It's hard to imagine that there are still other sports developers out there in this EA world. Think about it. You've got a competing publisher that's already bought out the ESPN licence, you can no longer develop football games, and that publisher still has enough money left over to acquire the rights for every other sport out there, including water polo, badminton, and heck, even touch football. You'd think it would be a bit of a downer for 2K Sports right? Well, apparently not.

The latest in the 2K6 franchise sports all of the bells and whistles from last year's outing and remains one of the most well-rounded basketball experiences to date. And so what if the ESPN licence has gone bye-bye. Sure, the presentation has taken a hit, but if it's a solid game of basketball you're looking for, look no further.

As with all 2K Sports titles, NBA 2K6 is abut as sim as you can get. In Live 06 you can glide (literally) past opponents and pull off a spectacular 360 jam over Yao Ming any day of the week. Don't expect anything like that to happen in 2K6. Or how about the gazillion successful behind the back passes that seem to fly straight through six defenders and straight to Lebron for an easy J? Nope, that's not going to happen either. This isn't NBA Jam folks.

Now, one of my biggest complaints about the series as a whole is its A.I. Don't get me wrong, last year's game was a great title, but the A.I. was a joke. You could essentially pull off an 'EA' at times and just drive to the basket with little-to-no defensive strain. The A.I. was notorious for leaving players with open lanes and practically giving the points away. This year is a bit better, but I use the word "bit" for a reason. Those lanes still open up on occasion (though less frequently than previous years), and for the most part, the game can be extraordinarily easy. Seriously folks, don't even think of playing this game on the easiest difficulty. Do yourself a favour and bump it up a few notches, otherwise even Nash will be dunking from the free-throw line, and when have you ever seen that happen?

Luckily, if you do heed my advice and bump the difficulty up, you'll find yourself playing a real ball game. The open lanes suddenly close, and teams with solid D will vigorously defend their perimeter and so on and so forth. It makes using the new Dual Player Control system that much more important - talk about a nice segway into my next paragraph.

Dual Player Control essentially lets you give commands to each ball player on your team. It's simple really: You select a player and use the D-pad to issue one of four commands. You can tell any player to post-up, cut back, and generally help confuse the D, making it easier for you to find the open man. It's intuitive, it works, and if you're anything like me, you'll be using it more often than not.

Speaking of player control, movement is just a tad different this year. While previously the right stick was used to juke, spin, and perform other fancy manoeuvres, this year, those moves are now triggered by holding down one of the trigger buttons in conjunction with the left stick, similar to EA's series. This of course opens up a world of possibilities as your right thumb is essentially free to do as it pleases. You can dribble around your opponent, juke back, crossover and take the shot (or pass) with less strain and greater precision.

Gameplay is far more sim-like than EA's efforts

Additionally, two other new gameplay features peek their heads up this year: the Shot Stick and Strip-and-Rip systems. The former uses the right analogue stick to control the direction of your shot by pulling it back or forward. It's a grand idea, much like NHL 2K6's goalie control system, but often fails to deliver - also like NHL 2K6's goalie control system. While the system works eventually, and you can get those fade-aways to sink every time, the fact of the matter is, it took me two complete seasons to get the hang of it, and even then, I was still resorting to the default shot button to get the job done.

The new Strip-and-Rip, however, fares much better and doesn't require you to fork over all of your summer days trying to get the hang of it. First thing's first: If you use this new feature, you will incur countless reach in fouls. Fortunately, after a bit of practice, this issue becomes less and less frequent. So, instead of using a single button to make the steal, you have to push the analogue stick in the direction of the ball, allowing for a much greater level of control and for the first time it actually feels like you're playing some form of D rather than just button mashing and hoping for the best.

Another great feature new to the series is the inclusion of individual player stats. While this only applies to the Superstars, it adds a great deal of depth and personality to the players. So, say you're playing as Nash, your passes will have a greater chance of reaching their targets than if, say, Ben Wallace was to pass them. Similarly, Tim Duncan has a great set of turn-around shots and hooks in the paint that almost always hit their mark.

Besides gameplay additions, the franchise mode has seen a bit of an overhaul. Now hailed as Association mode, here you can partake in a handful of unique new features such as the new training system. By spending training points, you can have your favourite ballers participate in a series of drills, and provided that the drill is completed successfully, your player can earn a boost in his stats. I literally turned my 5"8, scrawny, pale-white, Greg Vallentin player into the next Michael Jordan within a year.

The next biggest change to Association mode is the ability to scout prospective players throughout the year and bring them on in for a drill or two. Whereas in most games you have to choose your prospects based on stats, in 2K6 you actually scrimmage with them - definitely a worthy addition to the series.

Street mode, tournament, and 24/7 mode also make reappearances in 2K6, though 24/7 is where you'll be spending the majority of your play time. In this mode, your goal is to build up a team of superstars and compete in the Entertainer's Basketball Challenge at Rucker Park. Doing this, however, takes a bit longer than you'd think. First you have to create a player, then have him compete against celebrities (strange, I know...) and other pro ballers, acquire new team-mates, and win the competition. Along the way you'll earn points which can be used to spice up your player's wardrobe too. It's still an addictive mode of play, but the one-on-one matches do get a little tedious after a while. After all, there's only so many ways in which you can juke around your opponent for the basket.

NBA 2K6 has great player models

But what about the 360 owners out there? Is the next-gen version worth shelling out the extra £20 for? Yes and no. All versions play exactly the same and all of the features from the current-gen versions are included (which is more than EA can say for its bare-bones sports titles), so it really just comes down to the type of television set you have. If you've already forked out for an HDTV, the 360 version might be worth taking a look at. The game features gorgeous player models and some great jersey effects thanks to the new cloth animation system. As with every next-gen 2K Sports title, the blur effects have returned, and while I'm all for blur, 2K Sports need to tone it down a notch or two. The current-gen versions stand up well, but scratch the cloth effects, major blurring and other visual effects. In other words, the game looks a whole lot like last year, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

NBA 2K6, like its predecessors, delivers a solid simulation basketball game that's worth picking up if you've got a hankering for the sport, not to mention the fact that it's incredibly affordable. As for 360 owners, it really all comes down to whether or not you need the visual upgrade, which ultimately isn't too much of an upgrade at all, despite the aforementioned cloth effects and, at times, life-like player models. Either way, 2K Sports and Visual Concepts have delivered another hit and it looks like fans of the sport finally have something to wet their appetite until next year's truly next-gen sports titles arrive on store shelves.

NBA 2K6, like its predecessors, delivers a solid simulation basketball game that's worth picking up if you've got a hankering for the sport, not to mention the fact that's it's incredibly affordable.