NBA 2K13 review: Double dribble

For the last two years, the NBA 2K series has managed to wow me with its unending quest to improve and build upon its predecessors. The inclusion of Jordan and his unique-yet-punishing challenges in NBA 2K11 allowed me to relive his most memorable moments. In NBA 2K12, I was able to replay classic match-ups from yesteryear and experience the NBA's lineage like never before.

Perhaps the bar was set too high, because NBA 2K13 has little sizzle to go along with its scrumptious steak. The core gameplay is bolstered by a simplified new scheme driven by the right analog stick, and customization options have been streamlined through an in-game currency system. While both give NBA 2K13 a real run at the championship, a lot of the other things surrounding these components show little improvement over previous offerings.%Gallery-162192% The NBA 2K series has traditionally featured some of the most complicated controls of any sports series, but this year introduces the right analog stick as a primary means of control. NBA 2K13 doubles down on the right analog stick – in previous iterations, the right stick allowed you to fine-tune your shot approach in the air, but now it's also used to control dribbles and perform just about every move in the game.

Doing things like crossovers and spins feel natural when using the shot stick, accomplished through a simple half circle movement at any time, though it can be tricky to get exactly what you want in a tense gameplay situation. If you're posted up at the top of the key and a defender is breathing down your neck, faking to the side and circling out towards the low post area won't always allow you to get the wiggle room you need. Obviously different player ratings come into effect in this situation, but what feels like the same motion on the right stick can occasionally wind up with different results. In one instance, your player will magically shoot at the right moment. In another, he'll move behind the backboard before the jump shot animation even begins.

Performance in these situations – for me at least – didn't always play out in the way I had hoped. Moving the right analog stick a hair too little or too much would drastically change the animation and, in this particular scenario, could mean the difference between a tight spin and quick jumper or my player doing a quick spin and casually moving out of the right shot zone. It was almost as if I'd queued up an action, unable to interrupt the player's animation unless I used a face button to stop it and force a shot.

The shot stick is a godsend when driving a crowded lane for a lay-up and you need to adjust your approach with a last second finger roll or mid-air fake, just as it was last year. Sometimes, however, you just need the quick responsiveness of a button press. Still, overall, NBA 2K13 handles as well on the hardwood as I'd expected; it's a polished experience without equal.

My Player makes a return in NBA 2K13 in an slightly expanded role as My Career, in which you get drafted, start as an NBA rookie and work your way to success. My Career is the big time sink in NBA 2K13 and it's great to control your player's development and rise to fame in the NBA. Unfortunately everything outside of your time on the court is a horrible mess, showing no improvement over last year's game.

You still conduct post-game interviews and have chats with the GM and scouts, which effects how you're viewed by your team, management and fans, but every GM and scout are the same ugly, bald man. Your player still looks like an awkward facsimile of a person sitting there with his long arms and grossly gigantic hands clipping through his legs, and there's little nuance to these discussion segments. From a presentation standpoint, they're painful, and I found myself rushing past them just to get back on the court where NBA 2K13 isn't an awkward train wreck.

Your player's progress is handled a bit differently in NBA 2K13, thanks to a currency system that drives all unlocks, both cosmetic and performance-based. Depending on how well you do in games or the dynamic challenges that pop up in random key matchups – closing the gap when your team is down by 10, get a certain number of rebounds, etc. – you'll earn Virtual Currency (VC).

In fact, Virtual Currency is earned by doing just about anything in NBA 2K13, though the payouts are fairly small, so a great deal of grinding is required if you're looking to amass any kind of worthwhile stash. You begin the game with 1,000 VC, which is ample enough to get you started. You spend this currency to purchase shoes, hair styles and other cosmetic flair, or you can use it for more functional items like attributes and signature skills.

Signature skills differentiate your players and make them unique. These modifiers allow for greater success on offense, defense and other areas. Signature skills can make your shots harder to block, improve your dunking or even increase referee persuasion in certain foul scenarios. You can even buy skills that ward against cold streaks or increase your teammate's defense attributes every time you're on the court. There are plenty of skills to buy, helping you create more dynamic, multifaceted players, as opposed to just being the offensive rebound guy or the guy who can drain threes but not much else.

Another way to improve your character's stats is to enroll in the Legends Training Camp scenarios in My Career. These are specific training scenarios tied to a particular NBA legend. Larry Bird might teach you how to shoot proper jump shots, while Jordan teaches you lay-ups and dunks. These regimented training programs also serve double duty teaching you the new control scheme, but you've got to pay VC to enroll, and you can only enroll in two per season. There are other drills that aren't taught by NBA legends, though the VC gain is negligible and you can't retry from within the drill, making failure annoying and frustrating as you sit through loading screens waiting to try again.

NBA 2K13's other big addition is My Team, a less-than-stellar clone of EA's Ultimate Team mode seen in FIFA and Madden, where players construct a custom team deck from card packs they purchase with in-game currency. You'll use VC to improve stats and purchase booster packs in the pursuit of creating the perfect team, though ultimately My Team comes off as more of a distraction than the full-fledged offering that My Career mode is.

Then there's the USA Olympics inclusion, a match-up that pits the '92 Dream Team up against this year's Olympic squad. Adding both teams to NBA 2K13 is fine and all, but it's hardly the heated competition and legacy love letter that were NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenges or last year's rivalries match-ups. You can play as either Olympic squad, which is great, but the novelty wears thin pretty quickly.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the "Executive Produced by Jay-Z" on the front of the box. His contribution to the game basically boils down to the soundtrack, input on how things should look and ... some Jay-Z concert footage that plays during the game's opening cinematic. For all I know his involvement may have been extensive, but the end effect is minimal at best.

The foundation of NBA 2K13, everything that happens on the court, is excellent: a tight, responsive control system and strong simulation mechanics are the heart of this game. Everything that happens off the court, however, feels slapped-together and half-baked. Respectively, My Career and My Team come off as uninspired and lazy this year. They don't demonstrate the same care and diligence I've come to expect from the franchise, and honestly I'm worried developer Visual Concepts is running out of steam.

Competition is a wonderful driving force, something that pushes businesses to outclass one another and helps individuals stand out from their peers, a very real necessity for just about all things – especially developer Visual Concepts. With EA deciding to cancel the latest entry of its own basketball series yet again, I'm concerned that Visual Concepts won't be driven to progressively set the bar higher and higher as it has with NBA 2K11 and NBA 2K12. As for NBA 2K13, the bar has definitely slipped a notch or two, and while it may be the best basketball game you'll play this year, being the best by default isn't enough.


This review is based off a retail copy of NBA 2K13, provided by 2K Sports.

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