There is a quality in 2K Sports/Visual Concepts' NBA 2K franchise that often seems at odds with the modern crop of sports games we find ourselves afflicted with on a yearly basis. That quality? Passion. It's just something you don't often see in a yearly series, one so seemingly dedicated to existing purely out of a need to fill a licensing hole.
That lack of passion in yearly sports games is something that I remarked as being especially prevalent in my review of Madden NFL 12, though that doesn't mean it doesn't exist elsewhere. You've perhaps seen flashes of passion in EA's other franchises, like the NHL and FIFA games, and in Sony's MLB: The Show series. But year in and year out, NBA 2K always seems to stand out as the sports game most thoroughly built for the sports gamer. It's not just a didactically built series of menus and accurate rosters pushing a listless agenda forward for, again, the mere sake of existing on store shelves. It feels like a game made by people who legitimately love basketball, and love making basketball games.
NBA 2K11 was perhaps the pinnacle of that development passion; arguably one of the most realistically rendered and deeply satisfying basketball experiences ever put on a disc. Seemingly, 2K Sports and VC know this, because NBA 2K12 doesn't screw with a good thing. What you liked about last year's game--the controls, the feel, the atmosphere, and the presentation--is all here fully intact. What 2K has done is add a number of upgrades and new bells and whistles to the package, some of which I was able to take a look at late last week. And while NBA 2K12 doesn't seem quite as poised to revolutionize basketball gaming quite the way its predecessor did, what the developers plan to offer up certainly looks to be enough to justify another trip to the court.
One of the things that has always marveled me about the NBA 2K series, especially in recent installments, is how well it manages to go about not making me feel like a damnable idiot. I am a basketball fan, but not to the point where I understand the minute differences in strategies, plays, and methodologies employed by various coaches. I recognize that there is a strategy to it, I am just incapable of deciphering it, hence why my basketball career never extended beyond the 7th grade. In NBA 2K12, I was able to pick up a controller and play reasonably well against a PR representative whose sole job it was that day to play NBA 2K12 against online writers. I could pass, score, steal, and block as needed, though given the many months that had passed since my last play-through of NBA 2K11, I obviously fell victim to some of his more devious strategies. Still, that a basketball simulation as beloved for its realism as NBA 2K is anything other than an impenetrable, fear-inducing behemoth is a wonderful thing.
The game on the court feels remarkably tight. Controls are extremely responsive, and now play-calling--if you're into that sort of thing--has been made easier with a new control system designed to allow you to call plays much quicker on-the-fly. There are also subtle changes to the post-up game, which honestly I could barely decipher, but the thing I took away the most from NBA 2K12 is that it plays a hell of a lot like NBA 2K11, and I don't mean that as an insult.
The gameplay was pretty phenomenal last year so rather than borking up what was already a good thing, Visual Concepts switched the focus on the court to improving the presentation. That, in and of itself, already seems rather challenging, given the high quality of animation, camera work, and commentary already included in last year's title, but by Jove, they seem to have done it. Watching the movements of the players, the camera, just everything on the court, it's nothing short of remarkable. Visual Concepts even went to the trouble of adding a bit of dynamic interaction with the edges of the court, making it so players can hop over tables and cameramen into the first row. Sorry, still no dynamic player/crowd brawls, but maybe someday, right?
Even better is the commentary from the trio of Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr. After spending a solid week with Madden's repetitive, jarring commentary tracks, it made me appreciate all the more how well this trio's dialogue flows together. Never over the course of several games did I hear any generic lines repeat, nor did I hear any odd hiccups in the flow of the conversation that weren't intentional. Indeed, VC has actually programmed it now where the commentators will instantly react to a big play on the court, regardless as to whether a line of color commentary has already begun. After nailing a particularly nasty dunk, all three let out a particularly excitable "OOOHHHHH!" followed by a comment on that specific play, right in the middle of one of Kerr's diatribes about my team's performance last season. He then actually resumed that story once they'd finished praising the dunk. Commentary is so easily dismissed and derided in most games, I must say that it's really refreshing to actually want to pay attention to it while playing a game.
While 2K isn't yet talking about NBA 2K12's Association mode, nor any of its other offline play modes, one feature has been touted heavily: the NBA's Greatest mode. This mode features 30 classic teams from 15 of the league's most memorable rivalries. While the focus of these rivalries usually tends to be on a few key players, like the Larry Birds, Magic Johnsons, and Michael Jordans of the world, this mode also includes some of the lesser known players in those great rivalries. Every single team included has its complete lineup, right down to the least-noteworthy point guard on the 1970 Atlanta Hawks. Other games have done variations of classic team modes, but often focused on licensing the biggest names while just creating generic players with correct player numbers to supplement the rosters. Here, everyone from Dikembe Mutumbo and Dominique Wilkins down to Cazzie Russell and Paul Mokeski is included.
The presentation of the games in this mode changes significantly as well. If you're playing a match-up between '64-'65 Celtics and Lakers, the in-game camera switches to a black-and-white view, with commentary appropriately filtered through the slightly less intelligible technology of the time. Moving up in decades, the visuals will shift to color, albeit with more washed-out visuals. All the appropriate rulesets of a given era are included, so if you're playing back in the '60s, there is no three-point line, for instance. The commentators will also give a mix of real-time play-by-play with historical explanation of the situation between these two teams, shifting between past and present tense that is, initially, a bit off-putting, but ultimately works because, again, the commentary is so good.
With all of that in mind, I remind you once again that NBA 2K12 does actually exist in something of a vacuum. Much as Madden is the sole option for football gamers these days, NBA 2K is the only game in town for NBA fans. Granted, in this case, there is no exclusivity at work. EA has simply declined to release a new basketball game until it finishes rebooting its previously canceled reboot, NBA Elite. And yet, despite this utter lack of competition over the last two years, it doesn't feel like Visual Concepts has been sitting around, throwing darts at a wall in the hopes of finding something to do with its time. The changes here seem smart, well-reasoned, and exquisitely implemented.
It has been ages--ages I tell you--since I actually found myself looking forward to an NBA game that did not have the words Jam or Street affixed somewhere in the title. After NBA 2K11, and spending a little time with NBA 2K12, I can say that I'm sincerely looking forward to this one.