We're only a few short weeks away from tipping off the 2008-09 NBA season and you know what that means: preseason basketball! (Hey, where's everybody going?) Don't worry, the good folks at EA, 2K, and Sony have each released new pro hoops games to keep you busy until opening night. Now the only question is, which one should you take home?
* During game action, the players respond directly to your controls almost immediately. (Sounds simple, but it's not necessarily the case in the other two titles.) Lateral and diagonal movements come off as smooth and natural- - no more right angles to go from the top of the key to the baseline.
* During an NBA game, the sweat moppers work almost as hard as the players, yet in video game hoops, we rarely see anybody hit the deck. 2K9 seems to be the first video game to address this issue by adding a more realistic amount of charges, blocking fouls and loose ball dives.
* For some reason, nobody can master shooting functionality. Even in 2K, which has the most natural controls, you either shoot by arbitrarily pressing the shoot button or you can try your luck with the shot stick, which asks you to pull down the right toggle stick, then release upwards. Neither option has much to do with skill and more to do with your positioning and ball movement prior to the shot.
* Advanced plays come from a simple selection of combinations. Hold down the L2 or R2 buttons and hit one of the buttons and you can pull off anything from an alley-oop to a tip in during a rebound attempt.
* Lockdown D has been improved. You still initiate chest-to-chest defense by holding down the L2 stick when nearing the ballhandler. This year, however, you can shade to one side or the other using your right toggle stick. Instead of leaving yourself vulnerable to dribble penetration, you can rotate from side to side to force your opponent to go where you want.
* Love the pick and roll functionality here. Not only can you call your big man over by pressing the L2 button, you can determine how long he'll hold the pick and which direction he rolls. Hit the L2 button to bring your big man over, then watch as a meter fills above his head. Release the L2 button before the meter fills up halfway and your big man will roll to the hoop. Let the meter fill up and your big will pop out for an open jumper. It's so simple, you can even run it playing as the Knicks.
* The Lockdown Defense function still needs work. Simply bring your defender up to the ballhandler and he'll lock on to the offensive player. Unfortunately, getting unlocked is far more difficult and the resulting struggle leaves you vulnerable. As you're trying to release from playing "lockdown d," your opponent usually blows by you. Even worse, if you lay off to avoid getting stuck to the ballhandler, he'll pull up and hit an open jumper.
* Live continues to offer up the most versatile assortment of big man moves in the paint. Utilize a combination of right toggle directions and shooting buttons for up and unders, drop steps and fadeaways. Big man post moves aren't as glamorous as nailing deep threes, but they're certainly more effective.
* Be A Pro mode locks you into a single player. Control your player as the rest of the game unfolds around you. As the game progresses, you'll receive marks on how you're doing on both the offensive and defensive side of the court.
* The Skills Academy is another way of saying "learn how to use our controls." It's about as fun as it sounds. The other throwaway is the dunk contest, which, with it's convoluted controls, has all the thrills of a Chris Andersen vs. Larry Hughes dunk off.
* Sony developed the most skill-related shooting functionality. Hit the shoot button and wait for your shot meter to turn green, then release. Yes, it's similar to an arcade game, but unlike the other two titles, there's actually a rhyme and reason to when your shot falls and when it doesn't. The only drawback here is when you find yourself launching double teamed fadeaway 30-footers with your bench players and the shot falls because you had your shot meter in the green.
* That being said, sometimes the ridiculous shots should fall if you have the game's Showtime feature turned on. Fire up the crowd by pulling off alley-oops and dunks while also shutting down your opponent on the defensive end. Your reward for showboating at your opponent's expense is additional energy, speed and shot-making prowess. Pull it together and you'll feel the adrenaline-fueled momentum swings. Just don't get sloppy, the ride comes to an end when you miss two shots in a row or turn the ball over.
* Get in position to pull down boards using the rebounding zone. As a shot goes up, a spot on the floor will become illuminated. Hit the rebound button when you get to that spot and you're likely to get the ball back. One odd side effect: the zone only appears if it's a miss, so if you don't see the zone, just get moving in the other direction, that shot is falling.
* Progression Players are an interesting take on the create a player functionality seen in other games. The Inside gives you the option of creating a starting five of players that you can improve on individually by achieving goals. Once you've built each player up to the skill level you desire, you can take your self-created starting five into franchise mode and gun for a championship.
* Instead of focusing on the dunk contest like the other two titles, The Inside moves away from the traditional All-Star Weekend mini-games. Blacktop Golf is one of the most unique mini-games we've ever seen incorporated into a basketball sim. Start at halfcourt and toss the ball into a series of trash cans that line the court until you're close enough to shoot using the game's traditional shooting functionality. Sounds lame, yes, but we dare you to try it out without going for a full 18.
* The Association 2.0 teams up with NBA.com to deliver a more in-depth season long experience. Scouting player remains as important as ever, not necessarily for your own team's development but for picking up on the AI tendencies your opponent will use for playcalling.
* For you arm chair GMs out there, Bird Years and Bird Rights have been added, as well as more realistic no-trade clauses depending on player personalities. Now you too can deal with outrageous player egos!
* Franchise mode delivers what you expect, with a few new wrinkles. For one, you can now set out at the beginning of a season without just a championship in mind. Pick a team just hoping to rebuild or look to build a decent team into a playoff contender. While we do like our video games to be realistic, hunting for a sixth seed and a first round playoff exit doesn't exactly stoke our competitive fire.
* Slip into the Nikes of a wannabe NBA star from the start and see how far you can make it. Go from giving pep talks in the huddle before an NBDL showcase to taking the game-winner in Game Seven of the Finals. Three separate plot lines give you the opportunity to try to achieve NBA superstardom from the guard, forward and the big man spots on the roster. This is a nice alternative to the traditional franchise modes in the other two games.
* As is the norm, you can build your own franchise by starting with one of the traditional NBA cities. All of the traditional features are here, with stat tracking, trades and season long awards. As mentioned above, the coolest feature here is the ability for you to build five players from scratch and take them into the franchise mode to challenge for a title.
* Not only do the close ups look photo-realistic, but you can also differentiate between bench players during game action. We know this because we spotted Antoine Walker pouting on the bench during a Grizzlies blowout from across the court.
* Other details really give off the feeling of a pro game. The courts shimmer with reflections and the nets move naturally depending on how the shot drops. Pregame montages of the two teams playing may be video highlights, but it's still a great way to get pumped up.
* The player close ups are solid, but what really stands out are some of their signature mannerisms. Kobe's baseline fadeaway follow through looks like the real thing, while Dwyane Wade's imploring arm waves after a big dunk will have you reminiscing back to the 2006 Finals.
* One of the weirdest graphical hiccups we've ever seen comes to the forefront when the players are at the free throw line. Not sure if they were trying to accentuate the mesh material of the shorts, but the trunks bounce and sway even when the player is standing completely still at the line.
* The close ups at the free-throw line look great. Pull back on the camera a little, though, and you get some rigid fan animations as well as some strange looking coaches. (And we're not just talking about Stan Van Gundy.)
* The action on the court looks good, too, but the graphics drop a step during cut shots between plays. Instead of running smoothly to the bench, the players suffer from fragmented movements.
* Kevin Harlan (…excuse us, KEVIN HARLAN!!!) takes the mic for 2K9 and does an excellent job teaming up with Clark Kellogg. Who cares that Kellogg is a March Madness staple, the sound bites are fresh and deep. You'll get stats on everyone from Chris Paul to Chris Quinn and the guys will even start talking about last season or a guy who used to play on the team and how he'll adapt to his new squad.
* The crowd's involvement ebbs and flows with the action on the court. Get the fans on their feet with a hot run, just beware: they're not afraid to boo a poor home outing, either. Silence reigns when an opposing team hits a big shot in a big situation. (Imagine Wrigley Field in October and you'll get the idea.)
* Get used to the dulcet "bllluuung" with every brick, as 2K effectively mimics the growing practice in NBA arenas of micing their rims.
* Marv Albert may be the voice that brings you back to Jordan's heyday, but he doesn't bring you anywhere but the mute button in Live. Albert's canned commentary often falls behind the action. Steve Kerr tries to replicate the duos' witty banter form their time together on TNT, but he sounds like his mind was already on his new Suns gig when he was recording the sound bites.
* It's not pretty here. Kevin Calabro teams up with Kenny Smith and during game action, you'll be lucky if you hear a comment that pertains to any of the last three plays. Also, there is absolutely no correlation between the tone of their voices and what's happening on the court. KG could practically tear down the basket support and you'll get little more than a very monotone: "and Garnett with the putback."
* It's becoming standard, but it's enjoyable: five-on-five live action play. Everyone on the court is controlled by a real life gamer. And with noted video game enthusiast Gilbert Arenas out with an injury for the first few months of the season, who knows who you might wind up playing against.
* 2K's menus are both confusing offline and on. Not a big deal, just a little frustrating as you find yourself hitting the back button over and over again after mistakes.
* The big new shiny edition to this year's build is the Dynamic DNA and NBA LIVE 365 features. The concept is unbelievable: Not only can you constantly update player stats to be reflected in the season you're playing, but you can actually ride players' hot streaks or bench players who have lost their shooting touch according to that player's recent real-life performance. These improvements do a lot to alter the AI actions as well.
* Unfortunately, the concept doesn't live up to expectations. Trying to incorporate all the information you get during game action is nearly impossible. You may be provided with the stats and moves of LeBron James, but you'll need the brain of Stephen Hawking to put them to use at game speed. With all of the stat tickers whirring around the periphery of the court, you're screen begins to take on the feel of fast-forwarded Fox News election coverage.
* See how you'd hold up during some of the NBA's biggest moments with NBA Replay. Find a memorable game you'd like to be a part of and then download all of the game's parameters. Take on individual or team level challenges and see if it's as easy and LeBron and Kobe make it look. So far, all that's available is 2007-08 highlights, but as this season gets underway, you'll be able to load up games on a week by week basis.
Live 09 and The Inside both have plenty of standout features. Live's Live 365 is perhaps the most detailed statistically driven feature ever applied to a sports game. The Inside remains the leader in story-driven action with it's first-person The Life mode. Still, 2K is king of the court again. There are plenty of features to toy around with and every last detail is accounted for, from the announcers' facts to individual crowd animations. Then of course, comes what really matters: the action on the court. Smooth controls and polished looks bring it home: NBA 2K9 is this year's basketball title to beat.
-- Reviewed by Paul Ulane, SI.com