Jun. 02, 2016
ESPN NBA 2K5 Retrospective
You know, when I do these classic game reviews, I at least try to keep in open mind and accept the fact that, chances are, these games don't hold up to the newer ones. With the rare exception, I think we can all admit that very few older games have better gameplay than the newer ones -- though, to their credit, the PS2/Xbox Madden games do have superior gameplay to the PS3/Xbox 360 versions -- and I don't often let the gameplay of a game released over a decade ago fully determine its worth.
Truth is, gameplay in these older games isn't everything -- especially now, where I'd be silly to penalize a Madden game released in 2002 and say the passing mechanics are a bit broken when everything else in the game works and may even be better than what we have out now. So, when I load up a game that came out when I was in elementary school or even before some of my readers were born, I do my best to approach them as if I'm playing it for the first time and have no idea what future editions hold.
But, even with that said, it truly does pain me to say the following: ESPN NBA 2K5, despite efforts made all around and an actual possessing of the Worldwide Leader's license, is pretty inconsistent all around.
Actually, let me back up a bit. Once upon a time, ESPN partnered with Sega -- the company who brought us Sonic the Hedgehog -- to bring sports gamers product that were supposed to provide competition against the big dog of the market, EA Sports; notably, the main game that gets all the attention is ESPN NFL, especially the last edition of the series in ESPN NFL 2K5, but football wasn't the only sport the company tried to reach. In addition to both professional and collegiate football, Sega also released games for baseball (I think we all know how that turned out), hockey, tennis, and professional basketball.
Now, I never actually owned ESPN NBA 2K5 (I do recall playing it with someone, likely one of my cousins, at their house) and honestly thought the 2K series began with NBA 2K6, so imagine my surprise when I found out earlier this year that, yes, ESPN NBA 2K5 was a thing. With Detroit's Ben Wallace on the cover, Stuart Scott doing studio work, and Jason Kidd on the Nets, this seemed to be the perfect mix of nostalgia and fun that I look for in these retro games. I also did a bit of background research and this game got pretty good marks -- IGN gave it an 8/10, GameInformer thought it was worthy of a 9/10, and the PS2 score on MetaCritic was an 83/100 -- so I actually felt pretty good coming in to this review.
But, positive reviews and feedback from critics doesn't automatically mean that the product is worth spending money on -- if you don't believe me, take a look at Ghosbusters 2016. Nearly twelve years after its release in September 2004, does the final game in the ESPN NBA series still hold up, or is the product here a key reasoning as to why Sega Sports shut down and sold their products to Take-Two Interactive?
Give 2K some credit because, believe it or not, they were a bit ahead of the curve when it came to the MyCareer type of mode. Basically, the point of 24/7 mode is to create a baller, design him however you like (and not have to use VC on headbands or tattoos!), and take on other basketball players in anything from 1-on-1 to 5-on-5 matchups; beat a player, like Keyon Dooling or Eduardo Najera, and you get to play alongside them against other players -- both real and fake, but you can only play against the CPU now because, oh yeah, the servers have been shut down for a decade.
What's interesting about the 24/7 mode is the challenges you'll face with your player and no, I'm not talking about having to deal with Boss Key Yachts. No, the actual challenges include usage of the turbo/sprint button being limited, the shot clock not being a full 24 seconds, and even playing with big balls. Believe me, it's actually harder than one might think playing with a basketball that's probably triple its size when the hoop is the normal size.
Now, would I have liked a mode that was more of a MyCareer where you were actually drafted? Sure, but there's also a part of me that really enjoys the creativeness of 24/7 where you get to ball at anywhere from Rucker Park to underneath a freeway, you can team up with all-stars and journeymen alike, and you can cheese the CPU by abusing the turbo button.
Unfortunately, I think 24/7 in this game was really meant for online, so there's not too much I can say because it's really one of those modes you kind of have to play for yourself to experience what's offline. Don't worry, though, I have plenty to say about the game's franchise mode..
Becoming the next Billy King:
Again, I came into this mode with high expectations but, after fifteen minutes of playing, had to hold myself back from snapping the disk in half at how broken and bad this mode is. But, before I want to jump out my window and not even take my pasta with me, let's talk about the good things in this mode.
Um...uh...well, the stats for players aren't too insane -- you won't see a sixth man average 30 points, nor will the league leader in rebounds be averaging 20 a game -- though the points per game for the leaders seem a bit low. In one test run, Houston's Tracy McGrady led all players with 24.4 points per game, while Seattle's Ray Allen led the league in another with just 23.9 in the same category. While rebounds and assists leaders seem to be normal (either Shaq or Kevin Garnett normally led in rebounds with around 12 a game and Jason Kidd, my love, led the league in assists with anywhere from 10 to 11.5 per game), it just seems weird that the points per game leaders would be so low in a time where you usually had anywhere between seven to eight players averaging either extremely close to over 25 points a night.
One neat feature I also liked, actually, was that a player winning the MVP Award (in a test run I did, it was Kevin Garnett) gets the cover of ESPN The Magazine; obviously, you can't read said magazine, but it's a cute attempt at reminding players that, yes, this is an ESPN game. The same goes for the NBA Finals, where series MVP Tim Duncan made the cover as the Spurs beat the Detroit Pistons in five games.
Anyways, that's pretty much where the good stuff ends as everything else with this mode is wrong, wrong, and more wrong. Absolutely nothing when it comes to running a franchise in this game works -- not trade logic, not free agency/draft logic, and not even lineups. In what is supposed to be the core mode of any sports game and the one that is supposed to keep the player from changing disks,
Let's start with the way things are organized in association mode, namely when it comes to the way the roster is set up. I don't know who at 2K was paid to design a user-friendly system when it comes to how players are ordered, but I have a strong feeling they were finding a new job when the developers saw the final product...
I'm not even joking when I say my head was burning as I tried to decipher this horrendous way of organizing the players with such small text -- and this is on a 48 inch HD TV! Just to make sure my eyesight wasn't that bad and that it wasn't an issue of a TV being too big, I put the cables from the PS2 cable into a 32 inch TV it looked much clearer, so this was just a compatibility issue. Yet, no PS2 game on the 48 incher has looked as bad as this one, so could that just be a Sega problem?
But, who came up with the idea to organize players on a screen like that by position starting with shooting guard rather than by overall or by starters to reserves? More importantly, why is there no option to sort it based on overall so that instead of looking at the status of Ron Mercer and Fred Hoiberg, I could start from the top of my overalls with Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell? Hell, I'd have even taken a list like that starting with point guard and going down to shooting guard, small forward, and so on, but starting with shooting guard? What?
Oh, and that's not the only place you're going to see that type of list because that's the format for the free agency and draft screens as well! Have fun scrolling through all of those players just to find a point guard with an overall in the high 70's because you can't sort things by position, age, or overall! This has to be one of the absolute worst menu designs in gaming history, and that includes NBA 2K10's decision to make you hold the stick in the direction you're trying to move.
Organization isn't the only place where 2K5 falls flat in Association Mode because the trade logic is...well, when you see Carmelo Anthony being dealt to the Atlanta Hawks for Al Harrington and Tyronn Lue as the Denver Nuggets are just three games out of first place in the Western Conference or Paul Pierce gets sent to the Washington Wizards for Kwame Brown and a first, it's only fair to question what's going on. It's not until this trade pops up in your awful-looking transaction feed that you have to actually pause the game, go downstairs, heat up a Hot Pocket, and ask yourself what you're doing with your life.
But, if you thought all of this was bad, we have yet to hit what is potentially the worst feature that 2K Sports has ever put into one of their video games. Now, you have to remember for a second that during this time in the league, the NBA was having a severe 'culture problem' with their players; on the sidelines, people wore baggy, hip-hop clothes instead of suits, you had guys like Allen Iverson who were general, outspoken jackasses; and plenty of players ended up in trouble because there was no real fear from the league about punishments. I mean, 2004 alone featured the Shaq-Kobe dispute and the Malice in the Palace, which I'm sure we all miss deep down inside, and David Stern was fuming at the fact his players were actually expressing things like opinions and fun.
But because social media had yet to become a forum for players to vent, Visual Concepts and the developers decided to implement a true system that fed off player behavior and personalities: meetings with coaches. About once every couple weeks, a player -- who can have one of several different personality types -- will come to you with a concern that can range from general team performance to a lack of morale; in theory, like what was promised with NBA 2K14's MyGM, this sounds fantastic and really in-depth...but in reality, it goes just about as well as saying 'fireman' in front of a feminist.
See, there are four personality types that a player can have and they're simply known as personalities one, two, three, and a question mark. Personality one is usually an optimistic player, maybe one that's a bit cocky or overexcited; personality two is usually in the middle, maybe good on one day and bad on another; personality number three is usually frustrated or angry; and the question mark means that they're unpredictable, meaning one answer you give them could please them and another could piss them off entirely.
Again, while this sounds like a great idea on paper, the problem is that it becomes too easy to tell the player exactly what he wants to hear so that you can prevent a severe loss in team chemistry. While in MyGM, your answers at least could have provided both positives and negatives (i.e. promising the owner you'll trade a veteran with a big contract, but sending him off could potentially lower morale from the team and make others worried you'll trade them), the only thing that happens here is just a loss or raise in chemistry.
And that, right there, is what makes this mode so broken. You know, I can live with bad trades and I can live with bad menus, but when you introduce a feature that can utterly destroy an entire mode, there's a problem. See, if you simulate an entire season or a few weeks (which I did on my test runs) and you don't want to deal with the meetings or workouts, your chemistry will plummet and your team will be absolutely unable to win games. Whether you're the Chicago Bulls or Minnesota Timberwolves, skipping these meetings -- which, by the way, you can't turn off as a feature when you start your association even if you set team chemistry to off -- will almost certainly result in you losing 50+ games.
You read that right. Even if you turn team chemistry off, the game's program that still counts those meetings against you and will cause you to finish with a losing record regardless of who you have on your team, what your schedule is, etc. Why? Why not?
You know, you go back and look at some of the reviews where this game was praised and hailed as a fantastic model of NBA basketball, but how can a game truly replicate the league it's supposed to resemble when the virtual league itself is awful? There went the hope of me being able to keep playing an old game just because of how well the franchise was like I can with Madden NFL 2005...
If you've ever played any of the ESPN games, you know what to expect: realistic camera angles and shots of the crowd, a lead-in from some studio host (in this game, we get the late, great Stuart Scott who I'll talk more about in a bit), and mediocre commentary from, in this case, play-by-play announcer Bob Fitzgerald, color commentator Bill Walton, and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya. All I have to say about the commentary is that I would rather listen to MLB The Show's crew than the three we have in this game.
Now look, no sports game during this time had 'good' commentary and Fitzgerald isn't awful, but Walton is so limited and so lacking in his analysis that it makes you ask why he was even put into the game. What makes Bill Walton so loved and revered among basketball circles is his heavy usage of hyberbole and his interesting comparisons that seem to happen on the spot, but when you put him into a game where he's forced to read off a script, the magic that makes Bill Walton...well, Bill Walton, quickly gets lost.
Whenever I play this game and I hear Walton's commentary, I immediately think back to what I said last summer about Spike Lee directing NBA 2K16's MyCareer mode and why I thought it was a bad idea:
"In the right role or the right job, Spike Lee can excel and make something really memorable because of the subject matter. If you came up to me and said, "Spike Lee is working on a new film that showcases the trials and tribulations of a basketball player on the big state where he would have to deal with money, fame, temptations, press, fans, women, family, and the ultimate goal of winning a title," then I'd be really excited to see what would happen. People forget that He Got Game was rated R, and deservedly so -- it was dark and gritty, full of colorful language that wasn't there for shock value, but to emphasize on who our characters were. With Frequency Vibrations in an E-rated game, what can we expect from Spike Lee here? Will this be a somewhat serious version of MyCareer with maybe a gold digging friend that the kiddies can relate to, or are we going to see something slightly darker than the normal storyline with possible allusions to real-life problems like drugs, jail, drinking, etc?"
And, lo and behold, look at what happened! The mode was a mess and the story was awful! Really, the same happened here when you had Bill Walton, a broadcaster who's best when he says things on the spot, sticking to a script and reading forced lines. Of all the people who were working at ESPN at the time -- Tom Tolbert, Jim Gray, Steve Jones, or even George Karl -- why go with someone who clearly wasn't meant for this type of role? It's not like Bill Walton's name was going to bring gamers who normally wouldn't have bought the game flocking over from NBA Live...
Anyways, Stuart Scott does halftime and postgame analysis with his trademark catchphrases, but not a daily or weekly highlight show similar to what we saw from Chris Berman in NFL 2K5. I'd have loved to see that happen, sure, but the lack of it doesn't hurt the presentation too much.
Other stuff and thangs:
* In a surprising turn of events, cover athlete Ben Wallace isn't the highest rated player in the game and only clocks in at an 87 overall, barely beating out Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace (both of whom have 86s) for the highest spot on the Pistons. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett are the only active players in the game to have a perfect 99 rating (though legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Walt Frazier, and Bob Cousy all have 99s) while Spurs forward Tim Duncan and Rockets guard Tracy McGrady each are 98 overall. Surprising, right?
* I know I mentioned legends but I may as well clarify and say that there are no legit legend teams; similar to NBA 2K10, it's divided into all-time conference teams like 90's West, 80's East, and so on.
* The soundtrack is...well, unimpressive. Too many songs sound the same and the artists aren't diverse enough, which in plain English means some artists have multiple songs on the soundtrack. We were in 2004 at the time this game released and you mean to tell me you couldn't get a big name like Kanye West, Jim Jones, or anyone from G-Unit whose songs at the time truly fit the sport?
* If you get bored playing Association or 24/7, feel free to take part in a street game between actual players, legends, and even your 24/7 character.
* Older readers probably know this, but when ESPN NBA 2K5 came out, the game was only twenty bucks due to the competition with EA. Imagine if that was the case now where 20 bucks could buy a full game!
Obviously, I came into this game with an open mind, but I also had some relatively high expectations because of how revered ESPN NBA 2K5 is for everything from gameplay to presentation. Admittedly, there was a part of me that even had high hopes because this came at a time when 2K and EA were fighting to the death with one another, causing the other to produce some of their best content in the franchises' histories (that still hold up in 2016) just to attract customers.
You know, even with the ESPN presentation and the duel with EA Sports' NBA Live for consumers, it really does pain me to say that NBA 2K5 is far from a game that holds up. In some spots, like for the 24/7 mode, you can tell that effort really was made and 2K wanted to put out the best product, but the association mode and presentation is just so frustratingly bad that it's hard for me to honestly give this game a good score or praise it.
The question I really found myself asking throughout this review was how could Sega and ESPN have screwed this game up so badly? Were they too pre-occupied with the 2K-EA sales fight to focus on making things work, or was it just a classic case of thinking a game was good enough to be put out because the true fans would buy anyway? Granted, that's still a problem with gaming companies now -- especially 2K -- but how was it possible this game could be so unplayable and broken?
The only things that would even make this game worth a purchase besides 24/7 mode is maybe the ESPN presentation, but to fully enjoy it you'd have to play with the commentary off. It's a shame, really, but there's a reason why Sega sold their products to Take-Two Interactive and 2K Sports was born in January 2005.
If there's a classic sports game you want me to review -- and potentially want to loan me -- let me know by joining the Mix and joining me on Twitter at @JakeElman