I'm not sure we "get" basketball in this country. We tend to prefer football, which whilst tactical in many ways is more about action and reaction than intricately worked plays. For many of us, basketball is a dunk contest between people with an unfair height advantage but to anyone who takes it seriously, the showboating is a minor part of any game and the real truth of the sport lies in the combination of a quick tactical mind and slick physical execution. And it is here in which we encounter a problem when we play basketball games: we want football played with hands and instead we get chess with 7ft tall bishops and rooks in shiny shorts and vests, and this catches us somewhat off-guard. To the British and much of the European public, games of the sport never look as action-packed as those highlight reels we see on late-night TV, which, unfortunately, is what we're expecting. Okay, so NBA Jam kind of got it right way back when, but it was a pure arcade game which had some serious issues with longevity and besides that, the series never really got to grips with the 32-bit generation's constant demand for things in 3D.
So where does that leave ESPN NBA 2K5? For a start it means that not as many copies are going to be sold in Europe as in America but then that's like saying that not as many haggises are going to be sold in Angola as in Scotland (and equally that not as many Angolans are going to die from coronary heart disease). To be blunt, it means it's a bugger to review. I'm trying to think of clever things to say about it, but basically, if basketball floats your boat then a) I'd recommend that you start thinking about getting a boat that adhered to the normal laws of physics and b) I'd recommend that you buy this game. If not, then it might be a bit of a mixed bag.
The game itself is a pretty decent rendition of the lanky mutants' beautiful game. There are plenty of plays to choose from and plenty of ways of executing them each time you get to the basket. The controls are responsive and do an excellent job of conveying a sense of the size and weight of the player you're currently controlling - 'little' guys like Alan Iverson move like fairies on helium and lunks like Dikembe Mutombo move like the big marshmallow thing from Ghostbusters. Offensively, you have several options at your disposal: You can try and round defenders using the elaborate spins and crossover dribbles, you can get physical and back into them with a big centre - using the newly added "Pro Step" moves to make a killer post play, or you can simply pass the ball around the perimeter and randomly tap shoot and hope for the best. Irritatingly, this last option works more frequently than it should if you happen to have one of the superstars of the game (Kevin Garnet for example) at your disposal. On the defensive end of things, your options are a little more limited. Unlike, say Pro Evo, where a larger playing field combined with the more physical nature of football means that defending offers as many permutations as attacking, NBA 2K5 basically restricts you to guarding players who don't have the ball and standing in front of players who do, waiting to block or steal the ball if the chance arises. Not that this is particularly bad - it's how basketball works after all - but it does mean that defending isn't quite as interesting a prospect as attacking and is often as much about waiting for the other team to make a blunder as it is about causing them to make a mistake.
Like its hockey and American football cousins, what NBA 2K5 does lord above most others in the sport genre, is its quality presentation. It might be possible that Visual Concepts possibly spent a little more time on the more polished NFL branch of the franchise but that isn't to say the NBA 2K5 doesn't stand up to the competition in every way. With overlays and commentators straight from the network, each game feels like you're participating in a televised event which adds an extra dimension to the already decent game engine. The franchise mode available to play is equally well thought-out offering an accessible yet in-depth experience where training, answering key player's questions in an effort to maintain team chemistry and the ever difficult salary balancing trade system all come into play. You can drag players out of unemployment in an effort to make superstars out of them and you can even see your little babies up in lights at the mid-season All-Star game. The only difficulty with this excellent mode is again inflicted by the very sport the game simulates. There are a hell of a lot of games in a basketball season (somewhere around the 82 mark depending on pre-season friendlies and All-Star commitments) and whilst it is possible to simulate these or even play them out in a kind of bizarre strategy RPG kind of way, a full season can demand a serious amount of your time.
So what to make of ESPN NBA 2K5? Well, it imitates basketball pretty well and at its budget price-point it's certainly worth a look ahead of EA's NBA Live 2005. There are some minor niggles (such as the lack of online play in this European release) and overall it doesn't feel as solid, polished or generally as good as its NFL stable mate, but with the official NFL license vanishing on a cock-horse to EA Land, Visual Studios may well put more of its obviously talented team to work on the next NBA game and this will be a good thing for those of you who "get" this basketball thing.