ESPN NBA 2K5 XBox Review

The NBA is a mess. Shooting percentages are at an all-time low, teams are moving, the league has reorganized divisions, and the number of truly talented players is pathetic. Maybe that's why "ESPN NBA 2K5" fails miserably on multiple levels. Actually, it's probably because the game is just a sad representation of the sport.

Everything about the gameplay here is broken. The AI is weak, allowing players to establish position right under the hoop on a regular basis. Running an actual play is almost impossible since the computer just kind of "hugs" the offensive player, not allowing them to escape to either side. The only time it picks up is on the defensive ends when it quickly rushes to cover an open man should the player get beat.

The "Isomotion" feature from last years entry returns, this time taking even more control away from the player. Once either "B" or the analog stick is flipped, the on-screen player goes into a completely uncontrolled animation routine in an attempt to beat out the defender. Once control is returned, it's impossible to make anything work since the branching animations don't make any sense at all. You'll never know what direction you should be moving in.

If you just try and drive to lane after finding an opening, yet again the inane animation ruins the attempt. It tries to look realistic as the player lowers his shoulder and gets off the first step, but in the process, it slows down the offensive player and lets the opposition regain control of the situation. The new hop step is a nice addition, arguably the only one that really works. It really does create opportunities in the low post.

Even with all of these issues, the biggest crime involves shooting. Countless times you will drive the lane, stop, attempt a jump shot, only to have the player go into some spastic, idiotic looking, 360 degree tomahawk lay-up attempt which definitely decreases the chance of the ball falling in. Not a single player in the league is dumb enough to try a move like that from 10 feet out. A quick out pass to just beyond the arc followed by a quick shot results in a fade-away every time. It's impossible to just stop and take a jump shot. This hardly resembles real basketball.

Obviously too good to have franchise mode, "NBA 2K5" now features the "Association." Don't worry; it's just the franchise mode with attempts at innovating the process. After every week of play, one of the team's players will come talk to you about a specific problem. How you answer will either lower or increase your team's chemistry (which effects their overall on-court performance). It's entirely guesswork in the early going until you can learn the players "type." This is not an optional feature, but required.

You can now hire trainers to coach and run practices with your players. Again, every week you'll set up a regime that can either be intense or light. The lighter the workout, the less players improve in the specific category. The harder you work them, better the chance for injury. After setting up a regime of free throws, my center ended up on the injured list for 6 weeks with a hip problem. I have yet to go a week without injury in 3 months of game time. If you don't practice, the teams chemistry goes down. This is also a required feature.

Even more absurd, you just can't sim a game anymore. Now you play with "Full Authority." This is a feature which lets players become the coach in a sort of strategy game while the computer sims the game. You make the calls on plays, substitutions, etc. This is fun for a brief period of time, but some people just don't have the time. There is no excuse for not letting the games be simmed through.

Finally, the 24/7 mode is back with loads of new mini-games and unlockables. Here you create a player (even the shoes) and take him around the world, challenging various players in different styles of play. This mode uses the internal clock and must be played every day or the characters stats decrease. To increase your characters stats, you must complete various training modes. The unlockables range from useless (ugly looking bobbleheads) to somewhat useful (jerseys, tattoos). This is arguably more entertaining than the main game, but make sure you don't unplug your XBox or have a power outage. The consoles internal clock resets every time.

Most of the player faces here are absolutely perfect. Players like Brent Barry and Scottie Pippen are just unbelievably life like, though others like Yao Ming are butchered. Still, at least 80% are spot on. Details are spectacular included bump-mapped logos on the jerseys and slowly growing sweat stains. Each stadium has been replicated perfectly and the fully polygonal crowd, though very blocky, really enhances the game. The entire front row giving a standing ovation to a great play is a first for a basketball game.

Bill Walton provides his first commentary and completely ruins it. He offers nothing of any real value ("What a great play" is as deep as he gets) and Michele Tafoya offers information from the sidelines along with injury updates. The stadium announcer is energetic and adds life to the game while the crowd is generally smart (though they stay in the game even if there is a 30-point difference). Those with 5.1 systems really can put them to use here thanks to great use of positional audio.

For now, "NBA 2K2" on the defunct Sega Dreamcast remains the best basketball game ever created. At the rate this series is going downhill, it looks like the threat level is minimal to its title. Though the other games in this years ESPN series are certainly worth the $20 price tag, this is not. Fans of the sport have nothing to celebrate about.

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