NBA 2K12 review

Magic Johnson is standing at center court, hands extended in disbelief. This can’t be happening, he seems to think. Despite – or perhaps because of – his superhuman efforts, the 1991 Lakers have just lost for the fourth time in a row to their counterparts from Portland. As he trudges off the court, he looks around, almost as if this is all just a bad dream.

Naturally, it is. In real life, the Lakers dispatched the Blazers in six games in the ’91 Western Conference Finals. This evening, though, we have tried more than a few times to replicate that defeat in NBA 2K12’s “NBA’s Greatest” mode with no success. It’s our fault that Magic is despondent, because we haven’t been doing all the little things that win games. Instead of calmly calling plays, finding the open man, defending the perimeter, and calling timeouts when Portland went on a run, we simply forced the ball to Magic and made everything go through him. That’s translated into spectacular statistics for the Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, it’s been nothing but losses too.

Therein lies some of the genius of NBA 2K12. While last year’s Jordan challenge was spectacular, engaging, and utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before, it also made us play one-against-five basketball. Yes, you had to win the games, but everything was centered on getting Jordan his numbers. This season, the new historic mode is all based around team play; sure, there are iconic representations of the best players on all 15 of the classic teams, but whether Dr. J, Wilt, or Bird gets 20 points or just a bucket, a win unlocks the squad for play anytime. It’s a great way to emphasize one of the things that make 2K12 so special – its perpetually stupendous gameplay.

2K’s on-court play has been superb for a few years, but has now ascended into the stratosphere. In order to win, even on the default settings, you simply have to play smart basketball. Doing so isn’t easy, either. Not only do you really need to understand your team’s strengths and weaknesses – who you can go to for a clutch outside jumper, who can defend a hot perimeter shooter – but you also have to consistently call for picks, dish to a cutter, and kick out to the open man. Every possession is a chess match on both sides of the court, and getting reckless or lazy is a sure way to an 8-0 run in the wrong direction.

The setup is only half the battle. Execution is key, and there are more options for the ballhandlers and defenders than we can ever comprehend at our disposal. Whether you’re shooting fadeaways, spinning reverse layups, or dribble pull-ups, the timing of your shot is hyper-critical; missing open jumpers or layups is common as you learn the individual tendencies and release points of players. Free throws are even more varied; we were amazed at how different it is to shoot at the line with Bird, Chamberlain, or Malone. Once our timing got down with one, we had to learn someone else. Quickly.

If all of this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. In reality, though, NBA 2K12 is meant to be a marathon, not a sprint. Taking the time to learn the nuances of team play, the myriad offensive and defensive controls, and individual attributes of some of the league’s great players past and present is a beautiful process, even if it is a bit painful at the beginning. Yes, we’re concerned that too many people will get frustrated at the steep learning curve (or turn the difficulty down to the easiest level and just abuse the AI), but once we mastered a few moves and hit a game-winning buzzer beater, it was the most satisfying moment we’d had in a sports game in years. Simply because we had earned it.

If it’s possible to have a “good” year for 2K to be released when the real NBA is in the midst of a lockout, this is the one. Between the aforementioned 15-team NBA’s Greatest challenge, a nicely updated My Player mode, and the addition of Online Associations (among other items), NBA 2K12 is stocked with plenty of seriously great hoops. While we can only hope that a settlement will allow all the new rookies and updated rosters to be patched in, we can go a few months as-is without many complaints.

Presentation-wise, 2K12 is a stunner; “slick” is a vast understatement. Whether we were playing a modern-day matchup of the hapless Nets against the new-look Wizards, or stepping back in time to the early ‘70s, every game offers dozens of “that’s so cool” moments. Current-era games are bright and crisp, while old-school games feature camera filters and graphics that make it obvious you’re playing in a different era. The announcers treat the historic matchups as if they’re watching it today, referencing the entire careers of players and ultimate successes and failures of the teams on display. It’s a great touch that adds to the experience.

The My Player mode held a few happy surprises too. It’s been streamlined this year, especially at the start. Once our player was created, we had a single shot to bump up our attributes and draft stock in a one-game exhibition against other rookies at Madison Square Garden. Afterward, we were interviewed by several GMs and had the chance to respond in different ways. We learned the hard way that the modern sports business can be cruel. Days after the Houston GM told our fledgling Power Forward that he’s already solid at that spot, but still may take us over anyone else because we would be the perfect backup, he drafted a different player at the same position. Crushing – until we got drafted by the Sixers and led them to an overwhelming victory over the Rockets later that season. Revenge is a dish best served cold (and on the court).

There’s so much more to NBA 2K12 than we can get to here, plus we haven’t been able to check out Online Association or Team Up yet. Suffice to say, there are a few quirks that mean it’s not “perfect”, including some painfully long load times, repetitive commentary when you get further into My Player or have to repeat historic matchups (which, ahem, we had to do a few times), or questionable decisions around DLC and the removal of the Crew mode. Even so, the combination of sublime gameplay, unprecedented level of compelling historic team matchups, and an excellent update to My Player puts NBA 2K12 at a level no hoops game has ever been. The absolute mountaintop.

Now if only we can beat Clyde Drexler and those pesky Trailblazers.

Oct 4, 2011

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