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NBA 2K9 Preview: Startling details right down to the tats

Chuck Hayes might just have the ugliest free throw hitch in NBA history. Then again, Chuck's ugliness at the charity stripe is just part of the beauty of NBA 2K9, a game that goes to insane lengths to capture signature shooting styles, free throw routines, celebrations, and even facial expressions of NBA stars, role players, and even guys like Chuck Hayes who you just can't help but stare at as that rim starts messing with his mind.

But if you want to know just how invested the creators of NBA 2K9 are in getting every detail exact, gamers need to look no further than Kobe Bryant. Not only does Kobe keep his hand held toward the sky after shooting a free throw, he lets out screams after big dunks, the progressive sweat system builds up moisture on his skin and jersey throughout the game, and if you zoom in on cyber Kobe, you can even get a closer look at that strange bump on the back of his neck (not that you'd want to, but hey, it's in the game). But Kobe's not the only one with the realistic touches as you can lose hours on replay screens reading the tattoos of your favorite players, even getting a jump start on rookie ink as you check out the wizard on Derrick Rose's arm.

And that's just the start of the startling detail as 2K Sports has everything from the way Kevin Garnett scrunches his face as he pounds his chest in celebration to the most animated crowd in sports game history. Seriously, they have people walking up and down stairs headed to the concession stands, fans jumping and screaming independently of each other (not just a row of the same dude who stand and sit in unison), people waving foam fingers in the air, and mascots moonwalking in order to whip the fans into even more of a frenzy.

Oh yeah, did I mention the game? Last year, gamers complained about 2K8 being a tad slower than 2K7, so the developers pushed the speed back to 2K7 levels while at the same time adding even more authenticity to the way the players on the court move and react. In previous iterations of the series, there seemed to be a lot of standing around on offense due to the fact that when the user controlled the ball and didn't run the team's play correctly, the game always defaulted to running a quick isolation for the man dribbling. It was basically a robotic response to user stupidity. But these days, even if the gamer doesn't know how to run plays, the CPU teammates finally react intelligently, helping set screens (players like Rasheed will pick and pop), sending the right guy to the post, and running shooters like Ray Allen around picks, giving the game a much more organic feel as the action on the court is no longer scripted.

Also improved for 2K9 is the reliability of the shot stick. Now shooters can control shot changes in mid-air without the clunky look and feel of past games. Shooters also have control over leaners and fadeaways, and can finally control step through shots (think Kobe with the pump, step forward and shoot). And when it comes to capturing those signature styles, not only are all of the jump shots from Marion's awkward three to the pretty stroke of Paul Pierce in the game, but there are also some new dribble moves including more step backs ala Chris Paul as well some of those crazy moves Rajon Rondo unleashed on the league (and most notably, the Pistons) last year.

Playing defense has also seen a significant upgrade. When playing off the ball, you actually have the ability to grab your opponent's jersey to slow him down as he tries to cut toward the hoop. Obviously, if you do this too much or are too blatant about it, you get called for the foul, but if you are able to time it right, you can be one of those Bruce Bowen types who slows down his man when the time is right then throw your controller when the ref whistles you for the foul like you're the most innocent person in the world.

"This is the most new content we've ever been able to add in one year," Rob Jones, NBA 2K9's lead producer told me as we played a quick game, and as the players run, jump, and chest bump their way down court, you can instantly see the depth of the gameplay being taken to the next level. Added Jones: "We're not just adding features so we can put something cool on the back of the box. What we're doing is making the best playing game we can."

But it's not like the game doesn't have features as it once again brings back the deepest franchise mode in NBA video games. Dubbed Association 2.0, the game brings an NBA.com interface to help improve flow and accessibility while also enabling gamers to turn on or off anything from scouting to staff contracts so that users of all wants and abilities will be able to play Association just how they see fit. But it's the NBA.com front page that really brings the mode to life as you can quickly read all of the top stories from around the league including stories like "Kobe Demands Trade", "Kobe Declines Trade to Milwaukee", and my personal favorite, "Vince Carter Surprised by All-Star Snub".

Every link on the page is clickable, taking you to stories, box scores, team rankings, and rumors as well as a stats page that includes all new metric stats for the game including efficiency, pure point rating, true shooting percentage, and possessions. You will also see headlines generated when you break NBA or team records, giving you something to feel proud about when Monta Ellis breaks the Warriors all-time scoring mark.

As you play through your multiple season Association, you'll also be able to build up your players through 13 new development drills. There is a dribble course with cones where you practice Isomotion, as well as drills to test your shooting, passing, and lockdown D skills.

But improving on the court is not the only thing NBA 2K9 is all about. Last year saw the introduction of player personalities and this year sees an extension of that personality through a player's desire to play for a winner, financial security, and loyalty (we're looking at you Elton). So now when you're trying to negotiate a contract with a player who has a high play for a winner rating, you won't even get the chance to resign him before free agency like previous games as the player will jump straight into the free agent bidding process. Sure, you still have a chance to offer him big money, but if you're team is a perennial loser and say, the 76ers swoop in offering an exciting team with big prospects out East, you will be waving goodbye to your all-star big man. One thing that is in play, though, are the Bird Rights which could help you keep certain players who care more about financial security than winning a ring.

Speaking of winning a ring, after years of complaints, those who win the championship will finally see a bigger payoff as 2K promises the biggest championship celebration that they've ever offered in franchise mode, including the appearance of David Stern.

Also new this year: the CPU teams firing underperforming coaches mid-season. And you thought the life of a polygonal coach was all fun and games.

Online, the game will focus heavily on what they call player DNA, as gamers will be able to go in and create their favorite all-time greats like Michael Jordan, then use 2K Share so that other gamers can download the best MJ to their team. Gamers will also be able to share rosters and sliders as well as search for topics such as 1992-93 season, most downloaded, and highest rated.

If you're into making highlights, the 2K Reel Maker also makes its return with a special in-game digitizer built in that makes it easy for gamers to upload their videos straight to YouTube. Forget the days of being posterized. You've just been YouTubed.

To top it off, online play also includes Team Up, a five-on-five mode where 10 different users can play from 10 different machines. Fear Ricky Davis getting online? Don't, as you'll be able to rate users after each game in order to warn others of ball hogs who have no concept of team play.

Besides, what fun is it to shoot all the time when you're playing with four friends yelling in your headset. Unless, of course, you're playing as Chuck Hayes and you're trying to draw a foul.