With no other real basketball competition to speak of, 2K Sports’ NBA 2K13’s biggest rival isn’t another game or another publisher, but rather complacency. The last two offerings were good. Beyond good in fact, they were exceptional. They took the beleaguered video game niche of digital basketball games and turned it into a genre defining series. With great gameplay and in-game content that reads like a fan’s childhood dreams come to true, the bar was set so high that trying to continually improve upon it annually mean the series is eventually destined to hit a point where the law of diminishing returns takes hold. That point is likely still coming, but it won’t be this year.
NBA 2K13 isn’t as flashy as 2K11 or 2K12. There isn’t that one big feature that will grab the headlines like last year’s NBA’s Greatest Mode, or the previous year’s triumphant return of Michael Jordan. Instead, this year’s major conceit is that the game is produced by Jay-Z. That may be enough to appeal to some fans on its own, but it won’t carry the game in the same way that Jordan did. Thankfully, it is just one piece of the overall package, and it’s a good package at that.
The major changes to this game come in two forms: first is the new MyTeam feature, which is an interesting way to get people to play online, while the second is the Control Stick, which gives you an entirely new option of how to play. Of the two, the Control Stick is by far the most important addition.
Overall though, the game remains very similar to its predecessor, just with more options. But when the series is already one of the best sports franchises around, there is very little need to go messing with things in order to create a masterful sports offering.
Meet Your New Best Friend, Your Right Thumb
As I mentioned, the biggest addition to the game is the right thumb stick. You may be familiar with it from such games as all of them, ever, but the right analog is a completely new animal for this series. the Control Stick improves your handling, creates new ways to move, and changes how you shoot. Learning it is both important and demanding, but not required if you prefer the traditional style. Strangely, there is no real tutorial to introduce you to this new way of playing. It isn’t the first time a sports game has tried something like this, but it may be one of the best. It initially feels counterintuitive to hold left on the analog to shoot at the basket on the right, but it will initiate a fade away, which makes sense.
There is a new feature called the Legends Training Camp, where you spend in-game credits — or VC — on training sessions with eight NBA Legends ranging from a few members of the Dream Team to older era Hall of Famers like Bill Russell and Jerry West. Each legend teaches you a different set of moves, and earns you attributes. It’s helpful, but it will take you a lot of play time to earn enough VC to purchase them all, making it an interesting tool, albeit one you won’t be able to fully use until you’ve progressed deep into the game.
However you do it, whether you use the Control Stick or the traditional scheme, learning the moves is something that you should make the effort to do. This will not be an easy task. To give you an idea, there are six full pages of instructions – all small print — in the game’s manual, and only a few of these are the basics; most are things like commands while making post moves. Most can just pick up the game, play, and have fun, but there is a deep game here that you’ll need to learn to tackle the higher difficulties and make your mark online.
Bieber vs. Jordan?
Although the game may be missing a single marquis new feature to plaster on the box (beyond the Jay-Z brand), there is no denying that this game is bursting with content. As always there is an exhibition mode, of course. The legendary teams that were unlockable in last year’s offering are available immediately and can be played online, and they are joined by the Dream Team and this year’s Olympic Team USA. It is an ultimate All-Star team for both eras. It is a fairly minor addition, but a good one.
There is also a 2K Celebrity team with several well-known names, all beefed up for basketball. It is a bizarre world we live in where you can see Lil Bow Wow and the cast of the Jersey Shore going head to head, and even hanging with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. A little piece of me died inside when Justin Bieber stole the ball from me while I was playing as John Stockton. Maybe the Mayans were right.
The RPG-like create-a-player, aka MyCareer, is much the same from last year — to a fault. You pick your position, go through the draft complete, then join your team and try to earn your way to the starting lineup. During each game you have mini-objectives that appear randomly, and you are always trying to improve your teammate rank – or at least you should be. Following the game you earn VC based on your performance. With that VC you can buy new attributes including signature moves, which can be assigned as soon as you meet the criteria – a certain dunk rank is required to by a particular dunk, for example – and this makes a huge difference in making your player stand out, especially when you take him online.
After a game you are taken to the post-game interview, which is the same as last year. Exactly the same. Many of the lines your character will speak are lifted right out of the last year’s game. It’s even the same voice actor. The endorsements are essentially the same with a few changes, and even the training exercises are familiar. If you played last year’s offering, you will quickly feel a sense of déjà vu.
The MyPlayer feature is a highlight of the game, and it is something all new players to the series should experience. The new signature moves are interesting, but bulking it up from last year for the fans that sunk hour upon hour into playing multiple seasons would have been appreciated.
There is a new MyPlayer feature that allows you to buy fancy clothes and accentuate your player, but it is fairly shallow compared to the actually gameplay.
The Good, the Bad, the Mamba
The Association mode returns, of course, and offers all the trappings you’d expect of a detail heavy franchise mode. Pick your team, manage the players, play the games, and draft/trade/sign to fill holes as you lap the seasons and go into another and another. It is comprehensive, albeit exceedingly familiar.
It would be nice to have seen more originality here as well. At this point, all sports games have an association-like mode. The name is different, but if you’ve played any of them, regardless of the sport, you’ll instantly know what to expect here. If you are looking for originality though, the MyTeam has you covered.
When you first fire up MyTeam, you are given a random offering of average players, a playbook, a court, and a coach. You then jump online with your Bad News Bears-like squad and take on others at an equally low level to earn tokens and work your way up a ladder. It can be disorienting at first to have no super stars to go to, but it also means that the matchup is more or less fair. To get better, you just need to keep at it. It certainly isn’t as sexy as playing through Jordan’s best moments or as nostalgic as playing classic games, but it is deeper than both.
The more you play the more VC you earn to purchase better players, or you can earn them by completing certain challenges like winning a few games. You can also purchase the players with real cash, although that feature is currently locked, and will remain locked until the season starts on October 30. This is something that will raise a few eyebrows. It is definitely more fulfilling to unlock the best players around on your own, but the cost in VC for buying the players is so high that the temptation to pay for them may be stronger than the patience to unlock them for most. That will be a personal decision though.
MyTeam was the thing I was most skeptical about when I first fired up the game, and yet it turns out to be one of the most addictive and compelling features of the new game. Having devoted a clinically alarming amount of time to the last two iterations of the NBA 2K series, I may have been more the target audience for this mode than someone that is new to the franchise, but it is a worthy feature.
If you are looking for something different though, you can head to the blacktop and go 1v1, 2v2, up to 5v5. Pick your players from any of the teams (although you need to unlock superstars with VC tokens) and play to 21. Along with all of that, you can also take command of a current NBA player and take charge of them in the same manner you would your created player. The camera shifts to lock on that individual, you only play in the moments that person is in the game, and you earn points for them. You don’t have the press conferences or endorsements, but you can play as anyone from Kobe to a rookie.
Post up on the World
The online side of things is about what you expect form a game like this, meaning it has about everything you could think to jam into it, including online tournaments with real prizes through the partnership with Virgin gaming. You can jump online for a quick match and use any team, including the Greatest teams from 2K12, join with another player to take on two others in an exhibition, or you can take your association online to compete against the world.
This year you can also bring your created player over and join in 3 on 3 blacktop games with five other real people. In all of the games I played, I experienced maybe a half second of lag that meant nothing to the game. The connectivity is smooth, and there are games for all level of skill.
The game also features a huge amount of connectivity through NBA.com. You can play real matchups as you could in previous games, and as the real season goes on, you’ll be able to read news, headlines, and follow your favorite team. It is all stuff that is expected at this point, but it is still cool to see, especially if you are already an NBA fan. There is also the shoe collection, which offers plenty of collectible shoes with attributes your character can wear, but more importantly it has a shoe creator that you can transfer into the real world. Create your shoes in the game and buy them in real life. It is a completely pointless example of connectivity, and yet it is actually kind of cool.
The presentation is also as good as ever. Clips of the actual arenas are augmented with recreated introduction animations that are accurate to the real things. Halftimes are highlighted by ads of upcoming games, and the commentary throughout is insightful and won’t repeat for a long time.
The faces are still a bit hit or miss, with some like Kobe looking fairly representative of the real life players, while others like Lamarcus Aldridge look a tad more generic. This is a minor concern though, since the character animations are of far more importance, and NBA 2K13 looks great here. It is only a minor upgrade from last year, but that is more credit to the series as a whole than a criticism of a lack of innovation — it didn’t need much work. The players are fluid, and the physics are accurate. Rarely did I see a ball magically go through a player or anything like that, and when a player blocked out you could tell where they were pushing against their target. The collision physics look solid as well, and bodies move as they should when they are affected by the momentum of another player.
The soundtrack has received a healthy amount of attention as well thanks to Jay-Z, who is credited as an Executive Producer. His influence is all overNBA 2K13’s presentation as well as the sound. Games begin with a combination of music video and animation, and there is a distinctive style to the look of the menus and backgrounds that you can credit to him.
The music is, of course, very good, but there are only 24 songs. They are all good, but a few more would have been nice, especially when you only hear the opening of most as you jump through menus. Being able to add you own music to key moments helps a lot though.
2K Sports does a masterful job of shaking off the demon of complacency by adding enough to makeNBA 2K13 feel fresh without undermining what made the game great in the first place. There are instances where the game recycles last year’s release, and the MyTeam feature may not be a substantial replacement for those that want the “wow” factor of including Jordan’s highlights or the NBA Greatest matchups, but this game has plenty to offer. In fact, it is so packed with content that it will take a while to even realize how deep it really is.
NBA 2K13 reinforces something I’ve believed for a while now: the NBA 2K series is the best sports franchise on the market right now, bar none. There is a danger that the series may begin to rest on its laurels and slack on the innovation, but that time is certainly not here yet.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 using a copy provided to us by the publisher)