Unlike the NFL, and despite EASport's efforts, the NBA declined to venture down the road of selling their exclusive license to one game company, and have rather insisted on maintaining an open sale on their license every year to two or more developers. This has worked out brilliantly for the NBA gaming fans, as the two major forces in the video gaming sports world - 2KSports and EASports - can clash heads each year on the virtual court for the best NBA gaming experience. As it would happen, up until this year, in the eyes of most enthusiasts and critics alike, 2KSports have had the better NBA game in recent years, and with the release of NBA 2K7 Xbox 360 in PAL territories yesterday, this isn't about to change.
When you first fire up NBA 2K7 360, any players of 2K6 will immediately be confronted with not only a new main menu design, but a whole new main menu structure. First of all, the main menu is, by default, hidden. To bring it on screen, you must flick the right analog stick in any direction. Once flicked, you have access to all your expected modes and options, which by the way are more or less exactly the same as 2K6 with some slight modifications to the "24" mode, now dubbed "24: Next". Flick the right analog stick again and the menu disappears. This system may sound odd, and that's because it is indeed a little odd, and while it won't take long to get used to, it just seems a little unnecessary as the menu system in 2K6 was fine.
While not a lot has changed game mode wise this time around, fans of the Association mode (the main franchise mode of play) will be glad to see two pretty nifty features make their way to the series. The first of these is three way player trades, meaning you can compose a trade involving two other teams, which cuts down on time and energy when trying to orchestrate a complicated acquisition. The other feature is something fans of the series have been wanting for a while now, and that's multi user franchises. In 2K7, up to 8 teams can be independently controlled by a user, which isn't as versatile as allowing every team to be under user control, but it's still more than enough for most common scenarios, like a few room mates wanting to participate in a NBA season.
With the largely unchanged game modes aside, there is one area of 2K7 that has seen distinct changes over 2K6, and that is the actual in-game feel and flow. Although 2K6's flow was rather good, at times animations and particularly the transition between animations was poor. This has been improved greatly in 2K7 360 - the game flows so well that, from tip off to the final buzzer, you'd think the whole game was just one long motion captured animation. What makes the improved flow an even more impressive feat is the level of player and ball physics has increased as well - in 2K6, you saw a few animations that decided ball possession between two players, amongst other scenarios, that were pre-recorded animations, while 2K7 seems to rely much more on the physics of human bodies and attributes to determine outcomes to scenarios like this. Of course, like with most yearly updates across all sport gaming genres, you can expect an increased library of animations in 2K7, and these standout in almost all facets of the game - you see individual and unique shooting and dribbling animations for all the star players, quite a few more dunk animations and a whole lot of other more subtle animations, like your PG pointing out orders to teammates as he dribbles past mid court, or two big guys authentically jocking for position in the post.
To complete the improved fluency and polish to the game's feel, 2K7 also introduces a better Human vs CPU experience when it comes to the AI. It is hard to judge AI in sporting games without very extensive play time as testing it against specific scenarios can take a significant portion of the game's lifetime to achieve, but there is no doubt in my mind that 2K7 plays a much smarter and harder game. Coming from a reasonably experienced 2K6 360 player as myself, even the lower difficulty settings like "Pro" in 2K7 seem to showcase some very realistic gameplay from the CPU - they move the ball very well and put particularly high priority in making sure they shoot on open looks, something which was lacking in 2K6's AI. Outside of the actual gameplay AI, improvements have also been made in the fouls department - even on default settings, fouls are far more common, and not just shooting fouls too - I saw a few blocking fouls and reach in fouls not long into my first few hours of gameplay. When you're going for a block in 2K7, unless you more or less time it perfectly, it will likely be a foul, which is a major plus for the game's realism.
If you plan to play NBA 2K7 in a realistic fashion, then you'll enjoy the new way to access in-game substitutions, team sliders and play calling. Last year, subs were made by pausing, accessing a few menu's, and manually readjusting the lineup yourself. In 2K7, you can now bring up a very easy to use menu during gameplay by pressing 'down' on the D-PAD, which allows you to cycle through available players for each position, where any changes come into effect during the next time stoppage. As for play calling, by pressing 'right' on the D-PAD, you bring up a menu which gives you a list of 8 plays to choose from, which are changeable via the normal method. Finally, by pressing 'left' on the D-PAD, you can access a menu during gameplay which allows you to tweak tempo and pressure settings in real time amongst other offensive and defensive options. All in all, these three new in-game menu additions are very nice indeed, as making on the fly coaching and player decisions really is as seamless as the real thing now in 2K7.
As far as the visuals go, like 2K6 360, 2K7 360 features very impressive players models, some of which are incredibly like their real life counterpart. Also like 2K6, however, the environments - i.e. the court, the crowd, the background graphics etc - are not nearly as impressive. They still look good, but when you have player models like those in 2K7, the surrounding graphics tend to stick out more when they're not of similar quality. However, with that said, while 2K7 doesn't see much in the way of enhanced stadium and background graphic quality over 2K6, the activity rendered in the background is definitely improved - you see team mascots and cheerleaders running onto the court between quarters, you see team benches acting lively relevant to the action on court, and gone are the days of teleporting substitutions - yes, you read right, players actually get up off the bench and run on to the court now! I knew next gen hardware was going to be good for something sooner or later.
2K6 was a great basketball game, so there wasn't much 2K7 needed to improve upon, and as expected, it isn't a huge upgrade overall, but where changes have been made, they really count for something. While I'm sure the purists will manage to find stuff that could use tweaking for 2K8, which I think has to be the case for every sport game ever released, NBA 2K7 Xbox 360 is the most complete NBA basketball game made to date. There is still perhaps some room to take advantage of the next gen platform visually and physics wise, but the 2K NBA series is well on its way to becoming a true next gen sports gaming experience.