Last year, 2K Games broke the proverbial brains of the gaming community when they released NBA 2K11. Presenting a presentation unparalleled by most sports games in history, it essentially queued EA to shut its NBA Elite franchise down, and raised the bar for all NBA, and well, all sports games going forward. A year later, it still stands as arguably the best realistic presentation of a sports event in a video game, period. That is, until 2K announced NBA 2K12 and said they'd step up that bar.
This year's cover boys are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (each on their own version of the cover,) which again, I don't necessarily agree with. In a day and age where there's a lot of licensing dollars being thrown out for the rights to these games and the purpose is to showcase today's stars, I would've preferred to see someone current with the legends, or a reversible cover at worst. Understandably, the current stars of the NBA aren't gathering much favor amongst fans, as a lockout has left the NBA season in doubt. Interestingly, this lockout also means the rights to this year's draft class were not secured for use, and so they do not appear in this game.
Last year, you were transported over Michael Jordan's shoulder into the 1991 NBA Finals. This year, you're treated instead to a beautiful cinematic of yesterday's superstars, ending with a Michael Jordan signature dunk. Nice touch.
The game loads up, and there's a bit of an awkward dilemma. The game was assumedly built around the "NBA Today" mode similar to baseball's "MLB today" mode. What happens when there's no actual games ongoing? Every day ends up being the last game of the NBA finals, that's what. Unfortunately, NBA today looks much better than last year, and takes a more prominent role on the main screen, which is a shame since you may not get to see anything it does at all this year. What you're faced with outside of the exhibition mode are your standard season mode (The Association,) a revamped "My Player" and redone "Create a Legend" mode.
There is a Legends mode (NBA's Greatest) which is essentially a series of 15 games that mark staple nights in those players' careers. You're given an objective with your respective player, and have to accomplish it. Unlike EA's player-only mode, you can control the entire team and steer fate your way enroute to victory without relying on NPC teammates too much. In a strange spin on things, the announcers speak to you throughout as if you are reliving the past, while providing some current tense commentary. It's a bit strange, but somehow, it seems to work. It also provides a cringe-worthy look at some of the odd choices made in the 90s, such as the Utah Jazz's home unis of the late 90s in the John Stockton game. Jazz fans also get to relive the beloved Iron Sled-speed big man of the NBA, Greg Ostertag. Create a Legend is a bit different this year. You pick a current NBA player and work him into legendary status, as opposed to being saddled with no choice. Without the ability to have true "rookies," the mode is a little bit more open than having to select a rookie and go from the beginning. Press conferences aren't available any longer, either, which is smart since they just served to waste time in the end, despite what they may have "provided" in NBA 2K11.
The "My Player" mode has been really streamlined too. I hated the Summer League last year, and that's gone. I love screwing around in Draft Combines, however, and I'm sad to see that one go. The business side of the mode is accentuated this year, however. No less than David Stern is involved this year in the mode, as he shows up for your player's draft announcement. This one's a first for the sports gaming market. I don't recall seeing Roger Goddell, Gary Bettman or Bud Selig involved in any video game, as neat as the idea would be. This is just another way 2K's stepped the presentation game up, able to drop these sort of jaw dropping small details into the mix. Your player can also get sponsored, appear on endorsements and build a self business franchise enroute to the Hall of Fame, and superstardom. Another feature I found helpful was the ability to pick and choose my games. This may not be the greatest thing to do when you start out, as building your player from the beginning is an all too crucial feature of these games (where the slightest setback could take more than one game to recover,) however, is great for later on once your superstar has crested. The somewhat tedious press conference mode is back, however, with a new set of gamechanging variables. Want to become the best or worst teammate ever? Press conferences can do that in a hurry if you don't play your cards right.
With all modes, the gameplay is almost just straight up basketball, and it couldn't be done any better. The game explores all possible elements of team offence, team defence and strategy. At all corners, you're reminded which players succeed from what part of the court, what their specialties are, and which players are best suited for your style of gameplay (and get hot after a couple baskets.) There's enough in here to continue reminding you that you are, in fact, playing a video game, but simultaneously enough to separate you from that fact as well. The game explores foul mechanics even better than last year, though it tends to be a bit heavy on blocking fouls at times (the game doesn't seem to differentiate well all the time between blocking and charging, and the man on D tends to get penalized more often than not). However, all of the usual basketball tendencies are there, down to your opponent calling every possible timeout in the 4th quarter of a close game.
Playing the game is fairly easy, but mastering it is very difficult. Each player comes with their own particular shooting pattern, shooting strength and shooting specialty. The 3 point speciality of Mario Chalmers, for example, doesn't match Eddie House's. Though both players are good behind the arc, each player has been tuned properly so that they will succeed better on certain parts of release. House, for example, has a better chance of draining his 3 at a higher part of his jump than Chalmers. Sadly, "Big Smooth" Sam Perkins wasn't one of the Legends created to show the youngsters that you don't need to jump 7 feet in the air to drain threes. "Smooth" would simply buff his fro, toss the ball up and will it into the net.
Anyway, these modes are all great, and very enjoyable, but I can't help but mention the absence of staple "fun" basketball modes. Streetball doesn't count quite honestly, because you've just taken the basketball game itself, removed fouls, changed the scoring system and put it outside on a blacktop. I'm talking the All Star Weekend festivities namely. In a game that positions itself as the quintessential basketball franchise, the absence of these simple modes make a world of difference to a casual "weekend feeler/rental" type of gamer. After playing the first exhibition game and marvelling at the presentation, the graphics, and the gameplay, the first question I was asked by a couple friends playing along with me the first day was "So where's the dunk contest?" That's not a question 2K has the luxury of not answering next year, since EA plans to return to the simulation hoops market next October, and will probably come armed with extensive extra gaming modes like they always do.
Graphics: 9/10: Graphically, only one word describes this game: Intense. Every corner you look, everything is well done. The arenas are animated well. The courts are animated well. The cheerleaders are animated well. Characters faces are rendered pretty well, down to the stubble on Karl Malone's face. The only thing I'm still not sold on is something I had a bit a problem with last year as well - The jerky movements of the NPCs. This is something that has always been fairly problematic in basketball video games, however, it sticks out like a sore thumb in 2K12. When everything else is done so well, you'd almost expect one of the most basic needs in a basketball game like this to be addressed. I can still see there being a bit of a processing problem attempting to move 10 foreground sprites independently, but if Fifa's found a way to move 15 or more smoothly at once, you would think this is a realistic possibility. Outside of that, the only other complaint I have is with mascot rendering and the way that the furry mascots look like they just came out of a bath where they used glue as shampoo, but that's so secondary and non-essential to the game that I don't think it's worth any sort of deduction. They all can't be as simple as Manic Mailman of Simpsons fame.
Sounds: 10/10. During the review, I spent half of my time playing with the TV's sound, and half with headphones on. I don't normally do this, but I really wanted to push the capabilities of background and foreground sound and see how well and detailed it was done in a whole. I can't find anything wrong with it. Unlike other sports games, the sound patterns don't have noticeable loops, and it transitions and flows perfectly. Every squeak of the shoes, every echoing whistle is captured. They've even done little things well, like players yelling each others' last names out for passes when that player is carrying the ball. The commentary in this game is far and away the best in sports gaming. No sports game touches the NBA franchises. There are literally hours of commentary recorded for this game, and you could play 100 games and never hear everything. The interactions between Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg, Steve Kerr and Doris Burke are done so well that you actually care about what they have to say. The commentary becomes part of the game, as opposed to a secondary "nice to have."
Controls: 6.5/10. For real. This game's instruction manual for controls has amongst the smallest print and most complicated controls I've seen this in a while. I'd register it a .85 on the WWF Attitude scale. The controls are great, and responsive for the most part too, but man, there's just a lot of them to remember. Even if I play this game for 6 hours a day, I don't think I'll remember all of them when the time comes. The instruction manually is literally the entire list of controls (everything else is included on-disc, or self explanatory.) It seems like there are 12 different ways to shoot, and 12 different angles to choose from on each shot. The offensive and defensive controls just don't "jive" all the time, and there are periods where the game offers little assistance with its controls (like choosing substitutions in the middle of a time out, or between quarters.) It might be time to take things back to basics a bit. There's no need to have two buttons to try to block, or 2 buttons to shoot. Maybe a bit of consistency with offensive and defensive options. The same button to switch players on defence is the same button to pass on offence. So what if you want to pass the ball from out of bounds to a player of your choosing inbounds when the defaulted player is half a court away, and you only have 5 seconds to bring him back (or he's not the guy you want to pass to?) Small logistics like this make the controls a bit of a headscratcher, and detract a bit from things overall.
Gameplay: 8/10. Don't get me wrong. This is the best and most enteraining pure rendition of basketball ever made, however, what it brings in gameplay, it lacks in flexibility. When I load this game up, I know I'm going to be playing a game of basketball, whether it's on an NBA court, or a blacktop. Sure, I'll do training with my created player, or run a drill or two, but what else? In a day and age where sports games are flashing their flexibility and waving their additional features in your face, NBA 2K12 is waving a flag of simplicity, and it might scare the odd casual gamer off. No exhibition dunk contests, or 3 point competitions. As an avid sports gamer, one of the things I like the most is the ability to pick up a game, and do something quick and dumb with it. A home run contest, or a skins game, or a game of pond hockey. I can't do that with this game, and I miss that ability, and wish it would be brought back. With that being my only gameplay criticism, I'd be remiss if I didn't focus on the positives. 2K has proved again why they basically hold all the cards in the basketball gaming market. EA will probably never admit this, but they're extremely outclassed now, and if they ever wish to bring the Live/Elite franchise back, there is no sense in doing it unless they've somehow figured a way to one-up everything 2K has brought to the table here.
Presentation: 10/10. This game deserves such widescale props for presentation that I feel I need to start scoring it on all sports games going forward. Gaming companies are beginning to present their games as an event rather than a video game, Expect huge leaps in WWE 12, and you saw big leaps this year out of the EA games. NBA 2K12 trumps the EA games. NBA 2K12's presentation style is so well done, and so effective that I never feel I need to watch an NBA game ever again. 2K12 fills my need for a great video game, and a decent basketball game (many of the games I played featured more excitement than any NBA Game of the last 10 years has.) Every gaming company looking for what a successful gaming presentation looks like needs to study this game. The 2K developers did their homework almost a little too well this year. The small attention to tedious details show the care that's been taken to make this a successful package: Lebron tossing the baby powder into the air before the game. The pre-game announcements where the players toss the ball to each other in between cuts. Kevin Harlan's one-liners during the loading of the NBA's Greatest Modes. Just sit back, and enjoy.
By the time I finished playing this game, I'd forgotten about the NBA lockout. I just wanted to play this game more, and more, but really miss the absence the All Star Weekend skills exhibitions that should be staples of any successful NBA games. I realize the dunk contest has become by and large a farce, as has most of the All Star Weekend festivities, but they're still fun. Now that 2K12 has a blueprint for a successful basketball game down, it's time to bring back some of those fun modes. Let's see some innovative things like a "Create a dunk" mode where you can build dunks to use in the dunk contest, or the ability to do little things like customize a player's release and shooting angles. This game is the best basketball gaming experience out there already, and little things for in-game customization and the addition of a couple more gaming modes will only continue to make anybody think twice about trying to compete. Buy this if you miss the lockout, and need your fix of basketball this year. Chances are it'll be better than an NBA game anyway.
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Suggestions: Get the rights to Vancouver Grizzlies jerseys please. Heck, I'll gladly pay for Vancouver Grizzlies jersey DLC if you can do it this year. I'd put up even more money for the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies roster. Nothing says quality basketball like Ashraf Amaya.