Somewhere along the way, NBA 2K became the biggest sports franchise in the United States. It’s gotten to be so big, in fact, that this year’s edition drew the support of a musical icon: the incomparable Jay-Z. Has NBA 2K sold out?
“I’d rather die enormous than live dormant”
On the court is where the NBA 2K series has always shined, and this year is no different. A new dribbling mechanic is the highlight of the on-court experience, and with it comes a varied assortment of crossovers, in-and-outs, spins, and the like, all accessible with an easy tap or rotation of the right stick. The shooting mechanics are more fluid than ever, building on last year’s momentum-based shooting. The B/O button streamlines the process, giving players the ability to perform spinning jump shots, hop step fadeaways, and others with a tap of the button and a movement on the left stick. It’s all very fluid, and the different control systems work well together. Stringing moves together in order to get your defender off balance, then stepping back and draining a jumper in his face is satisfying and, more importantly, looks like something you’d see in the NBA.
The animation suite this year feels stuffed to the brim, with hundreds of new animations that trigger smartly and appropriately. New facial animations give personality to the players, as you can see the effort in their faces as they run back to defend a fast break or try to block a shot. The player models look about the same as they have in past years, but the body proportions are better. Players look more agile and lean, as opposed to the somewhat bulky appearance of past iterations of the game. The lighting and colors are accurate and well-realized, unlike in some past games in the series, where the color red was more of a deep pink.
“Live long enough to see yourself become a villain”
Not everything is wonderful while playing, though. The rebounding out of the box is a mess. The AI routinely outrebounds the user, even when using the best rebounding teams against the worst. CPU-controlled players come out of nowhere to snatch offensive rebounds and put back misses, which inflates the points in the paint and shooting percentages. Visual Concepts, the developers of NBA 2K, have closed some of the gameplay exploit loops, however. Pick and rolls are less easily manipulated for easy baskets (perhaps too much so), and lead passing is no longer the catch-all for offense that it used to be. Lead passes into the paint will be deflected and intercepted, helping to somewhat neutralize the attack on the rim. But, as they have closed off some exploits, they’ve inadvertently added a new one: the spin dunk. It’s overpowered to the point where it needs patching (as does the up and under move, but that’s been the case for a few years now) in order to make online games worth playing. As it stands currently, the spin dunk is the go-to move for most of the online community, and it makes online games predictable and boring.
Outside of the on-court game, NBA 2K13 is largely a failure. The interesting historical challenges from the past two iterations of the game are gone, even though there are new teams that would have been a blast to use in new scenarios (hello 2000-2001 76ers!). Association mode is basically unchanged from last year, aside from some structural changes that follow the NBAs most recent collective bargaining agreement. NBA nerds like myself will appreciate the changes, but there isn’t much that’s going to be apparent to more casual players. It’s still a huge time-sink based on the strength of the game-playing experience, but it’s disappointing that the additions to Association can be boiled down to salary cap management and a virtual “Twitter” feed. It’s time for Visual Concepts to rebuild this mode from the ground up for the next generation of consoles.
“I’m not a business man, I’m a business…man!”
The rest of the game is ruled by what is by far the most damaging addition to the NBA 2K13 package: the game’s virtual currency (conveniently named “VC”). NBA 2K13 finds new and creative ways to nickel and dime players with VC, whether it is by removing MyPlayer customization aspects in lieu of a store where VC is spent on things which used to be part of the character creation process, to a cost being given in order to use certain players (read: all of the ones you’d want to use) in the game’s casual-but-fun NBA Blacktop mode. Sure, playing the game and completing objectives can earn VC, but it used to be that every player in the game was available to players for the ancillary modes. Players could create dream 3-on-3 matchups between today’s greats and legends of the past, but now that’s only possible if you have built up enough VC to “purchase” players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. It’s also curious that purchasing these players involves getting information from the 2K servers. I’m not sure if that means prices will fluctuate, but it’s disconcerting.
The final cash-grab in NBA2K13 is the MyTeam mode, wholly lifted and copied from EA Sports. It’s a collectible card game wherein you purchase players and packs of players (all using VC, which, if you don’t earn, can be “conveniently” purchased using real money). You start with terrible players (hello, Royal Ivey!) and play through games in order to earn enough VC to purchase better players, boosters, and coaches. There’s obviously an appeal to these modes as they are immensely popular (or, at least that’s what publishers would like us to believe), but it all feels so cynical. NBA2K12 opened with a cheesy music video set to “Basketball” by Kurtis Blow, a whole-hearted ode to the gift that basketball is to its fans. 2K13 feels like the co-opting of that love for more nefarious purposes.
“Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Hov!”
The game (like this review) prominently features Jay-Z, as he had a hand in almost all of the presentational aspects. The introductory videos for games are inter-spliced with clips from a famous Jay-Z video or performance, and the menus even sometimes have his likeness attached to them. There’s a golden sheen to everything, and little flourishes of things like EQ meters or microphones. I’m a big Jay-Z fan, but it’s all a bit gauche for me. While Jay-Z and basketball are inextricably linked (especially now that the Nets have moved to Brooklyn), it is yet another layer of cynicism on top of an already cynical game.
NBA 2K13 continues the series’ tradition of great on-court gameplay, but the game has a certain joylessness that hasn’t been a part of the series before. Customization is replaced by limitation, and the care and craft of history has been replaced by a callous attempt to cash in on the game’s capital with consumers, and it harms the experience of the player. The All-Star Weekend mode, which required a pre-order, was a warning sign for gamers. 2K13 has the money, but…
“Where is the love?”
An Xbox360 copy of NBA2K13 was provided to us by 2KSports for the purposes of this review.