NBA 2K12 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Release: October 4, 2011
At the moment, there is no NBA. And yet, there is an NBA 2K12.
Think about that for a moment, and let the irony seep into your brain. Real NBA players and owners are locked in a monetary dispute that seems to have no end in sight. And pixelated hoops wants to recreate this greediest of pro sports leagues? It makes about as much sense as a Lil Wayne-Tony Bennett collaboration.
Maybe that’s why Visual Concepts took its basketball video game in such a decidedly different direction this year. NBA 2K12 isn’t about the greedy guys who rack up frequent flyer miles on every foray into the paint. This is about remembering the players of yesteryear and imagining the guys who never made it (read: You). And aside from a handful of minor missteps, it’s a fun hoops experience – even if David Stern and Co. are barely along for the ride.
A CLASSIC ROSTER UPDATE BEATS NO UPDATE
You will not find the uninspiring 2011 rookie class in NBA 2K12. You won’t find any free agent movement or dramatic ratings adjustments, either. Roster updates are a staple of sports games, but the lockout left this game hamstrung. Visual Concepts has promised an ultra-beefy patch as soon as – or maybe that’s “IF” – the lockout is resolved. But for now, you’ve got some pretty boring Association mode GM-ing.
But NBA 2K12 smartly – and successfully – diverts your attention with a new mode and an old one that’s been given a new coat of paint. The first is “NBA’s Greatest,” and it’s the mode that the game’s entire ad campaign is built around.
At its core, this is a supersized version of last year’s Michael Jordan-themed nostalgia-driven mode, except instead of stepping into one superstar’s shoes, you can now flash back to a handful of different stars – iconic names like Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen and Isiah Thomas (the unstoppable player, not the bumbling coach). Each faces off against another team from his era in one classic game.
Visual Concepts tweaked the mode to make it more appealing, too. Last year, I had to transform Jordan into a ballhog to achieve the outsized goals. Heck, to achieve one inane rebounding goal, I needed to check a message board, move MJ to center, and spend a first quarter chucking up bricks.
No such problems this year: All you need to do is win the game to unlock each star. That means you don’t need to force the ball inside to Hakeem Olajuwon (although it is fun to give it to him) to beat the 1994 Denver Nuggets. You only do it because he’s the best player on the team.
There are hours of fun in this mode, and each game is actually a great show piece, presented in the broadcast presentation of its era, with even the tiniest details recreated to pixelated perfection. That means Bill Russell’s Celtics play in black-and-white, and when Sam Cassell dunks on Dikembe Mutombo, there’s no sign of that annoying Sprite Slam Cam – just an understated team logo leading into a highlight.
The lone flaw in the mode is a lack of actual coaches. There’s no Red Auerbach on the bench for those classic Celtics, just a generic coach. Blame licensing issues as usual. Visual Concepts worked insanely hard to get just about every player included – with a few notable exceptions, including Charles Barkley’s absence on Dr. J’s 76ers – but the company never got around to nabbing all those classic coaches.
MY PLAYER GOES RPG
The other non-Association draw? The new-and-improved My Player mode. This take-your-avatar-to-the-Hall mode once meant spending hours upon hours fighting through NBDL boredom, and no, it wasn’t much fun.
The new My Player is actually an enjoyable experience, even if it hardly recreates life in the NBA. You start by playing a one-game college all-star game of sorts, with NBA scouts in attendance. Play well enough, and you impress them, drawing interviews with player personnel people. Having covered the NBA for a few years, I can tell you that this is not how NBA guys evaluate talent, but it’s still an upgrade over life in the D-League.
From there, it’s off to your NBA team, and a rollercoaster of realistic points and shaky ones. Visual Concepts adds an RPG element to things after each game, forcing you to field questions from the media, with your answer determining how teammates and fans perceive you. This definitely keeps you engaged in the game, adding a layer to the boring play-then-upgrade feel of previous iterations.
Upgrades happen faster, too, mirroring the rise of a rookie and, eventually, the takeoff of a star. I began my first season as a role player, but after two weeks of pouring in nine points a night and playing smart hoops, I was elevated to sixth man. By midseason, my play – and an injury to the Utah Jazz’s C.J. Miles – had me starting, and I felt one heckuva sense of accomplishment.
Just one question: Why does the media give a crap what some mid-first-round sixth man thinks about his team’s performance? And here’s a better one: What kind of team builds an ad campaign – and a giant, mode-starting billboard – around that rookie when, oh, Steve Nash is also on the squad? These jarring elements short-circuit My Player. The mode is definitely improved, but it could still use a serious bit of realism.
A HOP IN A NEW DIRECTION
Thirteen years of development have helped Visual Concepts hone a tremendously realistic brand of hoops. But instead of resting on their laurels (you know, like today’s average NBA player), 2K12’s devs did their best Michael Jordan impression: They refined their near perfection, crafting an on-court experience like nothing you’ve played before.
For experienced players, it’s an almost jarring experience, but you must give it a chance. For years, you’ve been pressing triangle button (or Y on the Xbox 360) to execute hop step and stepback maneuvers, but in 2K12, that’s gone. The hop step joins all other shooting moves on the Right Stick, freeing up the Y button to initiate the post up.
This completely alters the way you play. For years, the hop step was a staple, an easy way to get into the lane, and developers felt it was abused. The new setup eliminates that abuse – and adds the finest back-to-the-basket play in the history of gaming. A portion of 2K12 that once felt herky-jerky, with overly complicated button blends yielding step throughs and spins, is now simple.
Tap triangle to enter the post, press a directional button and triangle again, and you’re spinning off a defender and along the baseline. Shimmy shakes, shoulder fakes and stepthroughs also occur with ease, so much so I pulled them off accidentally and unpredictably early on. But make no mistake, once you’re comfortable, the post game will be a new staple of your game. The simple ease of backing down an opponent lets you use it more liberally, sliding into the post, spinning quickly, then reinitiating a post-up.
THE LITTLE THINGS
Those are the big changes to 2K12, but it’s the little things that truly make this game shine, and they span the game modes. Animations are smoother than they’ve ever been, and layups no longer seem canned. Shot stick maneuvers feel more natural, too; it’s far more elegant and fluid to alter a layup and avoid an oncoming big man this year.
The smallest details have gotten fresh coats of paint, too. Yes, facial mapping is vastly improved, so much so that Olajuwon’s face almost shows true emotion at times, and signature shots abound, even for scrubs like the Knicks’ Toney Douglas. But other bits of minutiae complete the package. Players lean and juke less like exaggerated streetballers and more like natural athletes. They fly into the stands, diving after loose balls, even jumping over scorer’s tables.
NBA’s Greatest and My Player both benefit from these adjustments, too. Short shorts might look wrong on Kobe Bryant, but could you picture Wilt Chamberlain donning anything else?
And could you picture yourself playing any other NBA video game? It’s hard to, because NBA 2K12 provides so much content and value, enough to satiate casual fans and hardcore hoops heads to like.
It’s a game that does the impossible: NBA 2K12 as the NBA flounders.