In basketball, there's nothing like the thrill of winning it all; of hoisting the trophy high into the air as the feeling of satisfaction rolls over you, making all of the hard work and long hours on the practice court seem worthwhile. Years ago, this would be nothing more than a pipe dream for the team of Visual Concepts, as the NBA Live series had asserted itself as the premier basketball videogame. But with the huge misstep that was NBA Live 07, the team behind the 2K series has managed to wrestle that title away from EA's signature basketball franchise. While the NBA Live series has been busy trying to restore the damage done to its reputation over the last three years, NBA 2K9 is not being a complacent champion, instead refining itself even further to prove that is deserves to be the reigning champion of the virtual basketball court.
What sets NBA 2K9 apart from the rest of the pack is its emphasis on presentation. The development team should be commended on their outstanding attempt at recreating the NBA experience. From the animations of the players during the pre-game warm up to the electric feeling of the crowd cheering when the scores are tight, the television broadcast style of NBA 2K9 is as close as you'll get to actually being there.
The improvement of player models is significantly better than the efforts of last year, but it is still disappointing to note that the player likenesses are hit and miss at times - though it must be said that most of the elite players of the game are meticulously detailed. Further adding to the realism of the title are the motion-capture animations which for the most part present fluid player movement, further adding to the illusion that you are involved in a true NBA contest.
Though for all of its hits, there are still a few misses, particularly regarding the off court presentation of the game with the horrible menu system again (particularly apparent in the the games Association mode) making an appearance this year. Though after a few minutes of frustratingly fiddling around with the menus you'll eventually figure out what you're doing without constantly revisiting the wrong menu option.
The greatest strength of the series over the last few years is its incredibly strong gameplay, in particular the 'Signature Style' mechanic that has been present in the latest iterations of the title. This year's edition is no different, with NBA 2K9 serving up even more signature shots and animations for NBA purists to enjoy. From Kobe Bryant's fade-away jumper to Rajon Rondo's dribbling style, nearly every player - regardless of their skill level or on-court position - in the game has the inclusion of a signature move, which greatly enhances your immersion in the game by taking away the generic gameplay style and giving every player their own on-court personality.
Another vast improvement to this year's title is the issue of game speed. Many players were frustrated with the snail pace of last year's effort, particularly the difficulty of pulling off a fast break in the open court as the defense tended to smother you before you could initiate the break. Now sharp, quick passes of players in the open court will lead to blink and you'll miss moments of true NBA basketball. 2K9 has also improved inside scoring, with many players complaining about the easy lay up and slam dunk misses of last year's edition; thankfully this is now a thing of the past.
Even the shot stick, a core feature of the series, has seen its fair share of tweaks this year with the ability to change your shot in mid-air. This feature has been modified to be more responsive if the defense is swarming in on you, giving you the opportunity to perform an array of circus shots and fancy up-and-under moves.
For all of jaw-dropping moves on offer allowing you to change your dribble or shot on the fly, 2K9 does this at a cost to the casual player, as most of these moves will require a series of multiple button and analog stick presses to pull off. In fact, there are so many variables to running a play in 2K9 that you'll find yourself scouring the official forum to find them all as the game manual is quite light on information. That said, if you are willing to do the research and learn the mechanics of the title, you will be rewarded with the unprecedented level of authenticity that this game brings in its recreation of competitive basketball.
2K9 sports the usual assortment of game modes that one comes to expect from the sports genre, though the game's hefty career mode The Association has undergone a number of tweaks to make it deeper than ever. With the inclusion of player personalities in last year's effort, this year brings along player ambitions which throws another variable into the works for your budding championship team. For instance, a young player on the rise will be looking to sacrifice a big pay day in order to achieve the glory of wearing his own championship ring, while a seasoned veteran will be looking for a fat paycheck to finish his career on. This addition coupled with the changes to scouting, trading and signing players to your team will inevitably draw in those players with a large interest in the off court dealings of running a basketball club, making it a sure bet that you'll be sinking many months into developing your basketball dynasty.
The online game has also seen a shake up this year, with the shining light being the Total Team Control mode, which gives you the chance to get online with nine other players for some 5-on-5 basketball. This mode fantastically simulates the experience of playing an actual game of basketball closer than any other title to date. Surprisingly, you'll find that most players adapt to the team game quite well and learning to gel alongside your teammates is quite a rewarding experience. That said, you'll still find yourself coming across a player or two that plays exactly like the ball hog that you'd roll your eyes at in the playground, though these moments are few and far between.
Though it might not be skewed with the casual gamer in mind, strong presentation values combined with an incredibly deep simulation style of gameplay make this the best console basketball effort to date. Make no mistake, NBA 2K9 is a basketball purists dream.