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NBA 2K13 hands-on preview puts the focus on fundamentals

Full disclosure: I haven’t played a proper NBA game since NBA Live ’96 on the Super Nintendo, a game whose greatest simulation flourish was adding some yellow pixels to Dennis Rodman’s head. I’ve indulged in basketball games since, but I’m talking NBA Jam and NBA Street, games that have as much to do with proper pro fundamentals as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Zombies does with real military operations. I am familiar with the NBA 2K series’ reputation—profitable for Take-Two, popular with players, respected by critics—not its play, so the granular changes in NBA 2K13 are lost on me. This is a good thing. I can assess whether this early version of the game, still two months from release and in need of some polish, is tight without being blinded by expectation and previous experience.

First impression? NBA 2K13 is a damn fine game at its most basic level.

My demo with the game, reliving the 2012 final between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, was glitzed up with gilded logos and an intro sequence intercutting the digitally recreated players and live footage. The cumulative effect of NBA 2K13’s presentation is a game that looks and feels, for better and worse, like watching an NBA game live on television. That authenticity is nice for super fans, but you’re here to play basketball, not recreate the feeling of watching it at home.

Luckily, NBA 2K13 does this markedly better than other sports games that look to recreate the TV experience as well as the sport. Madden NFL never manages to feel like you’re playing football. NBA 2K13 on the other hand makes you feel like you’re really playing high-level basketball to an impressive degree, and it’s more exciting minute to minute than many actual regular season NBA games that don’t heat up until the final minutes.

Controls are outwardly complex, but impressively fluid in execution. Shooting in 2K13 is mapped to the X button now rather than the right stick as in 2K12, freeing up the stick for dribbling maneuvers. For anyone that still wants to use the stick for shooting, pulling the left trigger and flicking the stick will let you do it the old way. Holding that left trigger when passing lets you mix in bounce passes, which lets you set up some exciting plays when things get crowded. The Xbox 360 pad’s left bumper is now used for throwing a pick, and holding it down brings up a little meter that, when green, shows you when to release for a roll.

The smooth control is coupled with re-done collision, so when you push Chris Bosh into the paint and he knocks someone down, it looks and feels human rather than like a canned game animation. 2K stresses that the AI is improved as well, better reacting to mistakes, aggression, and defense. Not being able to compare it to past entries, I really couldn’t speak to the improvements, but I will say that the other team felt like real opponents. They weren’t pushovers but they also didn’t have that omniscient feel that bad computer sports AI can often have that ruins single-payer matches.

2K13 also looks to improve how it sells character, but those elements are still under wraps.  The series has focused on Legends in recent years, letting you play as the stars of old like Michael Jordan, but the emphasis this time out is on new players. (Legends will still be in 2K13, and on the disc, so the feature isn’t getting relegated to the land of DLC.) Part of this focus is Signature Skills, 30 modifiers given to certain players that make them more useful on the court. Superstars like Lebron James can have a maximum of 5 skills, but many players have just one or two. I wasn’t allowed to get a look at the specific skills though, and the rep showing off the game still had no idea how or even if Signature Skills would be looped into My Player mode. (My Player is getting changed up, but 2K isn’t talking about it yet.)

NBA 2K13 feels good. It’s exciting to play, and it’s even exciting just to watch, a rarity for a sports simulation. Vets will have to decide for themselves how the new passing, dribbling, and shooting feel compared to 2K12, but to the layman, the new controls feel smooth and natural.

First impression: This demo was good enough that it made me want to play an NBA game again.