NBA 2K8 Review (Xbox 360)

In 1891, at a YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, a physical education teacher was given a task by the administration. The 30-year old Canadian educator was asked to invent a game that had to meet three very specific criteria. One, the game could not take up too much space. Second, it must not be to rough. And finally, it would be played indoors. With inspiration from a game from his childhood, two peach baskets and 13 simple rules (12 of which still exist in some form today), Dr. James Naismith introduced the world to Basketball.

In the 116 years since, basketball has grown from its humble beginnings to become a truly global game. Due in large part to the costs associated with playing basketball versus that of the other major sports, the game has been embraced across the globe and is played on every continent and in nearly every country. While many Americans believe that Baseball--or even American Football--are this country’s greatest contribution to the sporting world, it’s hard to argue the impact of Dr. Naismith and his peach baskets.

Though the game of basketball has not changed too much from its inception, basketball gaming has evolved and grown tremendously from the days of Atari and other early adaptations. Although considered the #2 sport by many sports gamers, few can argue that basketball gamers are among the most knowledgeable and passionate folks around. They want every detail and nuance on and off the court to mirror what they see in the NBA. Luckily for them, the team at 2K Sports and Visual Concepts, the folks behind the NBA 2K series, seem to understand that passion. And, with the release of NBA 2K8, that team’s passion, for the sport and game, clearly shows through.

I’ve long contended that becoming an NBA player is the most exclusive job in sports. When compared to the other sports, it’s hard to argue. The 30 NBA teams are limited to 12 active players (15 if you count the inactive list). That means there are less than 400 spots available in the NBA despite that fact that it draws from a global talent pool. We won’t even get into the fact that most teams only really play 8-10 players. Compared to the other major sports, the NBA is certainly an exclusive club. A fact that, I believe, is what lends itself so well to the fans, the gaming industry and is where NBA 2K8 really shines.

Not satisfied with only pouring resources into the elite superstars of the NBA, NBA 2K8 has attempted to recreate the personality of the entire league with startling success. From the way a player shoots his jumpers to his free throw routine, the way he dribbles the rock to how high he pulls up his socks, the level of detail and accuracy in this title is almost overwhelming. And it’s not just the Tim Duncan’s and Shaq’s that are given the full-treatment. What’s impressive about NBA 2K8 is that even that 9th man on your bench, in many cases, will come in during garbage time and play with that level of accuracy and detail.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s only the player models and animations that are used to pull you into the action. The entire experience has been given a signature feel. The NBA arenas are replicated in great detail, creating a unique look and atmosphere during the season. The little things are executed so well that you almost miss them. A great example was a recent game that I was playing in my Pistons Association. While most folks outside of Detroit would not bat an eye at it, I paid close attention between quarters to listen to the PA Announcer. Fully expecting to hear a generic introduction for the dance team like “Please welcome your Pistons Dancers”, I couldn’t help but smile when they were introduced correctly as “Automotion.” As they say, the little things go a long way.

With realistic players playing on realistic courts in realistic environments, you might think that NBA 2K8 has reached the limit of recreating that signature feel. Instead, they take it to yet another level beyond the visual and audible details and realism by taking a huge step forward in accurately recreating a team’s playing style both offensively and defensively. The Suns try to go track meet, while the Pistons play that defense heavy half-court game. The Bulls keep to their guard heavy style while still utilizing Deng on the wings. In fact, in three games against the Bulls, I saw them run one total play to Ben Wallace on the offensive end. A huge change from just a few seasons ago when Wallace could be used as a dominant offensive force.

Adding to the realism is the adaptive AI that not only knows their style, but also knows when it’s not working. I’ve never seen a game play as intelligently as I’ve seen in NBA 2K8. The AI will run a play and react to what you give them. If they are trying to run a curl to the wing and you run through a screen instead of around it and close off the passing lane, instead of staying in that canned play, it’s smart enough to back it out and run something else. If you try to run around the screen and the screener’s man tries to help in pursuit, the screener will cut to the hoop. Nothing feels scripted or predictable for a change.

Defensively, the AI will not let you exploit weaknesses without changing up their gameplan. In another recent game, I had Elton Brand dominating the Sonics on the low blocks. I fed him time after time, and he exploited the inferior Seattle frontcourt. After scoring 13 straight points, the Sonics started to double Brand in the post before he picked up his 3rd foul on the defensive end and took a seat on the bench. On the next possession, I went to the blocks again and the double-team was off. Good adjustment. Where it gets even more impressive is that when Elton came back to start the 3rd Quarter, the first time I tried to go to him, they immediately brought the help. The AI was smart enough to know that it wasn’t my team that was killing them on the blocks, it was Brand. They didn’t change their entire philosophy, just how they would guard the one guy. Brilliant.

While I could continue to sing the praises of NBA 2K8 and talk simply about how much I am enjoying the game, it’s important to point out that there are some issues with the gameplay. At the default settings with no slider adjustments, I found the game to have too many offensive rebounds and blown layups and not enough fouls. I think collision sensitivity causes a sluggish feel at time and can severely impact the flow of the game. The nice thing is, while it’s not always the case in sports games today, the sliders actually do have an impact on the game’s performance. With a few tweaks here and there, I was easily able to recreate the NBA style that looks and feels right to me. Your mileage may vary, but it was nice to be able to personalize my experience. It ended up being kind of like my own signature style.

The implementation of the new foot-planting physics also created a mixed bag for me. While I think it squashes a lot of the gliding that plaques many basketball titles, combined with Iso-Motion, it sometimes gives you a feeling that you can not perform the moves that you want to when you want to do them. Again, that’s not all bad. Defensively, at first I was bothered by the pseudo-delay in block attempts due to the need to plant. I quickly found that, proper defense versus the old “chicken with its head cut off” technique seriously changes the response time. It still doesn’t feel quite right all the time, and I certainly give the technology points for moving in the right direction, but another year to get the kinks out should really make a difference.

A couple other small glitches appear, including a slight repositioning of players that results from a pump fake and a really horrible implementation of the substitution screen that shows players going in at the wrong positions--despite the fact that they are actually subbed correctly. I did find, however, that the second issue is largely rectified by simply editing the Secondary Position from blank to their correct position in the Edit Player screen. Not necessary, but it seems to work.

Even with those notable issues with the gameplay, it does not take away from the overall experience for me. I still enjoy the gameplay in this game more than any bastketball game that I can remember, including last year’s stellar release and, my all-time favorite, Inside Drive 2004. I have to take special time to highlight the new option to run the play. This option actually puts the play, which can be set to be called automatically by the AI; right on the court and you are responsible for following those directions. Running plays in a basketball game is such a foreign concept to so many people that this mode opens up a whole new world to many. I love the fact that the play is out there for you. If you want to run it, do it. If not, you can call your own or just go freestyle. You can also highlight a player on the floor, and by pressing the left bumper choose to tell the player to set a pick or a screen, post up or simply “get open”. The get open concept is new this year and nicely implemented. I personally don’t use it very often, but I give it a try from time to time when a player gets hot.

The only other real head-scratching issue with this game happens outside of the gameplay arena and falls more into presentation. The two man team of Kevin Harlan and Kenny Smith sounds great most of the time. I think they’ve done some things this year that are absolutely top shelf. I had a steal, blind dish and monster dunk happen in a game the other day and Harlan and “The Jet” actually screamed in unison at the play. Awesome touch! So many games fail to really recreate the feel of both guys actually being in the booth at the same time. However, for all that is good, there is some new audio in NBA 2K8 that was obviously recorded recently because it features information about last season and talks about the coming year. It’s easy to pick out because, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was a different person. Harlan’s tracks sound like they were recorded in a box, with a Radio Shack microphone and a box of Kleen-Ex shoved up his nostrils. It’s so flawed and unnatural in the flow, that it almost smacks you in the face when it happens, and it’s too bad, too, because it’s great information.

The visual presentation is rock solid, with great replay variety, exceptional use of cutscenes that flow while you’re still in full control of the action, and the information on the screen is plentiful and pretty easy to follow. I do have to complain about the lack of stat overlays. I don’t know why games seem to be getting away from them, but we saw it in Madden this year as well. We need them back. Basketball is so nicely suited for them. During free throws. Coming out of timeouts. Between quarters as players are walking back onto the court. There are so many great opportunities to use them; it’s the one thing that really feels missing in the presentation.

NBA 2K8 does do a nice job at the end of the game though. Instead of bombarding you with end game info, they actually simply throw the Jordan Player of the Game at you and give you the option to dig deeper. Because the VIP is always recording, you can dive into the Top 3 plays from the game or even a player specific highlight reel for every guy who got minutes. And all of them can be saved and used in the ReelMaker interface for custom highlight packages. It’s remarkable how seamless the “recording” of the games has become in modern sports titles. I look forward to the future of this aspect of the game.

The great presentation and gameplay extends into all available modes of play in NBA 2K8. The Association, this series’ version of a franchise mode, returns with some fine-tuned advancements to provide even greater depth to an already solid mode. In addition to balancing your team’s chemistry, you’ll also be tasked with balancing the personalities on the team. Put too many “unpredictables” together, and you could be in for the Cincinnati Bengals of the NBA. You’ll also need to take care to assign players the correct role on your team. And it’s not as simple as simply calling your five best players starters. There are different types of each role and you need to find the role that fits each player on your team.

As we all know, however, talk is cheap. Your words have to match your actions. You can’t promise that bench guy minutes and not get him out there. That’s why I love the rotation based substitution system. You decide outside of the in-game action the number of minutes each player should be getting and let the AI do the subbing for you. I’m a big fan of the concept and, for the most part, it works pretty well. I don’t think it takes into account the game situation enough, though. If I have Lindsey Hunter slotted to get five minutes a game, but it’s a nail-biter late in the 4th quarter, I don’t want to see Chauncey Billups getting pulled just because of his minutes. I’d like to see future releases use some type of modifiers for the game situation.

The season in the Association runs, pretty much the same as last year, with no notable additions or subtractions. I still love the Pre-Draft workouts and think that they should be implemented into every sports game that has a draft or recruiting period. It’s so important in NBA 2K8 with signature styles to get a look and feel of your player ahead of time. If I’m choosing between a couple of Shooting Guards, I want to get my controller behind both of them to see whose jumper feels better in terms of timing. Things like that add so much depth and provide one of the best off-season experiences in sports gaming today.

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, you can also take it to the NBA Blacktop for a little more street feel. That is where you’ll find what can be described as the mini-games, including the really fun Dunk Contest. What I originally feared was just going to be a throw together little mode, is actually pretty addictive. Players have to execute three parts when performing each dunk that involve both use of the analog sticks and proper timing for the finish. It’s not as easy as it sounds and remarkably satisfying when you perform a great dunk. And while physics and controls are great, I was even more impressed with the presentation. They actually recorded great commentary and intros specifically for the dunk contests that go far beyond simple generic rhetoric. A great addition that adds a ton of replay value.

Best in the business online support is back for NBA 2K8 as well. 2K Sports set the bar with online leagues and continues to shine. While there’s really nothing groundbreaking this year, it’s hard to argue with the formula that works.

Few men will ever be able to say that they were an NBA player. With less than 400 people in the world taking the floor on any given season, it’s hard to argue the rare and unique accomplishment that it is to make it to that level. NBA 2K8 does an amazing job of not only replicating the NBA, but of the 400 personalities that fill the league. It’s one thing to say a game captures the NBA. It is even more impressive when you can say, “Wow. The Spurs really played like the Spurs.” We’d be blown away if the NBA’s best played like themselves. But where NBA 2K8 takes it to an unmatched level is when Steve Blake, Earl Boykins or Dikembe Mutumbo play like their real world counterpart.

The games not perfect. There are flaws, issues, and annoyances that cannot be ignored. Some of them can be corrected with slider adjustments, others we’re left to deal with. For me, none of the “problems” prevented me from really enjoying this game. With a few minor tweaks, it’s the best NBA game that I have ever played. Doesn’t excuse the issues that are there, but the issues also won’t keep me from playing for months and months to come.

NBA 2K8 Score
out of 10
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