2K Sports doesn't have an exclusive NBA license for video games, but in the simulation category, they may as well. Sports powerhouse EA tried to launch a reinvigorated NBA title under the new brand "Elite" last year. Long-delayed, the title was clearly in trouble, but the game's demo, especially the notorious Bynum glitch revealed within, probably sealed its fate: EA canceled the title at the last minute — a good decision. I've reviewed sports sims that should have been landfilled at the 11th hour. Millions lost scuttling an annual edition of a sports game won't compare with the long-term blow to revenue. Though sports gamers are often labeled "casual" gamers by the action crowd, they're anything but casual about the quality of their pro league simulations.
After all that, EA has decided to sit out a second year for its flagship NBA game, leaving a void of competition for rival 2K Sports. Fortunately, the only advantage of the situation NBA 2K12's developers have taken is the opportunity to improve upon an already superior franchise.
The most celebrated and immediately noticeable enhancement to the NBA 2K series is Greatest mode, which lets you play from a selection of teams and match-ups featuring some of the most outstanding talents in NBA history. Winning a match-up in Greatest mode makes both teams from that game available to play, so you can create your own head-to-head rivalries between NBA legends with careers separated by decades.
In any good simulation, presentation should take a backseat to gameplay, but Greatest mode, which already features NBA 2K12's excellent basketball gameplay, is absolutely made by the mode's presentation. The TV broadcast styles of the signature match-ups have been art-directed to fit the era in which they were played. There's much more here than just a lighting filter and some legacy uniforms. High graphical fidelity in sports games has been around for quite a while. Things get better every couple of years, but I remember Dreamcast sports titles in which I had a hard time telling the difference between the game and a TV broadcast, at least from halfway across the room. As sports gamers, we've been spoiled by great graphics and overall presentation for a long time; there's a low "wow" factor in new sports titles, but with the broadcast presentation of NBA 2K12's Greatest mode, we get some of it back. Depending on the period in which a Greatest mode game is played, the visual distinction may not be all that dramatic. However, comparing presentation of a 1970s Greatest game with a contemporary quick-play game, the effort that went into the art direction for various NBA eras is immediately obvious.
The manner in which Greatest mode games are commentated is a bit odd until you get accustomed to it. The two commentators not only provide play-by-play for the game, but also detail the whole careers of legendary players. They'll be talking about the Jazz's Stockton's charge for the basket, actually underway at that moment in the game. Next, they'll wax nostalgic about Kobe Bryant as a young Laker opposing Utah. A few seconds later, back to Stockton, talking about his age at retirement, and wondering aloud if maybe he had a few more NBA seasons in him. All this occurs in the space of a couple of minutes. It's like a mash-up of historical highlight film and live-action game, but the way it's scripted, the commentary provides a fluidly integrated opportunity to learn something about the entire careers of big NBA stars, some of whom are still playing today.
One of the least satisfying aspects of the pro legend modes in sports sims is what amounts to level-grinding in the early years of that player's career. While starting out as a rookie legend may be steeped in authenticity, it's not necessarily the most exciting element of a sports game. After all, many of us don't play NBA games for the experience of starting at square one with players who are already legends, clawing our ways from anonymity to stardom. There are some sports gamers who relish that prospect, as some RPG players are compelled to complete every side-quest. 2K Sports has revamped the Create A Legend mode in NBA 2K12 in a way that aims to satisfy both camps. Rather than choose an NBA star, demote him to rookie status, and recruit him to an NBA team, Create A Legend lets you choose any active NBA player and finish his career. If you want to play as a legend right now, pick someone like Bryant playing for the Lakers; his future is in your hands. Alternatively, you can choose a young player on a weaker team and build him up over many seasons.
Franchise fans will be familiar with NBA 2K12's My Player mode, which allows you to create a player, a virtual NBA representation of yourself, and perhaps, if you play well enough, hire the right agent and make a lot of good decisions, become something of a legend — or at least turn out as occasional highlight-reel material. The schemes from previous NBA 2K games leading up to the NBA draft have been replaced with a single game called the Rookie Showcase, after which your My Player rookie will be interviewed by three interested NBA teams. You'll answer a series of questions; your answers to these questions, and the strengths and weaknesses of your prospective team, will ultimately determine who signs you.
There's some downside to the My Player mode changes: It seems a lot harder to play well as a rookie. My player's skill ratings started low, as expected, and though they didn't get worse, they improved very, very slowly. I lost games, and I was king of the air-ball, the clunker and the wild carom. I tried ditching that My Player rookie, starting over with a whole new Rookie Showcase and draft interviews. I played better in the Showcase, changed up my answers to the interview questions, and I was drafted by a different team. In the new environment with new teammates, I played just as poorly, and my progress was just as slow. My Player mode has never been for the sports game dabbler; in this year's NBA 2K12, it's not for the faint of heart, either. If you're easily frustrated by hours of player-building with not much to show for it, you may want to put off My Player mode until you've exhausted NBA 2K12's other modes — really, that could take forever. Franchise veterans, be prepared for a rougher time in the new My Player mode.
For quite a while, the online multiplayer portions of 2K Sports titles were weak spots, no matter how much the games shined in other features. Over the past few years, NBA 2K12 has been refining the 2K online experience, in matchmaking, technical stability of online games, and in community. This year, NBA 2K12 wants everyone to sign up for a My2K account and presents the sign-up screen at first launch. The account and all the basic features are free. Social media integration, having become entrenched on the greater Internet, is now taking over the console gaming world over, too: My2K will link with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Signing up in-game, you can choose to allow links with all these social media outlets or none of them. The first time you log into NBA2K12.com, you're required to authorize My2K for each of these accounts. Of course, you can later rescind authorizations. Social features of sports games typically work well when integrated into existing social media developed for broader audiences.
On the whole, NBA 2K12 not only improves on last year's game with tighter controls and other incremental improvements, but 2K Sports has also delivered enhancements and revisions that matter. I love the Greatest mode, and the feature's presentation is sublime: I've not been more impressed with a sport simulation's efforts to represent the history of a sport. Due to the ongoing NBA lockout, 2011-12 rookies aren't represented in the game, but this is beyond 2K's control, and, as of this writing, those rookies aren't playing NBA ball, anyway. As always, long-term franchise fans will quibble over some of this year's design decisions, but there are no deal-breakers in NBA 2K12. Gamers new or returning to the series will have a great time, perhaps forgetting for a while that the arenas are empty and NBA game cancellations march farther forward every day.
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