We'll go ahead and start with the most noticeable in-game characteristic: NBA 2K9's control system is VERY technical, and even those familiar with the 2K series will need to play through a number of games before they finally feel comfortable with the intricacies of the controls. The practice tutorials help only to a certain extent, due to the sometimes unclear and ambiguous instructions. Try not to let the (quite literally) 9 pages of controls in the game manual intimidate you; after you have mastered that, you can feel free to move on the 13 page online extended manual for tips on the dunk contest and calling plays, and once you get a commanding grip over those, you should be a legitimate threat in the gaming realm! To be fair, the initial difficulty in learning the system, however, is well worth the end result; performing epic crossovers with the 'Iso-Motion' feature and posting up defenders using the ability to control off-ball players are especially rewarding.
The gameplay, outside of the decidedly complicated control system, continues to uphold the standards of what has (at least recently) been the class of the NBA games. Once you get the 'Iso-Motion' engine down, moving the ball handler is easy enough, and provided you don't have the R2-Sprint trigger taped down so that you turbo all over the place, your teammates will do a fairly decent job at finding openings in the defense. It also feels like the problem with players stepping out of bounds has been addressed. Ball movement, especially using icon passing (if you don't, make a practice out of using this feature if you want to get decent at the game), is fairly fluid. The playcalling system has been upgraded, and an fairly unobtrusive menu pops up after a two-button combo that contains a list of customizable plays depending on the team and offensive preference. We used the Celtics, and running pick-and-roll/screen plays was effective, so long as it wasn't the only play chosen. The opponent A.I. catches on to favorite plays and tactics after a while, and they will only be effective for so long if they are the only ones in your arsenal. The "Adaptive A.I." system, as it is called, does make the game VERY hard, even on the lower difficulty levels, but we tend to prefer a challenge over playing blowout games that appear to be recreating Game 6 of The Finals last season (Boston beat LA 131-92). The missed layup problem is far, far less noticeable, and dunking from obscene and impossible distances seems to have been fixed, though the big guys down low in the post could stand do be a bit more aggressive. Defensively, lock-on match-ups have been improved, and the use of the right analog stick to control position and distance is pretty intuitive, but you will at some point or another find yourself moving to the left or right of the ball handler and moving out of position when you meant to merely get a little closer in press coverage. Our biggest complaint outside of the complicated controls is the STILL god-awful free throw shooting. This is among the few elements of the game that are downright bad. It is extremely hard to consistently make free throws, and is definitely an element that we hope 2K addresses during the development of next years title.
There are plenty of the little things that will continually impress you. Players dive on the ground for loose balls, fly out of bounds for saves, and thump their chests after huge dunks. 2K9 is littered with elements that make it feel like an actual NBA contest, and that makes gameplay much more enjoyable. The in-game presentation is rather well done as far as the graphical displays go, with the score and stats being easily viewed. Some advertisements, particularly the Gatorade one, block a portion of the screen, but is pretty ignorable as far as obstructions go. The commentary by Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellog and Cheryl Miller is really well done, and compliments the impressive background music, PA announcer and crowd noise of the arena very nicely.
As far as player animation goes, the game is really second to none. The models do have some rough edges at times, but on the whole this game is graphically supreme. Casual gamers may not realize the attention to detail that goes into creating personalized animations, but when fans of the NBA take Paul Pierce to the free-throw line and actually see his routine and motion, or roll KG off a screen into his signature one-handed jam to mini-hop step and chest pump on the ground, you realize that 2K has animated exactly what the players actually do in these situations. Even while creating a player, which is a really enjoyable experience in itself, you can choose to customize a player using Yao's free throw motion, Shaq's low post strength moves and Garnett's lengthy turnaround jumper. The rest of the game is really well animated as well, including the crowds, mascots, and arenas.
The layout of the main menu is, to be frank, just bad. Inexcusably bad. Honestly, if next year's title does nothing else except fixes free throws and makes the main menu even MARGINALLY more functional, it would be a quality game. The game goes directly to a play now screen, and the only hint as to how to access the main menu (the right analog stick, so we found out after a few minutes of half-believing we had received an unfinished copy) is a rotating help message across the bottom. It just is not easy to navigate or use, and is definitely something to be looked at next year.
Perhaps the only decent comment we have about the main menu is that its feature-laden content makes up entirely for its poor layout. There are plenty of different game modes to choose from. The NBA Blacktop is your gateway to such events as the Slam Dunk Contest and Three Point Shootout, among other things. The slam dunk contest, once you get the hand of it (use the online manual), is really (for lack of a more descriptive term) awesome. The Association (read: Franchise mode) has been revamped, and a few features, notably in the roster management department, have been added. Online play has seen some notable additions, like 5 vs. 5 online play (10 unique users), but the lag so far has made it near unbearable to play. Other fun features, like the replay-video editor, make a return as well.
Perhaps the most notable addition to 2K9 are the game's Living Rosters. Maintained by a mysterious figure known as "The 2K Insider," Living Rosters basically translate day-to-day statistics and information from actual NBA occurrences; trades, suspensions, hot/cold streaks by players, etc. into in-game changes to the roster. Look at it this way- say Michael Beasley comes in and starts performing like an all-star forward for the Heat, averaging 25 and 10 (this is a theoretical, mind you). His stats in NBA2K9 will rise accordingly. Likewise, if Kobe Bryant came down with some mysterious ailment, got brainwashed, had his shoelaces tied together, decided to shoot exclusively with his left hand, etc, etc, etc, and shot 6.7% from the field, his offense in the game would drop significantly. As the season progresses and we get a taste of this new feature, we'll be able to update accordingly, but based solely on it's potential, Living Rosters sounds like an awesome addition.
Unlike July and August, when only football titles by the EA "Exclusive Rights" Sports are loaded on to store shelves, October trick-or-treats us with three NBA games from different developers, creating a yearly tri-fold competition for the coveted "Best Console Basketball Game" award. This year, much like last and the past few before it, 2K Sports takes the award again, along with the beautiful imaginary new "TPSports Editors Choice" trophy. NBA 2K9, true to this years cover boy Kevin Garnett, is unquestionably the Champion of this years NBA titles. Let's hope they bring the same intensity KG would on the court to developing a increasing stellar game year.