If you needed further proof that some developers are perhaps beginning to run dry of ideas in regards to what to do with current generation console hardware so late into this generation's lifespan, just look at the sports genre. When you take a long, hard look at 2012's sports titles, pretty much all you see are a lot of stopgap solutions and wild stabs in the dark at something, anything different to do with the hardware we've been saddled with lo these last several years.
The NBA 2K series has perhaps fared better than other franchises, but even the developers at 2K Sports seem to be running short of ideas at this point. After a brilliant set of gameplay upgrades in NBA 2K11, and a host of mode and feature changes in NBA 2K12, NBA 2K13 feels...well, a bit samey. Which isn't to say that the quality of 2K13 has taken a nosedive. On the court, 2K13 is as strong an entry as there's been in this series. But the changes it does make largely feel like changes for the sake of change, rather than anything particularly beneficial to the cause. This is certainly a very good basketball game, but it doesn't make the definitive argument for itself the way 2K11 and 2K12 did.
At the very least, NBA 2K13 does fix some things that were wrong with 2K12. Most notably, passing is a lot better this time around. Last year there was perhaps an over abundance of intercepted or borked passes, even in seemingly safe circumstances. This year, you're only going to get intercepted when you're careless with the ball, or up against a particularly sneaky defender. Online play has also finally seen an overhaul for the better. Lag has killed this series time and time again, and I'm happy to report that 2K13 really does seem to excise those demons. Save for one or two matches that suffered from a bit of stuttering now and again, I was pretty much able to play without any real issue online.
Other changes were perhaps less necessary. The right stick, for instance, has been switched from a pure shooting method to a home for dribbling moves. Moving the stick in different directions and combos lets you dribble the ball from side to side, through the legs, and whatever other fancy moves you might be looking to do. Players more enamored with the stick as a shooting method can return it to that form by holding down the left trigger button. It's an interesting change that admittedly does give you a bit more control over your dribbling, but it's also largely an unnecessary one. It's the sort of thing that sounds great on the back of a box, but doesn't really add much to the equation.
To be fair, NBA 2K13's controls are already a dense equation to begin with. 2K Sports has had to map so many different things to so many different control schemes over the last several years, and in that time it hasn't removed very much. That leaves NBA 2K13 feeling a bit overwhelming to all but the most dedicated players. If you're just the sort that wants to play along with the season in some pick-up games and maybe dabble around with The Association mode, 2K13 presents a depth of complexity that is, at times, harrowing. For those willing to learn the ropes, there's a great deal of reward here. But getting to that reward is a daunting process that requires more tutorials than is perhaps reasonable for a mass market game.
That said, NBA 2K13 is still a blast on the court. The controls are tight, the AI is smart, and the presentation is second to none. It's not just the graphics engine, which is still great, but the little details in the players. Their mannerisms, their personalities actually shine through. LeBron looks, moves, and feels like LeBron. And he's just one of dozens of players that look and feel wholly authentic. Between the visual presentation, and the still stellar commentary from Kevin Harlan, Steve Kerr, and Clark Kellogg, NBA 2K13 does a better job of emulating an NBA TV broadcast than even last year's game.
One of the best things about the 2K series in recent years is how it's handled the league's legacy. In 2K11, there was the fantastic Michael Jordan challenge, and last year's game went even further by including a huge crop of classic teams, paired up with their most noteworthy rivals of the era. By comparison, this year's inclusion of the dueling Olympic Dream Teams (the 1992 squad, as well as this year's squad), is a bit of a let-down. Not because there's anything wrong with including those teams, but just because it's not nearly the educational, nor entertainment experience that last year's rivalries mode was. There are still classic teams here, but they're only available in quick matches, and none of the nifty presentation nor detailed histories of those teams are present.
Outside of the USA Basketball inclusion, the only major new feature is the MyTeam mode. Ostensibly a riff on EA's Ultimate Team cash-grabs, MyTeam lets you buy card packs of players you can use to build out your own team. You buy those packs with VC, a new in-game currency that, in a smart divergence from the Ultimate Team formula, you can earn via multiple game modes. The MyPlayer mode, for instance, implements VC by including player upgrades you can buy. But those same VC points can be carried over into MyTeam. You can, of course, also buy chunks of VC for actual money, if you're the impatient type. Thankfully, you'll earn decent enough amounts of VC just by playing, so you won't have to crack open your non-virtual wallet.
MyTeam is a fun enough distraction, but like Ultimate Team, it doesn't have much staying power. Instead, you'll likely find yourself more engrossed in the MyPlayer and Association modes. Last year's MyPlayer mode was something of a revelation, and this year it's no worse off, though no better either. Some new things, like superstar players being able to design their own custom shoes, are nifty additions, but that's about all. Mostly, these are the modes you remember from last year, which in my estimation is still a good thing.
If you're wondering about the "Executive Produced by Jay-Z" emblazoned on the box, Young Hov's involvement effectively boils down to a fancy wrapper. He apparently presided over the game's look and feel by selecting the soundtrack, giving some insight on visual design, and awkwardly including concert footage of him in the game's opening movie. It's a meaningless distinction that has no real bearing on the game you're playing, outside of the in-game inclusion of longtime holdout Charles Barkley, and a celebrity team that includes two Jersey Shore cast members and Justin Bieber.
I remember when ESPN NFL 2K5 did basically the same thing. It was the end of the last console generation, and the developers, despite having a terrific game in front of them, must have been running out of improvements to make. So, they resorted to getting people like David Arquette and Carmen Electra to do some annoying voice-over for games you played against their custom-built teams. It was a lame idea then, and it's still a lame idea now.
And like then, the game itself is no worse off for it. Where it matters, NBA 2K13 is phenomenal, if familiar. Go in with the right expectations, and you'll be enjoying it all season long.