Competition, according to free market economic principles, makes the dueling products better as each pushes to outdo the other. And thus, we consumers are the ultimate winners. But what if your chief – and really, only – rival kept finding new and astounding ways to spin out, leaving you as the only car on the road? Would you kick back, ease off the gas a bit, and set the cruise control? Would you keep the pedal to the metal anyway? Or would you drop the top, start turning down new streets, and see where the open road takes you?
NBA 2K13 unquestionably takes the latter path, lacing the latest version of its annual basketball simulation with wild features that, rest assured, take nothing away from the already stellar pro-hoops gameplay. Some of the new additions are great, while others you can live without, but, in the end, 2K13 is the pinnacle of basketball gaming on this generation of consoles.
A Court Fit for a King
2K13 has the cajones to mess with its tried-and-true simulation gameplay a bit. The pacing, flow, and feel all remain impeccable. The post-up game is not only playable but enjoyable. The big change is the right thumbstick-based Dribble Stick, which marries the Freestyle controls of last generation’s NBA Live titles with the existing NBA 2K Isomotion control scheme. Shooting is now accomplished by pulling in LT/L2 in combination with a right stick directional press. It certainly takes getting used to given the years of shooting without an additional trigger pull, and odds are you will, like me, occasionally forget and fail to take a wide open shot you meant to attempt. But you’ll eventually get used to it and grow to like the added dribble controls, as they’re not nearly as arcade-y as they were in NBA Live’s heyday, but still add an extra layer of player control to the gameplay.
2K13’s biggest problem – particularly with the Dribble Stick – is that none of its new features are explained well, if they’re explained at all. You’re never given a proper tutorial on the critical new dribble moves. Rather, the first time you start up the game, you’re treated to a screen that essentially says, “You can control your dribble with the right stick now. Wiggle it and see what happens!” So too are Signature Skills practically kept shrouded in secrecy unless you study the list of them in the main menu.
Signature Skills assign star players up to several of a couple dozen “plus” traits, be it Corner Specialist (added accuracy when shooting threes from the corners), Finisher (better chance of making shots with defender contact), etc. Because they’re passive and mostly invisible, you probably won’t notice them unless you play MyCareer, where you’ll spend your VC points – credits earned for anything you do in the game – to add them to your budding pro baller.
Speaking of which, the series’ interface continues to be an archaic, convoluted mess. Some menus can’t be backed out of, while save screens stupidly leave you at the save menu even after you’re done saving – rather than taking you back to a menu where you can actually do something. Better to enjoy 2K13’s commendable gameplay and suffer through a poorly designed interface than vice versa, but still, how many years has it been like this now?
Barkley. Bieber. ‘Bron. It’s the NBA on NBC!
Yes, I did in fact invoke Justin Bieber’s name in the context of a basketball video game review. And it’s not a joke. The teen pop star leads a 2K13 Celebrity team that includes JB Smoove, Bow Wow, and others. They’ve got a ridiculous 97 team rating, and so you can take the 1992 Dream Team – a glorious addition – head-on and give them a run for their money, as odd and completely impossible as that sounds.
Meanwhile, MyPlayer has taken on a slightly more personal, RPG-like role. It’s as engaging as last year, with your custom baller able to participate in a rookie game, get drafted (complete with a David Stern handshake at the podium), and develop your skills with experience. But now you can even request sit-downs with your general manager, in which you’re free to be good (i.e. compliment the organization) or evil (request that your coach be fired). Your choice of words can be hilarious, and depending on what you say, your standing amongst your teammates, the media, and the fans will be positively or negatively affected.
On the Xbox 360 side, there’s even Kinect voice support. It proves most useful for substitutions; just say, “Bring in Bryant” and you’ll see Kobe get up off the bench and head to the scorer’s table to check in at the next dead ball. I couldn’t, however, get a technical foul called on myself no matter how off-the-handle I flew after a questionable foul call.
Ah yes, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jay Z – particularly since his name is in large font on both the front of the box and the main menu title screen. The Brooklyn Nets owner is credited as the game’s executive producer, and, like Bieber, his presence is also not a joke. The soundtrack is of Hova’s choosing, and while I won’t go so far as to say it actively makes the game better, it certainly fits. What does make 2K13 legitimately better is Jay’s pre-game intro packages, which mix music videos with slick gameplay footage to get you hyped up. It works – these impressively produced segments lend each on-court match an added importance and enthusiasm.
The NBA 2K series is also slowly evolving into a virtual hoops museum, too. Not only are NBA Legends teams like Jordan’s dynasty-era Bulls, Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and now Iverson’s 2000 76ers in the game, but so too are both the 2012 gold medal-winning Team USA basketball squad and the original 1992 Dream Team. Even Charles Barkley – who hasn’t licensed his likeness to a video game since the Sega Genesis days – signed up. It’s an appealing inclusion, though it begs for a full-blown Olympic tournament mode for both the 1992 and 2012 Summer Games.
Even if you ignore 2K13’s weird sideshows and look past its convoluted menus, its core beats with the heart of a champion. With such smooth, realistic gameplay held together by truly astounding presentation – meaning Jay Z’s intros, the series’ dead-on perfect animations, and note-perfect commentary – it’s hard not to love and appreciate NBA 2K13 if you have any affinity for pro basketball whatsoever.
It’s both scary and exciting to think how good a game we might get if NBA 2K actually had a serious competitor pushing it to new heights. But even when left with a clear, unobstructed path to the basket, 2K13 throws down a monster jam with this year’s edition – probably the last one developed solely for this generation of consoles. It’s obviously the best hoops game out there, and it might even be the best sports game of all, period.