ESPN NBA Basketball is the continuation of the NBA 2K series of basketball games, a franchise which was born on the now-defunct Sega Dreamcast. Despite the series' relative youth, compared to other basketball franchises, the 2K series has always been known for fantastic graphics and excellent simulation-style gameplay. This year, the developers at Visual Concepts have kept all the hallmarks of their earlier games, and they've added a new control system called "isomotion." This system lets you execute juke moves on offense, and it gives you the ability to counter these jukes on defense. The team has also added a unique gameplay mode called 24/7 that is so addictive, it's likely that many players will spend more time in 24/7 than playing standard games. If you are planning on buying only one basketball game this year, ESPN NBA Basketball is the one to get.
Players are easily recognizable by their faces.
Along with the series' name change comes an even deeper integration and infusion of the ESPN brand throughout the game. Menu screens reflect a thoughtful degree of polish; in fact, the opening menu gives you a view of the ESPN studio. Most of the text in the game uses the same fonts you see on ESPN broadcasts, and all the familiar music from NBA-related shows are included. Even the loading screens before you enter each match include pregame commentary from ESPN newscaster Kevin Frazier.
As any fan of the series might expect, ESPN NBA Basketball features excellent graphics, particularly on the player models. The newly modeled faces on players and coaches are extremely detailed--detailed to the point that the vast majority should be instantly recognizable to an NBA fan even without the benefit of seeing a jersey. The player models and lines on the court do look a bit cleaner on the Xbox, however, as it exhibits less blurriness on the edges. The difference in graphics between the two systems is most apparent when you're given a close-up view of a player with tattoos. On the Xbox version of the game, Shaq's "Against The Law" shoulder tattoo is crisp and easily readable, whereas the same texture on the PlayStation 2 is considerably blurrier and more difficult to read. In the grand scheme of things, the differences are not overwhelming, but they're noteworthy nonetheless.
The game's animations are equally worthy of praise. Whether performing a killer crossover, flushing down a dunk, or ripping a rebound down off the glass, the players in ESPN NBA look very fluid in their motions. You'll see the crowd stand up and wave their arms or clap thundersticks behind the basket when an opposing player takes a free throw. The developers have even included the free-throw idiosyncrasies of a few star players for when they line up at the charity stripe. You'll see Jason Kidd blow his signature kiss to his son before shooting, and Karl Malone will flip the ball in his hands (without whispering to himself for a few seconds as he does in real life).
In the sound department, ESPN NBA features commentary by broadcasters Bill Fitzgerald and Tom Tolbert. While they do a decent job, overall, the commentary does get repetitive fairly quickly. Tolbert is often prone to saying silly things like, "if the coach had a white flag, he'd probably throw it onto the court now," in response to a blowout situation. Thankfully, the game includes several options for in-game sound, including a couple (in the stands and on court) that omit the commentary entirely. Once that's removed, the focus is placed much more on sneakers squeaking on the waxed floors, chatter between players and coaches, stadium organs, and crowd noise. The game also includes a few hip-hop music tracks that figure in more prominently during menu screens and in the other gameplay modes. Though no marquee artists are included, the tracks are still pretty good, leaving you liable to bob your head a bit as you play through the street modes.
Jason Kidd blows a kiss to his son.
The big, new addition to the gameplay this year is isomotion, which is basically ESPN NBA's answer to NBA Live's freestyle system. There are some notable differences in implementation, however. On offense, isomotion feels a little less involved than freestyle. Tapping in a direction with the right control stick unleashes an animation that's pretty much canned. For example, you can't dictate how many times you're going to cross the ball over, back and forth, before you start your drive. You can cancel out of a move by tapping back, which will draw your player back with a hesitation dribble. So, if you can tell your first move isn't going to work, you can try again.
Each isomotion move you execute reduces a substantial portion of your fatigue meter, so you can't just sit there with one player for the duration of the shot clock trying juke after juke to get past your man. You'll get two--maybe three--cracks at it before you have to pass the ball to a teammate with more energy. Don't expect to perform crazy maneuvers with a big man either. The guards, with better ballhandling skills in real life, are generally the ones who benefit the most from these jukes and, subsequently, have better moves in the game. Centers and power forwards are quite likely to turn the ball over executing an isomotion. Also, if you're careless with the moves you try, it's very easy to knock your opponent down and get whistled for charging. These limitations help the game keep its simulation feel, but experienced players will eventually learn to pull off some complex, street-style maneuvers to free themselves up.
Get careless with isomotion and you'll turn the ball over on a charging foul.
Isomotion differs from freestyle on defense as well. Instead of just reaching for a steal, as in NBA Live, the isomotion system works to counter the moves your opponent is making on offense. It basically comes down to a reflex game where you watch the ballhandler's animation and try to time your own move to match it. If you're successful, the defender you're controlling will hop into the driving lane of the ballhandler, causing a collision that will result in a charge or an abrupt stop by the offensive player. If you guess it totally wrong, you can expect to have your ankles broken as the offensive player blows by you.
Outside of isomotion, ESPN NBA retains the signature simulation feel that it's refined over the years. To be successful on offense, you're going to have to work the ball around the half-court, using screens and sharp passes to find an open shot. You'll often feel good just putting down a simple midrange jumper, knowing that your patience and ball movement helped create that open look. Passing out of the double-team to the open man is key, and you'll quickly learn to make the extra pass, off the break, to get the best possible shot. You'll still be able to fast-break once in a while, but the key to getting these opportunities, as in real life, is to clean up the defensive glass and pick your spots. Fatigue also plays a role in the game, although it doesn't come too much into play at the default five-minute quarters. Lengthier games require you to dip deeply into your bench to give starters a breather. The game also includes a biorhythm indicator that tells you who's hot and who's cold.