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Showing Little, NBA 2K12 Makes Its Presence Known

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Michael Jordan didn't sit around contemplating his greatness and, a year after featuring him in their game-of-the-year heirloom NBA 2K11, 2K Sports has come to terms with the fact it can't either.

And yet, facing the toughest encore in annual sports gaming, on video gaming's biggest stage, they left about half the game back at 2K Sports headquarters in Novato, Calif. Deliberately. Curious about improvements to Association, its franchise mode, and My Player, its singleplayer career? They'll talk about that later. Defensive AI and player performance? Ask in August. And, facing a labor lockout, what will become of NBA Today? There are contingency plans, is all 2K wills ay.


What they chose to lead with, last night at Sony's E3 news conference (seen above), also isn't a feature set that's big on core fans' radars. Motion control? Many sports fans tune out to the concept, especially when it is advertised as a means of getting casual players into the game.

The E3 message with NBA 2K12 is more one of reading between the lines. It was the only licensed sports simulation getting a live demonstration at a console maker's news conference. It had Kobe Bryant on hand to pitch it. And, for the core, there was a very good looking video game on the screen even if Bryant himself dribbled straight out of bounds trying to get the hang of the Move controls.


That high level of visual polish, with new features meant to wrap your game in more of a live broadcast, was the entire basis of the closed-doors demonstration 2K's giving here. We saw Game Four of the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks-playing tonight in real life. The lead in featured a montage of highlights from the preceding game and commentary to frame the game in the context of a championship series.

Locker-room shots, cheerleaders, crowd dynamics and other pre-game ambience built out an introduction that, producer Erick Boenisch said, will be dynamic game-to-game and designed to keep players from buttoning through broadcast interstitials, as they usually do when such things become repetitive. In a way, it forms a pre-game bookend to the Press Book feature 2K Sports games have had at the end of their games for a couple of years now.

That's fine, but what about the gameplay visuals? While there are some issues that need tuning (some seen in the gameplay demonstration above) on the whole this game feels a good bit smoother than what we saw in NBA 2K11. The biggest problem with a free-flowing game like basketball is a player popping from one animation into another rather than smoothly transitioning to it. I saw very little of that.

In dead-ball periods, when the camera moves to close ups, even in NBA 2K11 you'd get players roaming and about-facing in an unnatural way; NBA 2K12 seems to have refined a lot of that out. In-game actions only looked unnatural when our demonstrator (there was no hands-on) attempted a pass or launched into a jump shot at a completely inadvisable point in the game (called out as such, of course, by the commentary team).


Player modeling was a lot stronger. It's awkward to say, but Dwyane Wade was too dark in NBA 2K11; this game gets his skin tone right, to the point he's recognizable in the face from the main camera view in game. Teammate Chris Bosh also saw considerable improvement, though Boenisch says he's a little too old-looking right now. "We just got his head Thursday," he said, straightfaced.

In gameplay, very little looked to be different and 2K Sports wasn't talking about anything we didn't spot or wasn't shown. Last year's demonstration spotlighted a lot of the control changes introduced to the game, particularly in the player's move set on the right analog stick. This year, the message seems to be that the game will play true to its predecessor and our improvements are going to come in career mode upgrades and content elsewhere in the game. Free throws did appear to be a little different, with an arc above the player's head showing the path of the shot, probably to provide a little more feedback in an aspect of the game that's been left largely up to timing and feel.


So, free throws and more TV? Those are hardly back-of-the-box bullet points. But 2K Sports isn't budging off its rollout schedule for its signature game, not even for E3. My Player, which some (myself included) lingered on your player's development outside of the NBA too long, is going to get a strong upgrade Boenisch said, he just wouldn't articulate what, exactly. Association, he said, is under-appreciated for what goes on behind the scenes within the simulation, and what it takes to bring the events of a season in full swing to life. This year's franchise mode will make that more apparent, he said.

"Last year, this game won 21 sports game-of-the-year awards," Boenisch said. "That's great. This year, I want it to win 35."