It’s not easy having a monopoly on a particular genre or sub-genre. The creators of NBA 2k series would argue that it can possibly be the hardest thing. With EA’s NBA Live (or is it Elite now?) series nowhere to be seen and continuously cancelled 2k could just release the same game over and over. Fortunately for basketball fans, they don’t. Instead, the developers found a new way to innovate and improve gameplay every year, making sure that each title improves on what came before. Is this new trip to the hardwood worth a mention in the pantheon of great sports games or should you hold on to last year’s version?
First thing that will jump out at you when popping in 2k is the presentation. Everything received an extra layer of gloss and polish. This comes from the fact that none other than Jay Z, yes the rapper kind, is the executive producer on this year’s title. There is a huge emphasis on gold this time around, with everything somehow playing into the color. The menus will vibrate to the music and the soundtrack is almost exclusively hip-hop (and more often than not Hova affiliates). The intro cinematics go for that distinct broadcast feel + urban flavor look. In between the plays, there is also a significant visual face lift. That being said, the menu system is still as uncomfortable as it was in NBA 2k9, and is in dire need of a Jay Z revamp.
From an audio perspective the game sounds great. If hip-hop is not your thing, you can always opt out of listening to the soundtrack, and it sounds repetitive anyways. The commentating duo of Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr takes the rains here and it sounds as great as ever. Keeping up with the tradition of bringing in dialogue from commentary, there are plenty of stories, asides and recollections coming from the crew. This goes a long way to recreating a traditional broadcast feel. As far as sports games go, this is the best one when it comes to commentary. The crowds sounds energetic and excited, the action on the floor reflects that as well.
Visually, this is the best looking title in the series. Sure, there are still rough edges, especially around the shoulder area, but 2k continues to refine what makes this game so great. There’s plenty to get excited about. Most players now look extremely lifelike and very similar to their real-life counter parts. Some of the questionable faces from last year have been addressed and you will be hard pressed to find someone who’s digital likeness is ways off. There are new animations all over the place, especially after dead ball situations or made baskets. This enhances the broadcast feel, making you often question whether you’re playing a video game or watching a broadcast.
The biggest change this year is the introduction of a skill stick. The developers took a cue from EA and switched the right analog stick to control the dribble motions. After all, it worked extremely well for the NHL series. Every precise motion now corresponds to a particular dribble move. Yes, it does feel awkward at first, but once you get used to the initial change, pulling off flashy dribbles will become second nature. It really improves the offensive side of the game and gives you more opportunities to create chances on the ball. The shot stick is still there, but it will require you to pull down LT/L2 to use. While at first it seems like a big adjustment, this is a very welcome and very well implemented change.
Passing receives a facelift as well. Now you have even more control on manual passes and can place bounce paces at a pull of a trigger. This opens up creativity for point guards. Now, you don’t have to worry about an awkward pass on a fast break and can instead bounce on in between defenders. Sure, there are still still a few awkward deflections now and again, but for the most part those are due to user error.
Defensively, it is a lot more difficult to stay in front of your opponents now, mostly due to the control stick. As the offensive players have more creativity and control, defense will have to work twice as hard to effectively shut down the opponent’s scorers. It is a system that rewards skill in single player, but could be a big drawback in multiplayer. There just hasn’t been enough improvement in this department to keep up with amazing innovation on the offensive side of the ball. Still defenders now have real weight to them, with more collisions happening off the dribble, point guards struggling to shrug off bigger players.
The AI is great, and for the most part teams play like their real life counterparts. It will hold up play, set up star scorers and even run signature plays for one team or other. This makes every game different and exciting, as you need a new gameplan each night. Same problems return however. The computer is just as quick as ever, filling lanes and making way too many steals per game than they should. AI also has a knack for offensive rebounds, often coming up with the ball from incredible situations. While these seem minor, they should be address, and should have been addressed since 2k11.
Game modes are mostly the same with a few extra features. There is a revamped trading intelligence in career, preventing you from pulling of incredible moves and taking other factors into account. My player receives the biggest make over. The whole myPlayer system is now implemented from the main menu where you can buy gear, skills and even specialty traits that give you bonus stats in a particular attribute. All of this costs virtual coins which you’ll earn for doing almost anything in 2k. Another addition to myPlayer mode is the ability to talk with the GM and even potentially get some people traded. These are all small additions that make the game more involved.
One last thing that NBA 2k13 added this year would be the myTeam mode. Given the success of EA Ultimate Team experiment across all of its sports franchises, this seems natural. Now you will put together a team either with coins or regular money and progress them through a number of seasons towards playoff seeding and future divisions. This is just as fun as it is in other sports games and figuring out your best lineups (that may even change from game to game) really stresses your knowledge of the sport.
The USA 92 Dream Team is in the game now, as well as the current Dream Team from 2012. Fans can finally pit the two squads against each other to answer the question that’s been killing everyone forever. Classic teams return, with 2001 76ers in the mix now too, AI in all of his scoring glory. There are still a few teams missing (Miller Pacers anyone?) but I think that could be addressed in DLC (or better be next year).
Verdict: If you’re a basketball fan this year, it’s hard (impossible) to recommend any other game for you this year. 2k does not rest on it’s accomplishments and keeps adding to the franchise. Given the unusually long life cycle of the current generation of consoles, this is impressive. The Jay Z factor adds lots in ways of presentation. The skill stick changes the way we play the game, adding more precision and control on the offensive side. The AI is active and life-like. There are still a few bugging issues such as supernatural anticipation by the AI on the defensive end or offensive rebounds, awkward animations, and a lack of a few classic teams, but as far as basketball goes this is the complete package.