When EA Sports bought the exclusive rights to the NFL license, many gamers felt they had lost a home. While both the Madden and NFL 2K franchises were great for various reasons, they were also different enough to warrant separate purchases. A month into the 2005 football season, I needed my 2K fix and bad. So I waited for the 360 launch and picked up NBA 2K6. While I didn't know a whole lot about the sport of basketball at the time, the game sill felt like home to me. From the menus to the presentation right on down to the crib tally points, the air hockey table and the setup for my Sixers' franchise, everything felt like a homecoming. In the process I also learned to appreciate and love basketball as well as anticipate the eventual release of NBA2K7. While I've always learned to expect something different from Visual Concepts (first person football, the shot stick, etc) I never really expected what they eventually delivered in NBA 2K7: simply the most authentic videogame sport representation ever made. While I still jones for my NFL 2K fix, I'll happily wait out the licensing agreement playing NBA 2K7 and that's saying a lot.
While the actual game of basketball hasn't changed in years, the way we've played it on consoles has. From intuitive controls which imitate real-life gestures to the lifelike visuals, the fundamental has still remained about striking the prefect balance between challenge, authenticity and fun. While NBA 2K6 was amazing in its own right and while it was fun to take a rebound unchallenged, time and time again to your opponent's net, it was unrealistic, a little shallow and slightly anti-climactic. It seems that A.I. players were following the ball and not really playing their positions. NBA 2K7 fixes this and above all else, this is what makes it an infinitely better game.
This time around, it's not that the difficulty has been tweaked; it's simply that the A.I. doesn't lie down while you run around it. Every player, while on offense or defense, seems to stick to their positions. This means that dunking is work. This also means that every basket is a hard fought victory and that require patience, planning and teamwork. Now, add the fact that every player not only plays his position, but that they also behave like their real-life counter-parts. People play using their skill and size and the A.I. seems to react accordingly. If you want to see this in action, just watch the A.I. defend against Shaq or Kobe or Iverson. It seems different for each because each one poses a different treat. This is great news for your own defense, but it makes playing offense that much harder too.
The controls for NBA 2K7 will mostly seem familiar to anyone who's played 2K6. The basic moves are still the same except that dual-player control (which takes a long time to get used to anyway) has been remapped from the Y button (last year) to the directional pad (where it belongs) and the Y button now has a Hop Step which actually comes in quite handy from time to time when playing stingy defenses. The majority of the game still controls using the triggers and the sticks, with the right thumbstick still being used as the shot stick (which controls your various shot types). The left thumbstick, while still controlling player movement, also doubles as the isomotion stick when the aggressive modifier (trigger) is pressed. This adds an entirely new depth to the offense and makes picking the defense apart a lot more fun. While the A.I. is definitely better this year, many might feel like the controls have taken a step back. It seems harder to perform certain shots (and free throws), but the truth is simply that the game has been tweaked and every shot simply requires more precision. On free throws especially (where every player also seems to have his own rhythm and cadence) it's easy to miss unless you know exactly where a specific player's throw apex is. Also, if you use Shaq, you'll just miss over and over again. The needed precision is rewarding and mimics the NBA player's skills perfectly. While a 3-pointer with Iverson should almost be a given, there are many players with which you should just not attempt such a move.
Finally, NBA 2K7 also features progressive fatigue (per game, per week, per month and per franchise year) that is authentic and which can't be overlooked. In the same breath, the CPU is great at managing timeouts, substitutions and player trades. It's nice to see a sport title manage the clock properly as well, especially in the last minutes of each half. The CPU will also take your growing momentum into account and always try to use the appropriate tactics to slow you down. And while there are several levels of difficulty to NBA 2K7 (and plenty of sliders to tweak) the game never feels too easy, even on the easiest setting, or cheap on the hardest.
Where modes of play are concerned, NBA 2K7 (like every other 2K sports title) offers more than anyone else on the market. From the single game options, street ball matches, Association (franchise) and 24/7 modes, NBA 2K7 never leaves you without something different to try. Add to this the returning VIP profiles (why doesn't every sport title do this), the crib tally (although sadly, you no longer collect point to buy things - you simply pick a team theme now and collect trophies only) and the amazing online modes (including VIP sharing, online leagues, tournaments and stat tracking) and there is almost no room left for improvement. The Association mode is as deep as ever (with 3-way trades now) but may overwhelm newcomers (or non-basketball aficionados) with its training aspects and team management requirements. For the rest of use though, it's pure bliss.
The only real short-coming of the title, apart from the pared down crib - which could have easily been ported from 2K6 without change (except for the decimal point bug) is the 24/7 mode which feels empty and pointless compared to past entries. While I did enjoy the fact that VC tried to add more "street" moves to the mode as well as a story-line, I missed being able to train my created baller and manage his stats as I saw fit. Instead, I get to play match after match simply to gain enough points to open up new parks where I'll also play match after match and all for the luxury of importing my created baller into the NBA? No thanks. Last year's 24/7 mode was much better and while it was nice to have it changed, the simply inclusion of street moves would have been enough. Still, as an extra mode, it's fun to play through when you don't have time to manage your franchise or play an entire NBA game.
The only other nitpick I really have with NBA 2K7 is its menu navigation. While I normally wouldn't comment on something like this, NBA 2K7's right-stick "always on" menu system is just plain bad. While I admire the attempt at making something different and easily accessible, it's actually harder to get around sometimes (since certain menus don't allow you to go back a single step) and makes the franchise mode especially hard to navigate. Newcomers will feel like there are a million menu options available when there are simply a few that just rotate in odd ways due to the fact that certain menus go back one step while others go to the root menu. This is one area where Madden on the 360 gets it right; simply copying what is essentially Apple's menu system structure.
Graphically, NBA 2K6 on the Xbox 360 really looked like a port of an original Xbox game with some texture work. Yes, the jerseys were separated and perspiration was a big deal, but nothing really screamed next-generation. With 2K7 there's no denying that this game looks amazing. While not the graphic marvel that NBA 2007 is, there's a lot to be said about the "little things" in a game sometimes. From the player animations which are smooth and free of the dreaded "robot" effect or "dunk-warping" to the crowds and sidelines that react appropriately, NBA 2K7 is pure eye candy to any NBA fan. Gone are the cut-scenes and everything is now rendered in-game, from the introduction to the half-time show (which is always a treat) to the awesome play-by-play recaps. It's also very rewarding to pause the game and replay a certain basket using the camera to pan around the various players, coaches, benches and crowds. Everything is eerily realistic and I've never seen a basketball or human hands rendered so perfectly in a videogame, ever. If all this wasn't enough, NBA 2K7 offers more camera angles and options than any game ever created.
In the audio department, NBA 2K7 is one of the few sport titles to offer music that is not only appropriate, but enjoyable. While you may never have heard of most of the artists, the songs are all delivered with great quality and there are enough present to keep things fresh. The commentary, while many would argue still bears a strong resemblance to last years) is still enjoyable, professional and deep. It's still nice to have events from past games mentioned and the half-time show is still accurate and great to watch.
As an aside, NBA 2K7 also offers the 2K Reelmaker on Xbox Live Marketplace. While other companies may feel fine charging for jerseys or stadiums or ever cheats, it's nice to see something actually worth it available. Yes, some will argue that it should be free, but with all the other features included, it's easy to justify the Microsoft Points needed to purchase this if you're interested in making movies or watching other users' masterpieces. While I've yet to make anything really great (or seen anything online that blew me away), it's still fun to see what others are up to (in the same way that it was in Driver 3). The tool is very deep and as such, a little clunky, but for anyone interested, it's a fun addition.
While NBA 2K7 will never be mistaken for anything but a simulation (although there is an "arcade" setting) and while it's not the most accessible game ever made, there is something incredibly satisfying about it that happens a few games in. You simply realize that that if you play it like a video game, you will lose. You actually have to treat each player, each play and each basket like the real deal. You'll need to block properly, pass intelligently and shoot with the precise timing if you hope to get anywhere. And while running up the scoreboard in 2K6 was fun, it's now a luxury in 2K7. The key to wining (and these will be closely contested matches) will come down in most cases to playing conservatively, minimizing your mistakes and waiting out your opponent. If you want to play any other way, expect to get tipped, fouled, picked and deflected over and over again.
I suppose what it all really comes down to is this: NBA 2K7 is easily the greatest basketball game ever made. It will please NBA fans infinitely and it will make non-fans appreciate the sport even more. Visual Concept has crafted a game that not only plays wonderfully but that rewards the player for playing it properly. While a lot could still be accomplished on the presentation side, NBA 2K7 remains the pinnacle of sport gaming and peerless among its competitors.