NBA 2K12 hands-on preview: Going retro with NBA’s Greatest

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I don’t really play too many basketball video games, and I haven’t since the days of One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird on the Commodore 64. That’s exactly why I jumped at the chance to preview 2K Sports’ NBA 2K12 and its NBA’s Greatest mode earlier this week.

NBA’s Greatest capitalizes on the success of NBA 2K11’s Jordan Challenge, in which players got to re-create 10 of the NBA star’s milestone moments. NBA’s Greatest expands the roster to focus on 15 world-renowned players from across the history of the sport. Namely: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas and Jerry West.

Selecting one of the players in NBA’s Greatest mode takes you to a significant game in their career. To “beat” each challenge, you simply have to win the game in question, after which both period-accurate teams are unlocked for quick-play games. The mode is further fleshed out with key facts and stats about the players, video highlights, visual filters to create the sense that you’re watching vintage footage and in-game color commentary that fills in additional details about each Great as you play.

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I saw two of these NBA’s Greatest games in action for the demo. First, Bill Russell and his 1960s-era Boston Celtics faced off against Jerry West and the Los Angeles Lakers. This game is presented in black & white, for starters. There are also primitive shot clocks, scoreboards, and no three-point line on the court (that rule didn’t come into the league until the 1979-1980 NBA season). The gameplay is the same, as it is throughout the rest of the game (rule differences aside), so the vintage presentation is the real draw. Players will also appreciate unlocking the two teams with each victory, since it’s not just the Great you’re getting, but the team he played on at the time and whatever notable team they played against.

Next came Magic Johnson and his 1991 LA Lakers versus the Portland Trail Blazers. The differences were more subtle here, but the image definitely wasn’t as crisp (intentionally so) as it is in match-ups between NBA 2K12‘s present-day teams. The scoreboards and shot clocks had a more dated feel as well, a familiar look to anyone who’s been watching professional basketball evolve over the past 20 or more years.

As for the core game, which I got to sample in both of these NBA’s Greatest match-ups as well as some play with present-day teams, it looks and feels exceedingly solid. 2K’s NBA license has always been put to good use, to the point that I tend to stop and stare at the games each year even as an admitted non-fan of basketball. 2K12 continues the trend, with beautifully integrated contextual animations that look almost scarily real.

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Yet for all of the complex imagery you’re seeing on the screen, the controls are remarkably simple and friendly to newcomers just sitting down for a quick pick-up-and-play session. I said at the outset of this preview that I haven’t played a basketball game in many years, and yet I was able to hold my own against both the PR rep hosting the session (okay, not a surprise there) and a fellow journalist who professes to be a fan of the series.

There are other new features in the game, such as having the ability to interact with fans, and shot reviews. At one point during one of the games, my opponent went for a three-pointer as the clock zeroed out. He nailed the basket, but it was so close to the wire that the shot went up for review. It was ultimately ruled against — the shot was close, but we all saw on the replay that the ball left his fingers after the clock ran out — and I won because of it. It’s a nice added touch for a simulation that already receives high marks from fans and critics.

All told, NBA 2K12 is shaping up to be another strong offering from 2K Sports. The core mechanics continue to be strong, and the addition of this NBA’s Greatest mode could go a long way toward getting people who have been off basketball games back into them. Sports simulations will sell to the hardcore fans year after year, but it’s tough to drum up new business when you’re basically just offering a virtual take on the current season. 2K12 mixes that up again, and it seems to be a better game for it.

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