Who needs real basketball? The NBA season is already delayed, games have been canceled, and in all likelihood, we won't even get a season this year. To that, I say to hell with it all. Real basketball, dramatic as it can be, is filled to the brim with egotistical players, coaches, and owners who bicker endlessly about the direction of a league that can best be compared to the Titanic. Top heavy with talent and encumbered with too many teams, the NBA as it currently exists feels more or less doomed, fated to crash into a David Stern-shaped iceberg the likes of which it cannot possibly recover. Even if it does come back this year, some big changes will have to happen to keep this boat afloat. Frankly, I think the league would be better off sinking, and dredged for salvage parts next year.
I say this with such reckless fervor because of NBA 2K12. Without context, that might sound insane, but understand what I mean. With NBA 2K12, a game I can say without even the slightest hint of doubt or discomfort is the best basketball simulation I've ever played, I am constantly reminded of the qualities of the sport of basketball that I fell in love with so many years ago. The athleticism, the flair, the sheer thrill of the game is on display in such tightly constructed, beautifully playable form, that in a weird way, I honestly don't care if there even is an NBA season. The sheer volume of content 2K Sports has included, alongside some of the best pure gameplay you're ever going to find in a sports title, make me forget about all the bitching and bickering of the real life NBA, and bring me back to the essence of what makes the sport so great at its core.
Granted, if you played last year's NBA 2K11, the gameplay side of things won't feel wildly different. 2K made huge strides in the last couple of iterations, and this year the tweaks are more subtle, albeit still fantastic. The biggest difference you'll notice is in the post game. Posting up in the paint was always a bit of an awkward situation in NBA 2K games, but here it's been improved drastically. Just tapping the Y/Triangle button puts your player into his post stance, and from there, you can choose from a variety of different, dynamic shots, as opposed to having the computer pick one for you. Defense in the post game is more dynamic now too, but you'll notice the changes more on offense. Whereas before you once felt governed by canned animations, now you can move with greater fluidity and control.
The opponent AI also feels different this time around. 2K11 had moments where you were quite certain the computer had simply decided it was going to win this game and began tossing up crazy alley oops and bizarre passes that seemed completely preordained. While 2K12 occasionally dabbles in this sort of thing, it's far less frequent. When opposing teams go on scoring runs, there isn't often the sense that the computer is suddenly unstoppable. If you lock down your D and play tight, you will be able to get the W.
Otherwise, this is very much the same amazing game of basketball you've played before. The big difference is that now there are many more ways in which to do it.
Chief among them is the newly upgraded My Player mode. Sports games have been flirting with this idea of creating a total, all-encompassing experience of following a player's career from draft day to retirement, with all the endorsements, controversies, and championships such a thing would (hopefully) entail. Among them, the NHL series has perhaps gotten closest to actually achieving this idea--at least until now. Without question, NBA 2K12's My Player mode creates the most engrossing version of a unique player identity anyone has attempted thus far. While character customization options are maybe a tad limited, the sheer breadth of events and actions around that character are anything but.
You begin with a quick pre-draft exhibition game with other top rookies, aiming to showcase your talents to prospective teams. That's followed up by some post-game interviews with interested teams, who gauge your interest in playing for them with insanely detailed questions. 2K knows the NBA, and knows the makeup of the league. When the Wizards interview your prospective point guard, they're frank about the fact that they already have their point guard of the future in John Wall, and are mainly looking at you as a depth player. How you answer these questions affects both your draft status, and your own persona.
That's the really interesting thing about My Player: you actually have a persona. The mode is far more than a series of sometimes incoherent menus that feed you statistical data and let you sim to the parts where your player actually gets on the court. The mode includes tons of great ways to keep you playing, from a teammate rating that goes up and down depending on how you perform on the court, to a series of drills designed to help you upgrade your stats (that must be performed in between paychecks), and even post-game press conferences, where your answers to reporters' questions will affect your chemistry with your teammates, as well as your standing throughout the league, and with your local fans.
You can also play a version of this mode using any player in the league, be he superstar or scrub. However, it's way more interesting to craft your own superstar and put him through the paces of the league. If you want to be a diva, demanding trades and generally invoking the wrath of the fans for financial gain, you can do so. If you're a total team player that doesn't mind giving up minutes for a solid sixth-man status, you can do that too. It's detailed in all the right ways, and feels far less sterile than nearly all other attempts to do anything like this.
Sterility is simply not something you could accuse NBA 2K12 of in any facet of its game. Unsurprisingly, it looks great, animates brilliantly, and with the broadcast camera turned on, looks as close to a real game of basketball as you could possibly hope for with polygonal players. Even better is the commentary, a feature so often treated as a cheap bullet point by other developers, is given an almost absurd amount of tender loving care here. The addition of Steve Kerr as a third commentator is a welcome one, as he adds a nice boost to the flow of the dialogue and actually offers up some informative tidbits as games go along. More impressive, however, is just how tight it all feels. When a player throws down a massive dunk, or hits an insane three-pointer, the commentary stops dead in its tracks to react, making a big point to highlight what has just transpired. Then, in most cases, the commentators will actively pick back up where they left off, transitioning naturally to their previous exchange. I don't know how 2K's editors managed to edit all this together without it sounding like a herky-jerky nightmare, but they did it.
The commentators are especially informative in the new NBA's Greatest mode. Building off the good feelings earned from the inclusion of Michael Jordan in last year's game, 2K went kinda nuts this year, including 30 classic teams (as well as a couple of pre-order bonus teams) from 15 noteworthy rivalries and feuds from the many years of NBA history. Bill Russell's Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls, Magic Johnson's Lakers, and Dr. J's 76ers are among the many options here. Even better, the full rosters for both teams are included, so when you take Larry Bird's Celtics into battle against the Atlanta Hawks, Dominique Wilkins and crew are all there to fight back as they should be.
During these match-ups, the commentary team delivers ample history as well as play-by-play, outlining the historical significance of the rivalries and the players involved. It's a great, dynamic history lesson for anyone whose basketball knowledge doesn't extend beyond the day Lebron James got drafted. These sequences are also presented with correct rulesets, and visual filters meant to represent classic broadcasts. '60s games are in straight up black and white, while each successive decade moves from washed-out color to increasingly crisp picture.
Regrettably, the legendary teams aren't available online, presumably because the '85-'86 Celtics would just destroy everyone. However, you can take the Association mode--NBA 2K's version of the franchise mode--online this year for the first time, with up to 29 other friends. It works functionally how you would expect it to, though that's not always a positive thing.
Let's be blunt: online in NBA 2K games has often sucked. Be it lag, connection drops, or whatever other manner of weird glitch, something in this game's netcode has been infected by angry, malicious goblins who hate basketball and/or you. NBA 2K12 is, at best, a slight improvement on this. Save for a couple of connection drops, I mostly found myself unblocked when attempting to get into games. However, in a game this focused on well-timed shots and ball-handling, any amount of lag is a real problem. And there is most definitely still any amount of lag. I played in one game that felt close to the offline experience, and that player ended up dropping halfway through. I don't know if it was on purpose, but I'm presuming not, since I was down 15 at the half.
Were it not for the online issues, NBA 2K12 would be the closest thing to a "perfect" video game basketball experience we have yet come to. In fact, it still probably is. This is one of those rare sports games where the offline content nearly made me forget about the online component. There is just so much to do, see, and mess around with, that I almost forgot playing online was even an option. NBA 2K12 is an easy game to lose one's self in, a perfect remedy for the NBA-lockout blues. Let the players and the owners haggle over profit splits and broken contract systems. With NBA 2K12 around, you'll hardly even miss the real thing.