Basketball is by far America’s most successful sport export and New Zealand is a motivated buyer. It’s been a good year for Kiwi basketball fans: the New Zealand Breakers dispatched the Cairns Taipans to claim the Australian National Basketball League Championship – a further humiliation as it marks the first time a Kiwi team has absconded across the Tasman with an Aussie trophy.
Our passion for the hoops extends to videogames as well. Outside of the US, this was the biggest territory for 2K’s NBA 2K11. While EA Sports ultimately failed to deliver any competitor that could split the consumer base, nothing should be taken away from NBA 2K11: it was undoubtedly a game worthy of success based on its merits.
After running aground last year, EA made the early decision not to publish an NBA title in 2011, a move that leaves NBA 2K12 with an open court to deliver another sales slam-dunk. But fans concerned that any lack of competition may result in developmental complacency need not worry. NBA 2K12 brings with it a raft of improvements and polish to the core gameplay experience, in addition to a mode that makes last year’s well-received Jordan Challenges look like mere proof of concept work.
Before the game even begins, players will notice a dramatic improvement in pregame animations. The gravity or triviality of any fixture will be easily discernable on the faces of players. Similarly, the broadcast practices will reflect the importance of the match-up. In conference finals, gamers can expect to see more elaborate player introductions and drama, whereas a fixture between underperforming teams will be introduced with less fanfare.
That personality extends to the court: right away it’s apparent that 2K has invested heavily in delivering a more visually polished experience. NBA 2K12 features more dynamic and contextually relevant shot animations – gone are the stock shot animations of last year’s instalment.
Those used to single baller heroics are in for a rude shock: attempting to weave and dribble through defenders in the key is vastly more likely to precipitate a steal and a length of court coup than ever before. In fact, ball-handling skills have been significantly tweaked: contested rebounds can result in the ball spilling out in unpredictable directions.
Such variables would be disastrously frustrating were it not for greatly improved play selection options. Players are able to preset strategies for such broken play and NBA 2K12’s AI is much better at selecting an appropriate play. The player need only follow directions.
These iterative improvements should be enough to capture the attention of the basketball gaming public. However, NBA2K12’s showcase item is its NBA’s Greatest mode. Within, players are able to assume the role of 15 basketball legends such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan as they play through classic matches.
Sports gaming’s answer to the BBC period drama, the courts, uniforms and broadcast techniques are recreated down to the finest detail. Some matches are even played in black and white. The rules also reflect the era in basketball. For example, matches played before the ’79-’80 season will not include three-pointers.
The goal in these matches is simply to win. Doing so will unlock that team for play elsewhere in the game. The breadth of gaming on offer in this mode should extend NBA 2K12’s relevance long after the polish has been scuffed off the hardwood in the game’s regular mode.
NBA 2K12’s Greatest mode leaves us pining for a simpler era when – true or not – the wholesome heroes of the game appeared to play for the love of it; when the stars weren’t over-managed and their dalliances over-exposed in the media. It’s submerged in nostalgia, and worlds apart from the player disputes that have recently plagued the NBA.
Whether or not those disputes are settled in time for the regular season remains to be seen but at least it appears basketball fans will have an incomparable gaming experience to keep them preoccupied come the 7th of October.