Balling For Real
Once upon a time, this fearless video game reviewer was a neglected child who was raised without a television in his house. Left to my own devices, I was forced to use my imagination, from reading (gasp!) to playing outside (shriek!), to creating epic storylines with my action figures. Then at the age of nine a miracle occurred. The 9” black-and-white TV that had been in my stepfather's mother's kitchen was suddenly in our living room. Never has 9” seemed so grand a scale, at least not in any way I'd know anything about, but I digress.
The catch was that my brother and I were only allowed to watch one hour a week, plus all the Boston Celtics games we wanted! Many hours were spent in front of that tiny TV with the sound turned down in favor of listening to the late great Johnny Most calling the game on the radio. Those were some of the best days of my childhood, as the Celtics, led by Larry Bird, went on a glorious run capturing three NBA titles in six years – a run I thought would last forever... but didn't. The Celtics won their last banner-raising NBA championship in 1986, and I spent the following years trying to feed my basketball jones with video games like EA's The Bulls vs. The Lakers, which didn't quite measure up to Madden Football.
My point about this childhood story is that I love basketball. I was raised on basketball. I have spent the last 21 years of my life wondering when the Celtics would return to glory, and if anyone could make a basketball video game worth playing. Well, the Celtics are back, so life is looking good, but can NBA 2K8 fill the virtual basketball void?
Well, for starters, the game looks and feels like real basketball. Most players, though their virtual representations are often lacking, move naturally. For instance, Shawn Marion shoots his funky jump shot just like in real life. Still, this is one of those games that if someone walks in the room while you're playing, and they don't see the controller in your hand, it's entirely possible they'll think they're watching an NBA game, if only for a minute or two.
The gameplay on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The problems with NBA 2K8 are, as with most sports games, related to the computer A.I.. Now, I'm not saying it's all bad, as the offensive side of the game is actually a lot of fun, if a little unrealistic. Centers can bring the ball up and distribute it like point guards, and so if you play a complete season you might have a player, who has no business leading the league in scoring, do just that. Still, there's a nice variety of low-post, long-range, and all-areas-in-between gameplay for you to master, and to someone who prefers the current NBA that allows for the run-‘n'-gun Phoenix Suns over the horror that was the 1990's NBA, scorin’ and slammin’ are gratefully plentiful.
The bigger issue is the Lock Down D feature, which allows a defensive player to “lock onto” an offensive player simply by using a trigger button and, provided the defensive player has a good rating, pretty much dominate the offensive player, even if it's Kobe Bryant. And everybody knows, You Don't Shut Down Kobe Bryant. Moreover, there is a lack of distinction between being a “lock down” low-post player and a perimeter one. It's perfectly normal for Shaq to dominate defensively down low (five years ago, anyway), but to have him cover an offensive wiz like Steve Nash from one end of the court to the other strains belief. So, the A.I. certainly isn’t perfect, but for the optimists out there, look at it as something 2K Games can improve on for next year's version.
The sounds of the game are nicely captured, from the squeak of sneakers on parquet to the swish of the nets. The crowd’s noise and reactions are also well-done, reacting to the ups and downs of court action. In terms of the side commentary, which is all too often perfunctory and canned, this game is no exception. As always, the only time I play sports game with the commentary on is for review purposes, for reasons which are reinforced below.
There's the usual set of platitudes and criticisms for in-game action, from commentators Kevin Harlan, Craig Sagar, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith (son!), which are bad enough. Though in-depth analysis of a specific play happens on occasion, it sounds like they recorded it in a totally different studio. There's also the ever-present 'that guy can play defense'-type commentary, when the player is actually a terrible defensive player, who just happened to make a good play.
At the end of the day, NBA 2K8 is a pretty fun jaunt. It's not quite as satisfying as the Celtics adding Kevin Garnett and, Ray Allen to support Paul Pierce in one off-season, but what is? At least you can play as Larry Bird, via the 1980’s Eastern All-Stars. Don't for one second think I didn't spend a couple of hours draining threes from half court with my childhood hero, “Larry Legend”. Just don’t expect me to play NBA 2K8 for much longer than that.