Game: NBA 2K13
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
After much wrangling and missed games, the NBA eventually sprung into life last year; with the shortened schedule producing one of the most exciting and interesting seasons in recent history. King James finally added an NBA Championship to his list of achievements, whilst his predecessor as the finest player of his era, Michael Jordan, suffered the embarrassment of his recently acquired Bobcats enduring the worst season in NBA history. Led by big-scoring Kevin Durant, Oklahoma went the closest that franchise has come to capturing a championship since 1996 when it was still based in Seattle. And my team, the perennially underwhelming New Jersey Nets, who reached two NBA Finals at the turn of the century, but have delivered precisely bugger all for five years, were re-named for the third time in their history, and taken over by a Russian billionaire and a series of investors, one of whom happens to be Jay Z.
Jay Z has constantly evolved his persona and act to stay on top of the rap game, despite numerous beefs and challengers to his fictitious “King of New York” title. He sits proudly as the elder statesman of the rap world, the same way that the NBA 2K series has emerged as the king of the basketball simulation, rejecting advances from the likes of EA, who this year have decided not to even release a b-ball title. Without a worthy challenger to the throne, and now with an affiliation with none other than the Jigga man himself, can 2K Games improve on the superb 2K12 instalment that I fell in love with last year? Or does the lack of competition see them resting on their laurels?
GRAPHICS: It says a lot that for the introductory sequences, 2K Games have decided to use the in-game character models in a tasty highlights package, interspersed with a bit of concert footage from the ubiquitous Jay-Z, instead of just using television footage. That is how confident they are that their own creations look the business.
The way games are introduced, with snippets of the many music videos included in the game, along with the usual pre-game regalia you would expect, is spot-on. The in-game graphics themselves are utterly incredible. Walk into a room with someone in full flow and you could be forgiven for mistaking the on-screen action for an actual NBA TV broadcast. This is true right down to the advertising, slam a particularly mean dunk and the action will cut away, ludicrously, to an advertisement for Sprite, who apparently sponsor proceedings when a player jams the ball home with enough Sprite-tastic fervour. It may sound cynical, and it bloody is, lets face it – but in the context of things, it works, and adds to the realism of the package.
The player models are so detailed, that you can make out the real-life tattoos on the arms of the players, and believe me, I checked, Googling a picture of Deron Williams on my phone to compare it to the player I was controlling with the joypad. Like the exceptional work EA have undertaken in giving their interpretations of real-life stars believable personalities and defining characteristics, 2K have given the NBA players, from yesteryear greats right up to the present day, signature animations and traits. Kevin Durant will raise his index finger after swishing a three point shot through the hoop, for example. And as a long time basketball fan, I was blown away to see how the legendary stars of the 1992 Dream Team looked and behaved.
SOUND: Jay Z is credited all over the place as being “Executive Producer”, and I wonder exactly how much involvement he really had, but there is no denying that it most definitely involved selecting the soundtrack, which is a splendid mix of contemporary hip hop, pop and old-school thrills, with some unusual inclusions if you know your Hova history. OG b-boys will love hearing Eric B & Rakim’s classic “I Ain’t No Joke”, which still sounds as fresh as a daisy. The ominous sprawl of Roy Ayers’ “We Live In Brooklyn, Baby” is a fine tune, which I haven’t heard in years. Puff Daddy’s undeniably cinematic, Biggie-laced “Victory” has just the sort of epic feel the game deserves. And Jayhova shows that he is a big man by squashing all kinds of beef by selecting “Shook Ones Pt II” by former adversaries Mobb Deep, and two tracks featuring Nas. The standard drops a bit with the likes of Coldplay and U2, before we get the pleasant surprise of Phoenix’s well crafter Gallic pop and some left-field psychadelia from the Dirty Projectors. Nice.
Elsewhere, the game sounds uniformally excellent, with tremendous in-depth commentary which features play-by-play from Kevin Harlan, with the color side handled by Clark Kellogg and five-time NBA champ Steve Kerr, and sound effects that take you right down to courtside. There are even sideline reports, with roving reporters giving real-time updates, interview transcripts from players and handy statistics, all backed up with a little window that pops up onscreen to tell you who is delivering the report.
The only bum note I found in the sonic stakes was when playing as the Celebrity team. This team, selectable from the off, is strange enough as it is, featuring eerie likenesses of stars like teen pop sensation Justin Beiber, Curb Your Enthusiasm legend JB Smoove and jetski-crashing cod-reggae sensation Sean Kingston. The trouble is, there is no pre-prepared commentary to acknowledge their celebrity status, so the voice talent talk about them as though they are actual ballers, focusing on their statistical prowess as in-game players. It sounds a bit odd hearing Harlan describe Bieber as being “a player who really likes to go hard in the paint” or some such basketball-tastic phrase, when in reality the squeaky Canadian would probably be crapping his shreddies if he was in a one-on-one with a 6ft 12 NBA titan.
GAMEPLAY: The control system in 2K13 is completely different to prior games, and if you are used to playing the series, will take some getting used to. The Shot Stick from 2K12 has gone, and now you use a face button to initiate a shot. The right analogue stick is now used to perform a vast array of moves, such as special dribbling techniques, crossovers, spins and fakes. The left bumper and trigger are used as modifiers, and there are some shots that require use of the right stick, such as free throws which require you to pull the stick back and then forward with perfect timing. Every player will react differently to the use of the stick, depending on their featured skills and abilities, and the system works well when everything comes off, but the whole thing is let down by the lack of any true tutorials that show you exactly what your player is capable of, and how to perform that action.
Basketball is a complex sport, and NBA 2K has historically had a very deep, difficult to master control system. Just when you had gotten used to the last instalment, they go and change everything, and while there is no denying that most of it works – particularly the dribbling – it is so delicately nuanced and there is so much that you can do even with a subtle movement of the stick that some gamers may find themselves a little overwhelmed. Training does come later on in the game in the My Career mode, where you can enter the Legends Training Camp and receive instruction from the likes of Larry Bird and Air Jordan himself, which effectively doubles up as a way of teaching you the new control scheme. But ridiculously you need to unlock these segments with in-game currency and can only train a measly twice per in-game season. Had 2K decided to include the Legends Training Camp as a standalone mode, it would have been hands-down the best training mode in a sports game this year, and something that I would have loved to have bedded myself in with before taking on the game proper.
Passing, I am pleased to say, is as excellent as ever, with some excellent new bumper-controlled manoeuvres, in particular the way you can set up a devastating pick and roll by calling for the pick and then setting your partner on his way with the tap of a bumper. I also liked the way that use of the right stick to carry out trickery comes with an energy meter that appears below your player. Go to the well too often in the flash stakes and your player will get tired. This encourages team play, which is exactly as a 5-on-5 basketball simulation should be. There are also some Kinect voice commands available on this version, which allow you to make substitutions and call plays using your own desperate cries.
LONGEVITY: There are a shedload of Achievements, which will take even the finest 2K-er a while to unlock, particularly as some of them are linked to earning in-game currency, more of which later. There are online modes which allow you to play with or against friends and acquaintances, and the usual leaderboards and what have you.
Last year, 2K included the awesome NBA Greatest mode, which is sadly missing here. In its place are a huge selection of classic teams from various eras: The legendary Bulls of the 80s and early 90s, the Pistons Bad Boys, the great Celtics sides of the Sixties and many more. There is also the much-vaunted inclusion of the 1992 Dream Team, which featured perhaps the finest array of basketball players ever assembled, and Christian Laettner. Pundits the world over often ask how that legendary side, Jordan, Pippen, Bird, Johnson (etc) would get on if they were to go up against the current USA mens basketball team, and now you get the chance to find out. Unfortunately, that is all you can do as there is no other Olympic-based content, but it is still cracking fun to see Sir Charles in pixelated form for the first time since his rubbish Shut Up And Jam game from aeons ago.
The meat of the game comes from the My Career mode, which allows you to create a player, get drafted and work your way through a career in the NBA, right down to signing endorsement deals and shaking David Stern’s hand upon your entry to the Show. You can banter with agents and even your GM. You can even moan about your team mates, or select outfits to wear to off-court functions. It is all ridiculously cheesy, with some hammy voice acting, but highly entertaining in a sports soap opera kind of way. As you progress your career, you can earn Virtual Currency which allows you to unlock new statistical boosts, new gear and other unlockable things. VC is unlocked in quite a novel manner; challenges pop up during games and you may be asked to score a certain number of points, or win a game for your team against the odds in order to scoop more VC. The main problem is that the unlockables cost a hell of a lot of VC, which means that you will need to be getting your grind on to gain access to the array of Signature Skills (modifiers that give your player special abilities specific to areas of play), or even to purchase a new pair of kicks.
My Career is joined by My Team; a sort of poor-mans version of EA’s already-baffling Ultimate Team. I have never understood sports games of the modern era and their obsession with these silly “deck of cards” related modes. This really smarts when the ridiculously ace NBA Greatest mode has been omitted. Elsewhere there are more gimmicky additions, such as a Nike ID endorsed shoe design mode. I love trainers and own far too many pairs, yet even I was left cold by this. I came to play basketball, not try and construct my answer to the Air Yeezy.
VERDICT: It may have an all-new endorsement courtesy of Jay Z, mind-blowing graphics and a great new control scheme, but in terms of content and ways to play, NBA 2K13 has taken a little step backwards. It is badly let down by the lack of a comprehensive tutorial. It is all very well having a match introduced by another big hitting Jay-Z banger, or being able to go back to the essence with Stockton and Malone and party like it is 1992, or even invent a new pair of sneakers, but when this is seemingly to the detriment of providing strong instruction about the core fundamentals of the game, it grates. Information on how to control the game is buried in there somewhere, but my God there are some horrific menus, which can make reading up on all of these natty new plays and tricks like wading through treacle.
This does not make for a bad game, however. This is a marvellous basketball simulation, possibly the best on the market in terms of pure, on-court action, and one with a dynamic new set of controls that can only bode well for the future. As the (now) Brooklyn Nets will likely find out this coming season, giving an existing product a new lick of paint – in their case a rebranding and some edgy new uniforms – cannot hide the fact that there is much more that needs to be done to improve the team. 2K already had the best on-court product, and an outstanding game of hoops definitely got better in so many ways, yet as an overall product, the next instalment will have to deliver more.