Bounce with me.
The first few weeks of the NBA season are truly bizarre. The lowly Clippers stand atop the Pacific while the talented Nuggets mull about the basement of the Northwest. Milwaukee is undefeated and Cleveland is scratching .500. The still-expansion Bobcats are fourth in the league in scoring, while the potent Kings are twenty-fourth. Fantasy rosters look absolutely retarded right now.
But that's just a matter of time, and in a few months we'll likely see things returning to normal as the Spurs take charge, the Lakers make headlines and the Clippers finally implode. In the meantime, though, basketball gamers have to wade through their own Bizarro land trying to figure out which of the three returning console hoopsters deserve their bets.
Luckily, that answer is clear: the league leader is NBA 2K6. It continues to do what last year's game did right and jukes the competition with some new control options and easily the best A.I. of the bunch. It doesn't make all of its shots, but more than enough to win.
NBA 2K6 dribbles away from its past and the rest of the pack with cool new moves. The right analog stick no longer controls jukes, instead being used as an innovative shot stick. You can still shoot using the face buttons, but the shot stick allows you to better customize the shot for the situation. Flick it back for a fadeaway or drive to the basket and flick it left to lay it up left-handed. Though it doesn't always work that smoothly, it's an interesting new addition to the series.
So how do you juke? Rather than using the right trigger as a Turbo button, it now controls 'aggression.' Combined with the left analog stick, this is your new juke system. Holding down the right trigger and moving the left stick in various shapes and directions will result in crazy, behind-the-back dribbles, crossovers and more. It takes some getting used to, but it really differentiates itself from Freestyle and is a marked improvement over the sluggish, canned movements of Isomotions past.
The control changes don't stop there, though. As an answer to NBA Live's two shot buttons, NBA 2K6 features two passing buttons, one for normal passes and one for lead passes. This simple tweak lets you fire the ball right into the hands of a cutting player without making him break stride, resulting in much quicker and more realistic plays. It can be a bit overpowered at times – even scrubs have no trouble splitting the defense with ridiculous lead passes – but definitely spices up the fast-break game.
How about dual-player control? Using the D-Pad, you can now order individual teammates to move in one of four basic directions, allowing you to send a guy out to the three-point line or cut to the basket, for instance. This lets you react instantly to the defense by ensuring that you have guys where you want them, resulting in yet another layer to the game's already competent slate of options.
Play on the other side of the ball is a little less evolved. On defense, the shot stick lets you swat at balls or, when used with the aggression button, hop into the passing lanes. These both work fine, although the lack of a functional defensive stance strafe makes it a little hard to stay in front of your guy.
When taken together, these new moves and alterations make for a much more complete game of roundball, particularly for hardcore hoop fans. Whereas NBA Live keeps the tempo as arcadey as it can without turning into NBA Street, 2K6 takes a much more strategic approach and delivers a more complex game than its rival.
Really pounding that point home is the enhanced A.I. We've been told in the past that teams and players behave properly, but this is one of the few times I've really seen it work. You'll watch Nash and Stoudemire (he was healthy when the game shipped, remember) run the high screen and roll perfectly. You'll be pummeled inside by Shaq and torched in the lane by Tony Parker. The Pistons stifle on defense while the Kings run and gun. It just feels right.
It also feels a little unrefined, though, mostly because the new control options aren't entirely balanced yet. Rifling lead passes to and fro can be overpowering and often the shot stick doesn't actually make your guy shoot the way you intended. Great first steps, but these are still a few practice runs away from making the All-Star team.
2K6 offers the same ways to play as last year. Exhibition, Season, Practice, Online and Street modes are back alongside 2Ks version of franchise mode, The Association. They've thankfully ditched last year's weird card system and lame player meetings in favor of a more straightforward franchise experience. You train players in actual mini-games to boost their stats, which is nice, but otherwise the mode plays it by the books.
The awkward, extraneous 24/7 Mode also tries to make some changes, but they're mostly cosmetic. Vets will remember this is as the single-player RPG thing from the last 2K game in which you created a player and brought him up through the street ranks. Now, you have to grow your player in an effort to get him into the EBC - Entertainer's Basketball Challenge – and win the final tournament at Rucker's Park. This is accomplished through a seemingly neverending array of mini-games and bland street matches that mostly boil down to making jump shots or driving past guys. The whole thing feels out of place in such a complex simulation; you will actually have to play ball against celebrities like Flava Flav, who as we all know from his show with Bridgette Neilson is just a MONSTER basketball player. Noooo, boyyeee!
At least Flav looks good, as does every player, court and movement in yet another pretty 2K baller. Realistic incidental animations bring games to life, and though it's missing the awesome 10-man motion capture technique of NBA Live, 2K6 still manages to keep players from just standing around the whole time. The Xbox version outshines the PS2 game, but if that's news to you, you should stop playing video games.
Unfortunately, both versions feature the same audio, which means they both feature in-game sponsorships. Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan handle the color and play-by-play adequately, but every so often you'll get slammed with a "Powerbar Triple Threat Instant Replay," complete with giant logo and irritating voiceover. Blech. It's bad enough sitting through a million TNT promotions during a televised game, but at least those change over time. I would like Powerbar to know that as a result of this game, I will never eat their crappy fake food.
But I would like 2K Sports to know that I will continue to play their basketball game for the remainder of the season. This is the most complete NBA game out there, dominating the court with its new control options, good A.I. and strong delivery. Many of its new ideas are in their infancy and could clearly use some more time to develop, but at least they've given hoop fanatics a brand new ball to play with.