Sizing Up Its Competition, NBA 2K13 Will Stick to the Way It Plays the GameS

Let's go ahead and say it: NBA 2K13 is right back where it was two years ago—locked in the only meaningful head-to-head competition in sports video game publishing. It's a fight it won quite decisively, too, when its competitor failed to launch and then sat out 2011, while NBA 2K turned in its two best efforts ever.

This year NBA Live will be back on shelves and though the two teams are not jawing at each other yet, they are sizing each other up.

"There are things I'm going to gloss over here a little, because these are things we've been doing right, such as accurate arena lighting," producer Rob Jones says in narrating a behind-closed-doors demonstration, still calling out a point of pride expressed by EA Sports in its presentation of NBA Live 13.

But it's also clear 2K Sports has taken to heart all of this business about passing, an area NBA Live 13's makers think they can exploit. NBA 2K has a well earned reputation as a best-in-class sports simulation for several years, but also one carrying a bit of a learning curve for newcomers. Passing without bringing up icons (to assure the ball goes exactly to that player) has seen some frustrations, especially with tight defense picking off errant tosses.

Well, Visual Concepts, the in-house studio building NBA 2K13, wants you to know they have worked on passing, too. And it was probably no surprise that in a demonstration at which I was the only attendee—it was hands-off—two players from the studio ran a lot of half-court plays designed to showcase passing and player AI. It didn't take long to see the kinds of things EA Sports is so proud of creating, and as I said on Saturday, I've seen them take place before in NBA 2K12. James Jones of the Miami Heat, out on the perimeter, turned and ran back to the play, taking a high, long-armed pass from Chris Bosh and going strong to the rim. Good pass, good pass type, good decision by a bot player to get involved in the play. Look, we got this was the unspoken message.

A subtle hint about passing refinements ends with a knowing smile. For now.

Rob Jones elaborated on the perceived weakness of the 2K12 passing system, saying that some players may be aiming their pass where they expect the player to be, but not where he is at the point they decide to pass, resulting in a turnover (he did say pass logic on some plays, such as a pick-and-roll, accounts for throwing it to a spot). I pointed out that the game has directional passing on the right analog stick, with a modifier—that is, telling a player to throw it to a precise location. But that's an expert control set.

"Yeah, an expert control set," Jones said, letting the thought hang in the air.

"So, you're doing something with directional passing on lower difficulties?" I asked.

At this point I have written in my notes: "knowing smile."

2K Sports shows little at E3 because the game arrives in October. Even for something with this kind of a foundation there still is a lot of work left to be done. So usually what you get at E3 is a projection of strength, a statement of confidence, and a promise to show a ton more when July rolls around. Tuesday's demonstration followed that script.

But looking closely does reveal some tuning of a highly polished game. "The point is, we have worked our butts off on passing," Jones said. This is not going to go without a fight. Jones said he, Mike Wang and Zach Timmerman started working on NBA 2K13—little things that bothered them, but still, work—the day after NBA 2K12 shipped. It peeved some of their colleagues, he admitted. Still, one thing Jones wanted to do was give players dribble-moves from a standstill. You could do it in NBA 2K12 if you sized up with the trigger, but it sounds like this will be without the control modifier.

Another example: The timing of celebration animations. Ever notice how, after hitting a buzzer beater, there's a brief pause where players stand around like robots—and then they start celebrating? Jones wanted to swat that. "There's not a lot of glory in focusing on things like reaction time in celebrations," Jones said. But when you're leading a race by two years, you can spend time on those things.

The demonstration closed out with a look at the All-Star Weekend festivities—the preorder incentive that gives you a branded dunk contest, three-point shootout and future stars game, as well as the upcoming All-Star venue and uniforms. This will not take the place of the Blacktop dunk contest and three-point games that have been included on the disc for several years and will come in NBA 2K13 regardless. And if you don't preorder the game, your play-now and career modes will still have an All-Star game, it'll just use the previous year's venue and uniforms (in this case, Orlando's) until the All-Star game is actually played and 2K gets permission to patch in the new skins. The preorder bonus is also for all preorders; it's not tied to a specific retailer.

I was shown a Slam Dunk Contest featuring Michael Jordan, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard. The user controlled Jordan. He selected from what looked like a generously deep array of dunks, and I was told that dunks using props and helpers would be a part of the action, too.

As Jordan began his dunk, the game went into very slow motion and a note highway appeared. The player then had to hit the face buttons as they passed, in the manner of Rock Band or some other rhythm game. The success of the dunk—and it will be scored according to official Dunk Contest rules—depends on how many of the buttons you correctly time. It appeared that for some stunts you may have to hit all of the notes correctly, though the team said I was looking at something whose difficulty had yet to be set.

Still, I instantly resolved to play this with a Rock Band guitar when I get it. While some might find the implementation trivial, or a souped-up Quicktime event, bear in mind just how freaking hard the Blacktop Dunk Contest is with the analog stick. I can barely get the gather correct. People who get to All-Star Weekend in their careers or invite friends over to fool around with it aren't going to want to spend forever on tutorials. Some might feel it's a little simple, but I buy the logic behind the design choice. If you still want a hardcore dunking challenge, the Blacktop will always be there.