Ever since it went from Dreamcast exclusive to a multiplatform game, the NBA 2K series has become the top NBA game for critics and sports fans. Even though it has no exclusivity contract with the league, the competing products from Sony and EA have failed to materialize for the past three years. One would think that the virtual exclusivity would lead to an increasingly stagnant product, but that has not been the case. The additions have made it a product that far exceeds the previous iterations by leaps and bounds. After reintroducing Michael Jordan and the big stars and teams of yesteryear to the current generation of consoles, the team at Visual Concepts had a tough job to top themselves for NBA 2K13. While it isn't as robust or monumental as last year's offering, NBA 2K13 isstill packed to the brim.
In terms of game modes, the usual suspects are available: Playoff, Quick Play and Season. The Association, the franchise mode, remains largely unchanged, though it retains online play. Create a Legend is also here, with the ability to take an existing player and mold him into a superstar. The mode isn't restricted to current teams and players, so those who want to play as Allen Iverson or Isiah Thomas can do just that.
MyPlayer returns this year but has been renamed MyCareer and is prominently featured instead of being hidden away. Gameplay is still largely the same, with you taking your created player from the NBA Draft all the way to the Hall of Fame. Most of it plays out the same way, with your minutes of playtime based on your position and status in the team. Better playing gets you more time on the court while lousy performances get you more time on the bench. Off the court, you can talk to the owners, give interviews and get endorsements. Through all of this, you can get into training camps with NBA legends to improve your stats or gain boosts, making you the most effective player by the time your career winds down.
NBA Blacktop is another mode that returns after a short absence. Here, you can set up any player on half-court games with between one to three players on each side. Matches go to 21 points, with two- and three-pointers being reduced to one- and two-pointers, respectively, and the only thing that gets called are fouls. Despite the mode feeling a bit arcadey like NBA Street or NBA Ballers, it still adheres to physics, so those expecting some over-the-top moves won't find it here.
MyTeam is a new mode introduced this year, and it's a bit of a toss-up. Similar to the Ultimate Team mode in EA's games, the mode asks you to build a team using packs of virtual trading cards. The cards let you obtain arenas, boosts, coaches, playbooks, players and uniforms, though the arenas and uniforms are the only cosmetic items. You can take that team into on- and offline matches to earn more packs and improve the team. You can also save up to purchase one good player on the market, with the player's real-life performance affecting his value, almost like a stock market or fantasy sports league. It is a compelling mode in that you can try your luck at beating someone with your scrappy team of low-rated players, but there isn't much incentive for players to try this.
The creation systems also remain similar. The player creation system is about as deep as the previous year's version, so there's simultaneously some depth and room to improve. Get past the physical creation of your player, and you can dress him up for various occasions. You can't do much for game time clothing, but the options expand once you go for press conference and blacktop attire. Shoe creation also returns with an expanded selection of shoes from every manufacturer. There's even the option to customize the colors of a few NikeiD shoes and have the company send you actual shoes in the custom color combination. While it sounds like an absolutely ludicrous option, it is also cool to wear a shoe you created while your virtual self does the same.
Interestingly, the game regresses a bit in available modes when compared to last year. Most notably, the historical games featured in 2K12 are missing, though you still have the historical teams available to play offline. The replacement is the inclusion of the Dream Team, both the 1992 and 2012 versions. Every player has been accounted for, including Charles Barkley, who hasn't been in a video game in almost a decade. While this means that we can finally settle the debate about which Dream Team is better, there's no emphasis on the inclusion and significance of the teams. There's no special mode to check out the match, none of the other Dream Teams are included for comparison, and the whole thing is treated like another quick match between squads.
Tying all of this together is the Virtual Currency system. The game's monetary system can be earned in a multitude of ways from every mode and is mostly used to help your created player in MyCareer. Outside of that mode, you can use the coins to buy new card packs in MyTeam and new players in NBA Blacktop mode. You can also use the cash to buy new clothes for your character, though you can only wear them to press conferences and in Blacktop mode.
Having lots of game modes at your disposal is always nice, but hardcore basketball fans care more about the gameplay. Like every year, there have been some improvements on this front, but the improvements are subtle this year. Passing and fast breaks have been tightened up a bit. Beyond that, this is the same game that pays attention to defense but rewards good offense just a tad more. The mannerisms of some of the signature players are on display, as is their playing style, which is lifelike enough to be frightening. Some player traits are passive, such as sharpshooters who aren't fazed when defenders get in their face. Essentially, you're playing NBA 2K12, which is a good base upon which to build a basketball game but not very much of a leap.
The controls largely remain unchanged except for the fact that the right thumbstick pulls double-duty for the player. By itself, the stick provides a more accurate and precise way of dribbling the ball. Get good with the stick, and you can pull off crossovers and switch dribbling hands. Pull back on the left trigger, and the stick switches up to shooting controls, giving you more accurate shots and lay-ups. The tradition shot button is still there, and that hasn't changed at all. Still, the expanded use of the right thumbstick makes for a better, more immersive control scheme. For Kinect owners, you can call for substitutions or change plays on the fly, and it works rather nicely. It is only used for solo offline games, though.
Alas, NBA 2K13 is focused so much on longtime fans that casual players are never taught any of the title's nuances. The new control options and meanings of the symbols for each player remain a mystery until he either drills down into the menus or tries to learn everything in a trial by fire. The game features a practice mode, but the lack of lessons using the right thumbstick for shooting makes it feel incomplete.
The online performance has always been hit-and-miss, and this time is no different. While performance during the match is fine, the number of connection interruptions and dropped games is significant enough that you're taking a gamble when playing online, especially since there's no indication to how good your connection is to that opponent. The other aspects that utilize an Internet connection fare much better, though. The constant NBA news ticker on the main menu works fine, as do the in-game updates of scores from games from that day. The flash of stats regarding a player's performance in a previous game also adds a touch of realism to the proceedings, and the NBA Today feature, which gives you a list of playable games that mirror real-life matchups, are excellent integrations of the Internet connection. The only drawback is minor, and it occurs when you're downloading something while playing a game. The game constantly downloads small things to keep itself current, interrupting the download enough that the Download Stopped message appears more often than you'd like.
The series has been impressive graphically since its debut, and this entry is no different. The player character models look more lifelike than ever, with only a few players looking a bit off. Some of the more recognizable coaches from prominent NBA teams are rendered well but not as well as the players, so there's room for improvement there. The arenas look as good as ever, and while there isn't much to differentiate one arena from another, players will appreciate the little details, like the shine of the court and not too many clones in the audience.
The animations have also seen some minor improvements. Players argue, and coaches are a little more animated on the sidelines, but you won't see anything amazing. The big change really comes in the presentation. The presence of the Jay-Z name on the box hints at an over-the-top look, and you'll feel that the minute you boot up the game. Menus carry a flash of opulence mixed in with musical beats, scoreboards sport gold trim, and transitions are marked with graphical equalizer bars. Pre-game cut scenes mix music video snippets with clips of star player highlight reels. For veteran players, this pomp and circumstance may be slightly overboard, but it easily impresses new players who haven't seen this type of thing in a sports game.
Like the graphics, the sound has steadily improved in quality. Hip-hop is still the dominant theme here, with an emphasis on Jay-Z and his associates There are some tunes from other genres, though, so the soundtrack isn't focused on one style. The commentary is the driving force behind the game's audio. The three-man team of Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr not only has great chemistry, but it also seems to have a large bank of sound bites. The lines flow together naturally, and the reactions feel natural instead of scripted. The commentary extends to on-court action and off-court stuff. Play in Brooklyn, and you'll hear about the new Barclay Center and how the team didn't leave New Jersey on a good note. Play with the Clippers, and you'll hear about NBA owners being wary about sending their players to the Olympics. With lines only beginning to repeat after several games, this is the new gold standard for sports video game commentary. In the NBA Blacktop mode, the sporadic commentary rarely matches up with the action.
Even if other competing titles existed this year, NBA 2K13 would still come out on top as the best basketball game of this season. The gameplay remains top-notch despite some issues, and the presentation is very appealing, especially for casual fans. For longtime series fans, this iteration feels like a bit of a step back for the franchise. Losing the historical games in favor of getting the Dream Team matchup would have been fine if there was some hoopla about it. Spotty online performance still plagues the game after several yearly iterations. This is still a great game, and sports fans will love this, but for those still clinging to NBA 2K11 or 2K12, you'll want to take the plunge if you really need that roster update or desperately want to play as the Dream Team.
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