ESPN license might not be as important as EA had previously thought. Once you get past the lack of overall presentation, you can settle down for the best basketball game in the Xbox 360 launch line-up whether you are playing 5-on-5 in a stadium or just mixing and matching your perfect pick-up game at the local park.