'NBA 2K10': Bound for greatness?

When the "NBA 2K10" producers announced that they were lowering the player ratings in their game across the board to better separate the superstars you cheer from the bench players doing all the cheering, all you had to do was look at Jerome James and his embarrassing 42 overall rating to know they weren't messing around. Other casualties of the ratings game include Adam Morrison (crashing hard to a 55 overall) and even former 2K Sports spokesman J.J. Redick, who despite showing some flashes in the postseason, drops to a 52.

But the change in philosophy over the ratings isn't the only aspect 2K Sports was looking to adjust; in speaking to the game designers, they look back to "NBA 2K7" as still being the best in franchise history. "When fans talk about 'NBA 2K,' they always go back to '2K7,'" says producer Rob Jones. "After they see what we've done with 'NBA 2K10,' they won't need to talk about any of our older games. '2K10' is going to be the game everyone talks about from now on."

All you need to do is turn on the game to realize Jones' words aren't just bold, they appear to be dead on.

Sure, the game has all the flash and style of pregame rituals like LeBron tossing chalk into the air and having his crew pose for photos before the game, but I've never seen a computer opponent play a smarter style of basketball than what I've experienced with "2K10" … and the game's still not finished. I recently had the chance to play the preview build on the set of the "NBA 2K10" commercial shoot in Los Angeles. The build was dated Wednesday, Aug. 26, and I was amazed at how everything from the player spacing to the defensive rotations and the way inside shots are contested (virtual Dwight Howard, in particular, swatted virtual Pau Gasol back to Spain) was improved in the latest edition of the franchise. 2K Sports credits its relationship with 82games.com (a leading statistics and basketball analytics site) for helping producers further push everything from player tendencies to the proper positioning on court to help give "2K10" a more realistic feel. The game is now tracking 36 additional tendencies per player, breaking down not only how these players attack the basket, but how their teammates behave.

And the results are incredible.

Playing against the computer, I saw some of the most authentic ball movement I've ever seen from a CPU-controlled opponent. Players were hitting cutters slashing toward the basket, setting picks away from the ball to open up shooters, playing the inside-out game to set up the 3, and the post moves have been tuned to a point that would make even The Dream jealous. We're talking shimmy shakes, pump fakes, hooks, pivots and up-and-unders all controlled by various taps of the right analog stick.

In fact, the overall look of the game has really been improved thanks to, of all people, the guys who helped bring you "Grand Theft Auto." That's right, 2K Sports enlisted Image Metrics, the team that did the faces in "GTA," to help add personality to its players. So now, when LeBron throws down a vicious dunk, you'll actually see him puff his cheeks in the game like he does in real life when he's strutting back up court. I even saw Jameer Nelson miss a game-winning shot against the Lakers, and as Kobe walked toward the locker room, he had this smirk on his face like he knew he just got away with one. It might sound small, but details like this really add to the value of the game and individuality of the players, especially if you're a hard-core hoops fan.

NBA 2K10 When fans talk about 'NBA 2K,' they always go back to '2K7.' After they see what we've done with 'NBA 2K10,' they won't need to talk about any of our older games. '2K10' is going to be the game everyone talks about from now on.

-- "NBA 2K10" producer Rob Jones

Another improvement made to the series is one that 2K hopes will help put an end to all of the online cheesing, as it's an adjustment to how using the turbo button works. Sure, you can hold down the button to sprint up and down the court, but now, after you've been running virtual Kobe like crazy, his first turbo meter will disappear and a new meter will appear under his feet. Keep hitting turbo and you'll burn his energy to the point where he'll be so gassed, you'll be forced to call for a substitution as he just isn't making the plays you'd expect from Mamba in his tired state. Add to that the fact that in "2K10," all passes do not connect, as in, have Shaq throw a wild running pass downcourt to a cherry-picking LeBron, and you might just watch that pass sail right out of bounds. Again, it's little game-play tweaks like this, along with kicked balls and the ability to roll the ball up court at the end of the game to help conserve clock, that really help add a level of depth unprecedented in the virtual hoops genre.

A lot of these improvements can be attributed to the fact that Rob Jones and his team at 2K Sports captured 9,000 new animations for the game. That's more than double the number of animations they have ever even attempted to capture in previous years, as they brought in James White to mimic some of the best dunkers in the league, along with a variety of street ball legends to mimic the signature dribbles of every star. How will this translate in the game? Take a look at past games in the series. If you took a shot-by-shot animation comparison under the basket of a player like Shaq and a player like Kobe, you'd watch them shoot the ball the same way. The additional motion-capture work that was performed helped expand the types of shots for all players to better encompass player types. It's no longer a one-shot-fits-all type scenario. Now everything from height to ability changes the way players dribble, shoot, walk, run, block and dunk the basketball.

Why just run the break when you can run your entire franchise?

For gamers looking to take control of their favorite team and make sure they don't select back-to-back point guards in the first round of the draft, there is Association mode. Here you play the role of GM, and for the ultimate control freaks out there, new this year is the ability to actually control all 30 teams at the same time. If you thought Danny Ainge was a busy man, try running the whole league.

But that's not the only addition: Fans will be able to create and customize the entire draft class, giving them the ability to rename players and customize everything from the look to the player ratings. This gives gamers the ability to create their own Michael Jordan and enter him back in the league as if he just left North Carolina. Or you can look ahead and build out future classes to keep your franchise up to date as you move on through the years. The choice is finally up to you.

Practices have also been added in Association so now you can finally take your team to Allen Iverson's favorite place … the practice court. Here, you can run plays and get the timing down with particular ballers in the lineup. This especially comes in handy after trading for a new player as you have the ability to practice his signature shots and see where he best fits in your lineup.

Player progression has also been enhanced. Now, just drafting a player with a big "upside" won't guarantee huge gains as far as player ratings are concerned. If you stick a rookie on the bench and never let him run with the big boys, you might just watch as he languishes around a 72 overall for the rest of his career (hey, it could be worse, he could be 42). So basically, you need to get your young guns playing time if you want them to progress and become the superstars you dream about. But what do you do if you're playing with an already-stacked championship contender and don't have minutes to waste on a rookie? Never fear as you can finally send up to three players down to the D-League and even take control of those games in order to help your top picks get some valuable minutes, even if they're not against the likes of KG and D-Wade.

Finally, look for 10-day contracts, in-game saves and restricted free agency to help add to the overall experience of taking your team to the title … or running it straight into the ground.

My Player

If you don't care about running plays or running your own team as much as you care about creating yourself in the game and what color shoes you're going to wear, then 2K has the mode for you. It's called My Player, and fans who want to get a head start on this mode can actually download 2K's "Draft Combine" game online and jump in over a month before "2K10" even ships.

Basically, you'll create your own baller, decide what type of player he should be, create his look down to the color of his kicks (pink Jordans anyone?), then work your way up through summer league, training camp and the D-League to your shot at earning valuable minutes in the NBA. Play through the "NBA 2K10 Draft Combine" and your player will be better than any you can create through simply purchasing "2K10," and that advantage is definitely worth the five bucks it costs to download the game as the edge in skill points will really pay off down the line.

And what's cool about this mode is, you're not just trying to score 50 points a game to impress the coaches. You are actually graded on how you play with your team, and if the coaches look at you as being a bad teammate (constantly calling for the ball, not passing, not playing D), then you will actually get negative skill points awarded to your character. Definitely not the way you want to start your career.

And the longer you play (you can take your character up to around age 40 before retiring), the harder your goals will become in each game. So while your first objectives might be to set three picks and score four points, you'll eventually be competing for the all-rookie team, to get 25 career triple-doubles, and even to play in 1,000 career games (talk about sore thumbs).

These players can then be taken online as part of 2K's Team Up mode, where up to 50 gamers can form their own crews and challenge to be the best online team around. Crews can design their own jerseys, add logos and even watch the leaderboards to see which of their players stand out as online superstars. As you play online, you'll even continue to earn progression points for your created character so you can constantly improve his game.

Scouting Report

Even though the version of "NBA 2K10" I played was obviously still a work in progress (and featured a few weird bugs popping up throughout), I have to say, after getting just a small taste, the chance for greatness in this title is certainly evident.

Will it dethrone "2K7"? It's still a little early to tell, but I seriously haven't looked forward to a basketball game this much in years.

In fact, it looks so good, I'd even play as Jerome James.