Version tested: PlayStation 2
Visual Concepts has been working on basketball sims since NBA Action 98 so it's had plenty of time to perfect the sport. Sprinkling a little pinch of arcade speed on top of a rules-heavy recreation of the game, while constantly refining controls, has enabled the developer to hold its own and in some cases, topple the competition, even under the guiding hand of a variety of different publishers and branding. You can change the packaging all you like, but the core game has been keeping its head up, dribbling with the fingertips and driving the lane for some years now.
It wouldn't be a yearly update without the introduction of a new control method. The right analogue stick is the hardest working part of your Dual Shock; used for stealing the ball, players push the stick in the direction they want to strip, so in theory you can reach around a player from behind to jab the ball out of his mitts, or have a better chance of intercepting a pass. It's awkward to begin with, but only in the same way that Fight Night's analogue stick punches take some learning. The more you play, the more comfortable you become with it. After a few hours you won't be conscious of how you're doing it, just what it's achieving on the court.
Unfortunately, this right stick twiddling works much better in defence than it does offence. Re-christened the Shot Stick, tweaking it in one of four directions at the top of a jump will produce a different type of shot, or when attacking the basket, a variety of lay-ups and dunks. It's meant as a way of adding a little flair and individual style to your play, but it's too fiddly because it's being used in conjunction with other button combos and feels too demanding. It might be comfortable to a game designer who's worked on the series solidly for a couple of years, but it asks too much of a player who's already got a lot to contend with in a fast-paced game. And when you've already got dedicated shot buttons mapped to your controller, you're making it harder for yourself trying to learn the Shot Stick method. Sometimes face buttons work just fine.
Sitting somewhere between the nice new defence moves and the not-quite-up-to-it offence moves is the Dual Player Control system, where the d-pad is used to set up another player in place for alley-oops and other two-man moves. It works to some extent, but is dependent on your team-mates' AI behaviour, which, although good, isn't always in tune with your intended play style and can sometimes decide to take its own course of action. It feels like there are too many variables in relation to the rest of your team and your opponents for it to be really effective. We can probably expect that both the Dual Player Control and Shot Stick will feel much better in next year's inevitable update, once it's been better integrated into the overall game, but right now it needs more work.
That the new control methods are both unwelcome and unnecessary is a shame because the majority of Visual Concepts' package is still very impressive. The gameplay has always been solid and continues to offer the professional basketball feel - this isn't a casual game, nor a flashy show-off like Midway's NBA Ballers or EA's NBA Street. You will not be pulling off comedy moves on the court - it's a sport, not a show.
Players look very realistic, and even if you don't know your Dwight Howard from your Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you'll appreciate how lifelike faces and figures are. Animation and motion capture is top notch too, at least in terms of what you'd expect from the PlayStation 2, as players swivel, fake and drive left and right like their real-life counterparts. In contrast the crowd and some of the management team are blocky and rough, making for ugly backgrounds when replays highlight the skills of your team. They're as out of place as an oil painting on a woodchip wall.
While The Association mode is your 82-game deep career, crammed with coaching and team chemistry concerns, hiring and firing, scouting and trading, the 24/7 Road to EBC mode is the closest we've got to a sports RPG. Create and customise your players and compete in a series of mainly one-on-one and street ball games, as well as taking on a bunch of 'celebrities' including Public Enemy clown Flavor Flav, and Redman and Method Man. It's a nice alternative to the 'real' game, and effectively gives you two different games on one disc. Although true hip-hop and basket ball nerds might wonder at the omission of rapper J-Zone as an opponent.
Without last year's ESPN branding, there's the same ugly menu presentation found in 2K Sports cousin NHL 2K6 - it's almost brutal in its broken-sofa looks. Honestly, it makes us wonder whether the principles of simple, clean design were ever considered. Menu system and stat sheets should be easy to understand and instantly navigable, not bundled, overcrowded and confusing. Compared to the cool style of EA's NBA Live series, 2K6 is dressed in a tank top, nut-clinching shorts and market stall fake sneakers.
At least the licensed soundtrack is excellent. Yes, it's rap; b-ball and hip hop go together like gravy and mashed spud. But it's the conscientious and positive sound of lyricists such as Jean Grae, Little Brother, The Roots and Aceyalone instead of the shouty barking of next year's pimped-out wannabes (hey, I might be a thirty-something, pudding-necked white bloke from the midlands, but I know my hip hop).
Overall, while the new Shot Stick isn't really necessary, it doesn't hamper the gameplay, and the rest of the mechanical additions are welcome and easy to learn. That said, NBA 2K6 isn't for the faint-hearted, and there's no shame in being attracted to the more arcadey feel of other b-ball titles from EA or Midway.
Your players might not be wearing diamond teeth, listening to the Kings of Crunk and acting like some kind of Tony Hawk on the court but that doesn't mean NBA 2K6 isn't fast, stylish or prone to showing off. For b-ball heads, it's one of the deepest, most well-rounded and entertaining simulations of the sport on the shelves. You can lose months of your life to it.
8 / 10