Straight up, I don’t know a whole lot about basketball. Well, I know bits and pieces. I know what a basketball is, and I know how the game is played. And I know that phrase, “How about them Knicks?”. But I don’t follow the sport closely, nor know the ins-and-outs of the NBA. Going into NBA 2K13, I figured the latter point wouldn’t be entry barrier to enjoy the game. After all, these games are designed to appeal to all kinds of gamers. Mostly I was right. If you have a passing interest in basketball, you’ll probably like NBA 2K13.
But at the same time, I was surprised to run into a few roadblocks standing in the way of really sinking into the title, if you’re a fairly casual sports gamer like myself.
It starts out well enough. Boot up the game and the first thing you’ll be introduced to is Jay-Z’s mug (more on that later), and a simplistic menu divided between career mode and basic match play. Both are pretty self explanatory. Standard matches has you selecting two licensed NBA teams and jumping right into a full game. I really feel this the most appealing element of these annual sports games: jumping into a quick match with recognisable teams and players whenever you have buddies over. This is the staple of quick and simple play, and it’s why you see so many people hovering over retail NBA 2K13 demo kiosks. Pick up the controller, play and enjoy.
And so we hit the first hurdle. Well, kinda. In order to differentiate 2K13 from last year’s release, the team has built a new dribbling and ball control system tethered to the second stick. On paper, this is a great idea, increasing control complexity and depth in a way that reminded me a little of what EA did with the FIFA series. Moving with the left stick and chaining dribbling tactics together with the right works really well…once you get used to it. And that’s the problem. Compared to last year’s title, I’d say 2K13‘s learning curve is quite a bit steeper. This is worsened by the fairly helpful tutorial and practice modes being buried under menus that I think many players will initially overlook. Improving the control scheme is admirable, but given the tightly scheduled annual releases for this franchise, it’s hard to gauge just how many people will invest themselves in, learn and appreciate the advancements of this release before the next. Especially at the arguably cost of accessibility, which may turn some players away sooner rather than later.
Burying the tutorials isn’t the only problem. 2K13 has quite a few features and tweaks lost in menus hidden from the main window. There’s a pretty impressive degree of tweaking and customisation options applied to regular games, from various rule checks and gameplay alterations, to tweaks to the controls and mechanics to make the gameplay system a little more friendly. These tweaks would have been more at home at the start of regular matches, as pre-match tweaks, not lost to optional menu screens, so more players would see them.
If you’re not shuffling between basic games you’ll be digging deep into career mode. Or trying to. The whole idea of career mode is to give players the chance to create their own wannabe NBA super star, working their way through games and tournaments, to make it big in the world of basketball. Instead of controlling the entire team, you control an individual. You control you, as this is a story about you.
Where once the career mode was a tightly presented directive through organised matches and leagues, 2K13 goes off the deep end trying to replicate the tiniest little details of being an NBA superstar. After your amateur match you’ll be asked multiple choice questions by talent scouts. You’ll need to sit through an unskippable talent scout conference where team and player match-ups are announced. You’ll need to micromanage the a measurable ‘team bonding’ level by ‘buying’ trips and activities. You’ll renegotiate contracts. You’ll see your player’s digital rendered mug tacked onto a virtual billboard.
Yes, okay, there’s a rich, full career mode to sink into. Plenty of games to play, and good sense of progression and team development. But I couldn’t help but find the entire experience really goofy, almost surreal, as it tries to meticulously recreate all the boring stuff I can imagine most people want to avoid. Like that creepy line between living out sports star fantasies in a digital environment and really pandering that fantasy with so much unnecessary detail has been blurred Maybe some of you will enjoy it, but for me the career, especially the earlier stuff, was simply way too much cheese and not enough basketball. I don’t want to play multiple choice question time with the Chicago Bulls talent scout. I don’t want to approve this billboard design. I don’t want to take my team out for lunch. I want to play some damn basketball!
The cheesiness of the career mode extends to the game’s presentation. Mostly in the obvious sponsorships. Almost like some meta commentary on advertising in real sport, 2K13 is bloated with licensed clothing, drinks, material goods and other junk. Whether it’s a brief clip from a Jay-Z music video, or Sprite sponsored banners spread across event matches, 2K13 doesn’t shy away from pushing advertising right into your face, sometimes border-lining on satire. Remember how I said there’s various game modes and tweaks buried in menus? There’s even a Nike sponsored shoe design feature in those same menus. The price of making a game like this and keeping on a yearly schedule is hilariously transparent.
But it’s not all bad. Advertising aside, 2K13 is a great looking and moving game. The courts and players are all rendered with a fantastic level of authenticity and detail, and the frame-rate seemed very solid. On my display the game looked really sharp, all things considered, with some great texture work and clean image quality. I was really impressed with the way the camera was directed during matches too. Cuts and replays, coupled with the authentic sounding commentary, gave matches a surprisingly lively and realistic feel. Funnily enough, by combining the aforementioned advertising with such believable camera, graphical and audio presentation, 2K13 dares to cross into the uncanny valley of sports video games. In motion, the game really does move and play just like the real thing.
If I seem down on NBA 2K13, I’ve mislead you. I guess I’m more confused than anything. Mechanically, the game is sound. More than that, the game plays very well, with a unique and layered gameplay system. Even if I’m not convinced that the added complexity benefits the target demographic for these games, the good intentions are noted and appreciated. There’s also quite a bit of content to play, with support for all the expected single player and multiplayer modes fans have come to love. As I said, invite some buddies over and sink into a few matches. That’s what people did with last years release, and that’s what they’ll do with this, and they’re bound to enjoy it all over again.
But the bafflingly schizophrenic and excessively detailed career mode, learning curve of the controls and mechanics, and sheer abundance of in-your-face advertising and promotional material kind of took the ‘magic’ out of the experience for me. As said, it feels like a game with good intentions (deep mechanics, robust career, high production values) mangled by a development schedule that ensured the got out the door for the traditionally annual release. And with EA’s competitive NBA series now out of the picture, I do have to wonder if any real pressure will be on 2K to improve come next year.
Still, NBA 2K13 delivers mostly on what it promises. It’s an NBA game about NBA people doing NBA things. It’s a good basketball game, and for that reason alone will be worth a look for plenty of sports fans.