Basketball is the sport that always unmasks me as a panicky klutz, whether that is in a video game or in real life. I don't see things very well, don't have great anticipation, and overreact to most everything. On defense, it takes nothing to get me in the air, although such a statement implies there is actual daylight between my feet and the hardwood.
So it was with first-date trepidation that I approached today's preview with NBA 2K12. Its predecessor, 2010's consensus sports game of the year, I offered as an overall Game of the Year nominee, largely for its brilliant portrayal of Michael Jordan and the re-creation of his career. But I could not adequately defend the game against criticism that its depth makes it almost prohibitively challenging for a beginner. I'd consider myself about a rung above that, especially since I haven't played it in months. You can ask the 2K Sports guys, my forehead was sweating.
Yet just a few minutes with the Chicago Bulls against my beloved 1993 Charlotte Hornets—hell, yes that was the first game I played—put me entirely at ease. By the end of the date, all I wanted was to spend the rest of the night alone on the couch with NBA 2K12, doing very creative things with this beauty.
This is not to say that NBA 2K12 is pick-up-and-play easy. I'm not sure even how to articulate this, to be frank. But the game is a lot smoother, with tighter moves grounded in finer controls, a better sense of momentum and weight, such that I was able to break down my defender on the first possession, find a path to the basket and glide to it with an I-meant-to-do-that smugness. Sure, that was with Jordan, but for God's sake I even drew a double-team and found Will Perdue for an easy two.
This game's big calling card is its "NBA's Greatest" Mode, which will offer 34 of the league's most memorable teams in games with a period-authentic broadcast style. I wouldn't even call it an extension or a modification of "The Jordan Challenge" because they're two wholly different things. The Jordan Challenge had you pursuing statistical feats. "NBA's Greatest" simply asks you to play with historically significant teams and players, unlocking them for use elsewhere in the game when you win.
But let's address the technical stuff first, because the word on this game is that those inside 2K who play it at work won't go back to NBA 2K11 at home, which is a strong statement considering the quality of that game and the archival nature of the Jordan Challenge. Where past versions have felt rigid and almost impenetrable at times, especially if you are making up your offense instead of running set plays, two things now open up the flow of the game in 2K12.
The first is loose ball rebounds. Rebounding was long a thing that, once a player was in his rebounding animation, that ball was secure. Upgrades to the collision system means the ball is in play unless the guy really rips it down or is a totally superior rebounder. I saw it in a huge way when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the 6-1 guard on the 1994 Denver Nuggets, followed his miss and even beat Hakeem Olajuwon to the ball. In the past, the encounter would stop there. Here, because of The Dream's size and rebounding ability, he knocked it free and gathered it up. Second chances like these can favor the novice and keep runs from getting out of hand.
The second is a new post-up control, which does away with last year's unwieldy, dual-trigger command to get a big man to back down his defender. Now it's on triangle/Y, and one touch gets his back to the basket, or gets him to face up. In addition to making half-court basketball less complicated, it also frees up the triggers, as modifiers, for those who are comfortable exploring a new range of post moves, counter-moves, and counters to those counters. It also means players like Al Jefferson, who post up their man, then quickly face up and drive, are represented more accurately and are more useful to your offense.
Overall refinements to defense, like the elimination of psychic steals and what I felt was looser play in the passing lanes, made the game breathe easier on offense. On defense, sharper intelligence on rotations have been implemented so that the CPU gets you help where you need it, and cuts down on multiplayer exploits like what was seen with the pick-and-roll last year.
Where players of all skill levels will have their strongest success in NBA 2K12 is in running set plays. This is something a minority of the game's players do, 2K Sports tells me, and it's largely attributable to an "I-got-this" mentality combined with not reading the instruction manual. I'm guilty of it, too. But there are new encouragements for you to try designed screens and ball-reversals. Simple post-up plays also do the dirty work of getting your big man into position for you, ready to take the shot.
New floor directions (the icons showing where to run and pass) help guide you through the play more intuitively, but the biggest benefit I saw was the addition of a "Run Best Play" option, which examines your floor personnel, determines who's best at getting two points, and dials up something. This is useful for those without much basketball knowledge, or those who tend to get panicky on key possessions. It's not contextual, though. If Dirk Nowitzki is on the floor, "Best Play" will probably be Dirk, every time. It can get players into some hot streaks; as a crutch, you might fatigue them or become too predictable.
Another innovation: You may run set plays off an inbounds from a timeout. In the timeout, which many button-through and accept whatever CPU substitutions are made, you can bring up a menu designating your inbounds passer, your shooter, and the type of shot you want. Coming out of the break, your stick control will be on the shooter. It's a very clean way of handling what we all see in crunch time, the coach with a white board, drawing up something to get a vital bucket.
One final note about plays: In the game's Association mode, if you traded or acquired a player, the playcalling scheme would remain static. Dirk Nowitzki would be assigned to plays more fitting for a traditional big man if he was traded for Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, for example. In NBA 2K12, the game's offensive scheme will recognize player traits and the default package of plays for his new team will be more consistent with that playing style. As a gamer customizes his playcalling, he can also assign play types that will, for example, have a pick-and-roll atop the plays designed for Jason Kidd, and then involve isolations and three-point shots as subordinate options.
Got all that? That's the brains. We can respect NBA 2K12 for its knockout good looks, too. The game's lighting and camera angle have both been adjusted and this, combined with "crowd pockets" that will visually react to a play helps deliver more broadcast authenticity. It's not totally perfect; you need a special play or a cutscene (such as the mascot shooting a T-shirt gun) to really see it. But when players dive into the crowd behind the baseline, they react. Players will go on top of the scorer's table for a loose ball, for that matter.
The biggest showcase for the game's visual style is in "NBA's Greatest," which offers 15 matchups anchored by all-time greats, with authentic broadcast visuals, and audio motifs, layered on top. A 1965 matchup between the Celtics and the Lakers played out in black-and-white (with blown-out edges of the screen mimicking an old TV tube). The commentary from Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and new analyst Steve Kerr sounded like it was coming through an old Philco radio.
Here's the thing, their commentary was offered from the present day. Jerry West pulling up for a 23-footer invited a comment from Kellogg about how that was a low-percentage shot in its day, whereas it is a staple of a game with a three-point line. The live call with documentary-style notations is a shrewd way to keep the game in character while using modern announcing voices.
More subtle rule variances (such as shot clock time resets) will be implemented, in addition to the absence of the three point line. Three-to-make-two foul shot situations will be in the pre-1979 era games, delighting trivia buffs (and their dads). For sticklers, the earliest game in "NBA's Greatest" is the first year of the lane at its modern width, so its markings are consistent throughout.
Consistently one of the most, if not the most, polished sports simulations, NBA 2K12 does not look like a game resting on a reputation earned by its predecessors. The attention to animations for play in the post are a great example. Players will transition from post-up moves into signature shots, as opposed to generic shot packages. Hakeem Olajuwon's "dream shake" will be a favorite once you discover how to key it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook will make you grin ear-to-ear, and he only goes into it when he's in the high post, and can take the shot righthanded. And it's not just for this play type, or the superstars. Vinnie Johnson's catapult from the wing will be delightful for anyone who saw The Bad Boys of Detroit playing live.
The net effect of this will be in one of the game's best legacy features, the "press book" of video replays and still shots. Played enough, and you'd start to see the same dunk, layup and jump shot animations bleeding together in NBA 2K11. These variances, combined with collisions, alterations and interruptions in between them, will provide a greater diversity of highlight reel moments.
While NBA 2K12 is not revolutionized in terms of its controls, and still assumes some knowledge either of the series or of the sport of basketball, I can sense a shallower learning curve in this game, through animations more connected to the controls, and a playcalling system that rewards novices and veterans. I've never felt more invited to play a sport so innately unfamiliar to me, and that counts soccer and hockey. I very much look forward to a second date with the game.