2K Sports takes the orange ball and makes it shine.

It hasn’t been a good time for Australian basketball. Turnouts have been down thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns from the football codes, and funds are running dry with the Sydney Kings dying last year (and being renamed into the Sydney Spirit, which sounds like a netball team).

So if you like your b-ball, then you watch the NBA. Ignoring the fact that it’s one of the highest quality competitions for any sport around the world, it’s also intoxicating: the fever pitch that the crowd gets into, the energy of the commentators and the strength and speed of the play just don’t exist in Australia.

But you can replicate it in a video game. And developers have had plenty of time to get it right.

I started NBA 2K9 in demo mode while I did some work to see how good of a distraction it could be. I haven’t played basketball since primary school so this was a test of appeal.

I didn’t get any work done.

Straight off, NBA 2K9 has that infectious quality of a real-life basketball broadcast. The commentary team of Clark Kellogg and Kevin Harlan inject plenty of enthusiasm, even while the sideline reporter, Cheryl Miller, drones on. But besides all the other great points – something I’ll get to shortly – the game conveyed the great fluidity that defines basketball.

Have you ever walked past a computer store and just watched a game playing in the window? NBA 2K9 is perfect for that display: its attractive visuals and smooth play exact a pull on anyone around. Some of my work colleagues would occasionally turn around and just watch for a moment as if it what I was playing were a real broadcast.
Even I was watching like it was a real broadcast. I wanted to play this game immediately.

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That’s where the dream ends. At least in my case, because I haven’t been playing every NBA release in the past decade. So if you’re a seasoned b-ball pro that can run through plays in your head and double-team perfectly, you’ll have tons of fun.

On the other hand, if you have no idea what that sentence means, then join me for a quick tutorial.

I hadn’t played a basketball game since NBA Jam on the Game Boy (go on, laugh) but then after watching the reactions of people around me it made me wonder why a conscious effort wasn’t made to educate the beginner a little more. The tutorials are very static and difficult to work through. When you start working on defence, you’ll have two teams face off for you to practice against but the play NEVER stops for you to practice the moves.

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They’re presented badly too: all instructions come in the form of a barely translucent box over the action, covering almost the entire bottom half of the screen. It wouldn’t have killed 2K to put a mix of text and symbols at the top as a brief instruction, with an option for a further description box if required.

The menu system and most of the off-court presentation, however, are the worst parts of the game. The menus are fiddly, obtuse and just badly constructed. I don’t like the 2K Nav system either and it only gets worse when you load up the Association mode which now incorporates into the news.

But once you put those things aside, you’ll have a ripper of a time.

NBA 2K9 feels realistic enough while you’re playing because it’s more of a simulation than an arcade take on the sport. I’ve always believed that’s the best method for a sports game that oozes as much energy as basketball.

As a simulation, NBA 2K9 has so much going for it too. First of all, it looks fantastic. The animations are fluid with the players, crowd and stadiums all coming together without any jarring or major slowdowns (except for a couple of times on the instant replays). Character models are well detailed, and every scoring play is instantly collated into a highlight reel which is shown at the end of every quarter, every half and the end of the game, but if you’ve been taking a battering then you can skip it and move on.

There’s none of that background rubbish you see in other games, either. The crowd all get up on their feet and celebrate along with the team. Players get annoyed when they’re called for a foul and it all adds another dimension to the engaging atmosphere that surrounds the virtual court.

2K Sports have made this a game about defense. Whoever defends better wins, and that’s mostly because once you get close to the net you’ll be able to hit the shot almost all of the time if you’re not cramped for space. Holding down the left trigger enables the “lockdown defense” – returning from NBA 2K8 – while the right stick controls your movement around the man with the ball.

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Controls on-court, unlike the unintuitive menu system, are simple and responsive. It fits with the flow of the game: not so fast to be frantic but quick enough to allow for counters and breakaways. Sometimes the game is too defensive though, especially when you have a breakaway and the players always magically recover in time to block the shot.

The full-length season and the association mode are detailed beyond anything you could imagine. There’s scouting reports, contract clauses, player ambitions and the full NBA player database to go with it. It’s actually overwhelming especially for a basketball novice, but it was intriguing enough to see players turn offers down because they wanted to stay on a winning team (when I turned the difficulty down!).

If you’re just after a quick match, there’s the NBA Backcourt as well, with little games like a dunk shootout, 3-point shooting, pickup games where you can select any players from any team to play a match and a “First to 21” game. All of these take place on an outdoor court though, and while some were fun for a while, they lacked the surge of electricity of even an exhibition match.

2K Sports games always have solid multiplayer, although I wasn’t able to test this properly at the time of writing. There’s also the Living Rosters system, something that updates your rosters in line with the real-world, but that’s not available until the season starts so I’ve ignored that for the purposes of this review.

It’s a shame NBA 2K9 wasn’t a little more accessible, because I would have been in love with the game. As it stands, I like it a lot, because it takes the qualities that make a sport so engaging – the electricity of the crowd, the subtlety of the play and the pull of the physical contest – and makes it resonate just as loudly in its virtual form.

NBA 2K9 is worth your money – even if you’ve never played basketball.

Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Classification: G
Formats: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Written by Alex Walker