A slam dunk? Eh…not quite.
Nailing down my thoughts on sports games can be a bit tricky, and basketball more so than most. Reason being is that unlike most sports where I’ve started out as a game-gazing armchair athlete on my path to becoming a stat-devouring knowledge-monster, I spent the better part of my youth actually playing hoops. As such, I hold a special place in my heart for the finer points of the game, and while Visual Concepts’ much-hyped NBA 2K series has managed to outperform and outlast other entries in the professional arena, I’ve counted myself among the skeptics who’ve felt that 2K Sports annual digitized dunkfest lags behind other sports in its overall representation of the game.
But, to be fair, it’s been a few years since I really sat down with the game, so I was admittedly curious to see if NBA 2K13 managed to make it rain as most claim, or if they had slowly but surely found themselves lulled into the same exclusivity-born rut that other major sports franchises have occupied in recent years.
After an extensive run-through, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is a bit more complicated than I’d like it be. On the surface, there’s a lot to love about NBA 2K13—enough that I’d comfortably recommend it to NBA fans who are looking for a way to live out their dreams as high-flying, sharp-shooting courtzillas in the digital space—but that doesn’t mean I’m convinced this game doesn’t have more room to grow than The Admiral following his senior year of high school.
On the gameplay front, it’s clear that 2K is a more than adequate representation of the sport, as player models, movement and core skills are all represented with a high level of polish that gets down to most of the details you’d expect in a high-quality hoops sim. The vast array of animations used to convey shots, rebounds, blocks, passes, dunks and handles are downright staggering, and watching the game from the sideline camera is a real thing of beauty at times. It’s obviously nowhere near the level of FIFA or Madden in terms of pure organic variety, but as a much more controlled simulation, you’ll see less wonky glitches, helping it stay close in many respects. That said, there are a large number of fugly hitches for ball-handlers, making me wonder if VC will ever invest in a more robust system for handling subtle movement shifts while maintaining a realistic dribbling animation set. Minor quibbles with the dribbles aside, though, I was genuinely impressed with the overall look of 2K13.
The experience of controlling this B-ball ballet is a bit less appealing, however. NBA 2K13 is, like every other sports game on the market, largely driven by each player’s underlying attributes, but unlike other games, I really felt the weight of the system here. I say this because it seems that somewhere along their road to eliminating the traditional dunk-a-thon that was video game basketball, players have suddenly become absolutely pathetic at basic functions such that absolute precision is a must for even the most basic shots. I lost count of the number of wide-open lay-ups I missed, and the same could be said of the number of times a guy who was 6’7” or taller refused to dunk the ball within 2 feet of the rim. I get the desire to avoid showing your AI’s ass by allowing Blake Griffin to go bats*** on the rim every other shot, but well, if he’s open, I expect the Ginger Avenger to do what he does best, and, frankly, the game fails to deliver in this respect. Jump shots are a bit less wonky, though—despite allowing some ridiculously high shot percentages as a rule—which balances things out a bit, but the free throw mechanic in this game is downright annoying. I’m fully aware there’s a learning curve to all of the above elements, but considering how tighly wound the rest of the game is, this whole side of the game could stand to unclench its fists a bit.
Ball-handling, on the other hand, is pretty frickin’ slick. The advent of the Control Stick is well executed, and once you get familiar with the basics, your ability to break ankles both mid-break and in the thick of the trees is really something. There are definite moments where the animation-lead system feels a bit stiffer than I’d like, but considering the tools they have to work with here, things are very solid.
Then there’s the passing game, which has undergone its share of revisions this season, but again, the directional passing system seems somewhat brain dead on occasion, often failing to identify a player rolling off a screen into an empty lane in favor of a guy behind said player and his defender 10 feet across the court. Sure, I could use icon passing, but should I really have to at this point?
Luckily, the defensive side of the ball fairs a lot better. Rebounding feel like a genuine fight in most instances, shot blocking is spot-on, and there are few moments as intense as hiking up your shorts and digging in for a defensive stand.
It all comes together as a solid package, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that other physics-driven sims have really passed this game by, and many of the legacy notions that exist in video game basketball still cling to the bones of this engine, making me wonder when they might take a crack at a more dynamic, intelligent approach to the basics that require a bit less of the player in obvious situations.
And while the on-court representation wasn’t quite where I’d like to see it, the presentation in 2K13 is a real triumph in most cases. The soundtrack, a supposed courtesy of “Executive Producer” Jay-Z, offers some of the best mood music we’ve ever seen in a sports game, the commentary is really fun to listen to, and most of the TV-style intros and interstitials are well done, despite getting a bit old a bit too quickly due to the extensive load times and poor UI that make skipping them a real pain.
Then there’s the game’s menu system and overall user experience, which, for lack of a better way to put it, cause me physical pain. Most game modes feature menus that fall to the same curse that plagued this year’s installment of Madden, where they often fail to present key information where the player could really use it, making modes like MyCAREER and MyTEAM much less interesting than they could be. When coupled with bad load times and poor organization at almost every turn, you’ll end up in stupid situations like weekly drills, where you have to sit through 6 separate loads to use all your points, instead of allowing you the option to replay the drill you just played with a lesser load. Mind you, you’re not going to drop the controller over this stuff, but it definitely merits mention that 2K could make massive strides by simply making more out of the modes they’ve already built through a few simple design choices.
And in the end, that’s why I’m not going to sit here and tell you that NBA 2K13 is some sort of revolution. Is it a great basketball game that fans will enjoy? Sure. Does it have a ton of replay value? Absolutely. Does it completely change the way we look at video game basketball? Afraid not. Not to say that I expect Visual Concepts to deliver on that front year-in and year-out, but there is a definite sense of this game getting a bit too comfortable with its strengths and not being critical enough of its weaknesses, and considering the fact that they continue to be the only game in town, I’ll need to see a bit more hustle before I hand them the title.
SUMMARY: NBA 2K13 offers a solid upgrade from last year’s installment, but there’s still enough unnecessary frustration here to make me believe there’s room for something greater.
- THE GOOD: Impressive presentation, hefty replay value, and the sweet, sweet flow of virtual currency into my bankroll.
- THE BAD: The occasional clunky mechanic, cumbersome UI, and some gnarly-ass loadtimes.
- THE UGLY: The number of times Nate Robinson refused to pass me the f***in’ ball!
NBA2K 13 is available on the Xb0x 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on PlayStation 3.