Reviewed: November 7, 2005
Released: September 26, 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.
It all came to a head last year when SEGA released their EPSN games (all of them) for $20. Even EA loyalists who were content to play their inferior versions of their favorite sports games had to stand up and take notice. EA quickly fought back by slashing prices, but the damage was done and EA gamers had gotten a taste of the “good life”.
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.
Of all of the new sports games in the 2K6 line-up, NBA probably sees the least amount of significant changes this year. 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. 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 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.
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, far surpassing those of EA’s offering. There are pre-game animations of fans milling about the stadium, going through turnstiles, and the players walking onto the court and warming up, then you have all of the pre-game celebrations, player introductions, and such.
Once the game kicks in the player animation has never looked so good with a real weight, momentum and physicality for all the players. Some of the more famous players 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.
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.
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. 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. We already know the sport is dominated by African Americans; why propagate the stereotype further with a focused genre soundtrack. 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 surround 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. 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.
NBA 2K6 fixes a lot of problems, 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.
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 on the Xbox whether you are playing 5-on-5 in a stadium or just mixing and matching your perfect pick-up game at the local park.