Midway through an early season Hornets-Heat contest the screen cuts to a promotion telling me Friday night, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers take on the Denver Nuggets at Staples centre. Sounds like a good game, I think to myself. What time is that on? 7.30pm, the screen tells me.
Two days ago, David Stern canceled the first two weeks of the NBA season in real life. I'm in NBA 2K12, a video game doing its damndest to be a surrogate for a league that appears likely not to play this year, and possibly deep into next.
Some sports bar should put a computer-vs-computer game, from within an Association season, on its house TV and speakers one night during this lockout and see how many people in fact notice. NBA 2K12's player movement and behaviour, long a strength, is still the best you'll ever find in a sports video game. Abetted by a new collision system and a shown off with a best-in-class broadcast package, the on-court action is good enough to make that kind of Folger's switch worth trying in a noisy bar.
Yet its four main modes of play, from the time-capsule "NBA's Greatest" to online multiplayer, range from achievement to marginal improvement to inexcusable disappointment. That NBA 2K12 pulls — and deserves — rave reviews despite that mixed-bag performance speaks of the critical importance of gameplay, physics and presentation in the sports genre.
My day-one impressions covered NBA's Greatest in-depth; I'll revisit it here just to say that it is one of the most delightful concepts I've ever seen in sports video gaming. It touches a fan's deep sentiment for the history of the league and, with the lockout now officially cancelling regular season games, arrives just in time. For many, NBA's Greatest by itself makes this worth the purchase. For some, a single team offered in NBA's Greatest will be worth it.
Likewise, my original impressions covered the core gameplay of NBA 2K12 and a week later they still hold up. It is an extremely polished and smooth-playing game whose upgrades paid the most attention to areas that needed it: play-calling and battles in the post. The main singleplayer game modes take great steps in making simulation basketball accessible to fans with only a follow-the-ball exposure to the real-life game.
This review will, then, largely address the game's My Player career mode, its Association franchise mode, and its multiplayer offerings.
Bad news, Utah. Your future is a three-guard. I know that position doesn't exist; I created it, because that's all I shoot.
My Player, now in its third year, remade the beginning of its narrative to put your created player in the role of a stud college prospect likely to go in the first round of the draft. Previous modes had you as less of a Patrick Ewing and more of a John Starks, coming up through the NBA Developmental League.
That's not an experience common to most of the NBA's top players, which you are trying to become. The payoff here is that your rookie begins his career with stronger ratings, which also is very welcome. Simply getting the first part of the story right is a strong improvement for My Player.
In terms of your advancement, grinders who complete every drill and play all 82 games of the regular season should see one hell of a reward by the end of their rookie year, as such things accrue experience points that you use to improve your attributes or purchase specific abilities like dunk packages. For the rest of us, My Player now adds a "play next key game" that takes some of the guesswork out of which games to simulate and which ones to play live. If you're on a better team, especially one making a run at the playoffs, the game does a good job of identifying interdivisional and interconference matchups that need your contribution. If you're on a rebuilding squad, especially early in the year, key games are usually your divisional rivals.
The off-the-court interactions are beefed up with things like endorsements, magazine covers, billboard appearances and league and team promotions, giving a nice shine to the story of your rise to fame. Professional basketball has probably the most conspicuous lifestyle component of the major North American pro sports and 2K Sports does a great job of servicing it here. What undermines the immersion of My Player, though, is in a bizarre trading logic that often remakes the league by mid-season. It infects the game's Association mode, too, and it sees players like Amare Stoudemire and even LeBron James changing teams.
We should get at least a rookie season in an NBA that is largely familiar start-to-finish, limited to obvious contract-year superstars changing hands. The other problem is how your draft classmates were handled. The ongoing lockout prevents NBA 2K12 from using the likenesses of the actual draft selections. But the game does not replace them with role players anywhere near as talented. It gives you a huge head start on Rookie of the Year honours and all but seals monthly top rookie honours in your favour.
Finally, in gameplay, I encourage novices to go into the options and set "Run Plays" to On, PlayVision to "All Plays" and the display of those plays to Full. They need to know these options are there. It really opens up the game, makes you more of a team player, and teaches you something. I have little exposure to basketball on an organised level, and with these assists enabled I feel more like I'm participating in a team sport, rather than jacking up threes when I get the least bit of separation.
It should be noted that the game adds "Creating a Legend", which allows you to take control of any current player and steer him through a My Player career just as you would a created rookie. However, some of the My Player payoff, specifically the Hall of Fame cinematic at the end of your career, is not in this mode. So you can't use it as a cheap way to see what happens when you have a Top 50-type career. You'll have to earn that.
The broadcasts in Association mode are lifelike enough you could play them in a crowded sports bar and more than a few people wouldn't notice the difference.
Association has not had much done to it; we knew this going in. The presentation will still catch your attention, as I mentioned at the beginning. 2K Sports does this not only with overlays, wipes and a robust halftime show that picks up results from around the league, but also with specific pre-game cutscenes, such as the Dallas Mavericks receiving their championship rings before the season opener. You will get the story of a league this year, even if the real one is in exile.
The CPU's trading and general manager logic in Association is just as inscrutable as it is in My Player. The Heat twice offered to trade me LeBron James, who has three years left on his contract, and I refused out of obligation to realism. The Nuggets signed Danilo Gallinari to a four-year, $US22.75 million contract and then shipped him out 40 days later. That, I could not control.
Association's big addition comes more through the Online Association mode, which does not do a good job of explaining itself. This allows you to form or participate in leagues with as many as 31 players online. Unlike other online league modes, I was surprised to find that once I created one, I had to wait 12 hours before I could begin play in it. Presumably, this is to give others time to join up. If you're looking to play immediately, use the game's search tool and pick one that is in progress.
Even then, if your next game is against a human-controlled team, you're going to have to propose a time to play it and wait for the other guy to accept. Conveniently, you can do this from within the game itself, and you can schedule up to six games to be played in a single day, rather than waiting to do each one in sequence. The drawback is, if you're in a league where your next six games are all human opponents, you're going to be waiting on that instead of clearing out some of the CPU-controlled teams further down the line.
All the praise that NBA 2K12 has won sounds tone-deaf to the multiplayer gamer, and understandably so. NBA 2K11 removed one online mode, "My Crew", where one could take a created My Player online. The rest of the multiplayer offerings have been plagued by launch week problems that have become all too common for 2K Sports.
In no way am I as dedicated a multiplayer gamer as NBA 2K12's hard core. I get my arse kicked whenever I venture into a quick match. So a couple of things peeved even me. The first is the removal of lobbies altogether. last year they were accessible from the Quick Match ready screen by clicking X/square to see who was online. This year, you don't have that option. You're either getting thrown in the shark pool of quick match, or you better know friends with the game and invite them to play. There's a menu option for Virgin Mobile sponsored tournaments but so far there's nothing in there. I have no idea if these will be segregated by ability or not.
The second peeve is the fact that nearly every game begins with a long wait in-menu while my opponent, obviously more sophisticated about this than I am, sets up everything from his playbook and even his camera settings, which as near as I can tell, are not portable online.
In off-peak times, and I'm coming in from the west coast, the connection issues are not as apparent. Otherwise, gamers have been battling dropped connections and lag that make finishing games an extreme challenge of one's patience. Simply connecting to a quick match game could send the game spinning, searching endlessly for an opponent despite the fact the main screen says something like 20,000 people are connected at the time.
There are rumoured plans for paid downloadable content that add a "Legends Showcase" online mode; 2K Sports officially will not comment. They probably know they need to get their act together before they start talking about this kind of an extension. They may even need to give it away for free to quell the anger in their community, which has complained nearly as much about connection problems as it has about 2K's communication, or lack thereof, regarding them.
While I'm hearing that a fix is coming soon, that sounds no different than previous releases of MLB 2K or NBA 2K in which a patch is rolled and something is still wrong, requiring contorted workarounds implemented by the gamer himself. Multiplayer gamers would have every reason to hold off on this game, or consider trading it back in even, as an act of protest. It is upsetting that 2K Sports continues to undermine such a strong game overall with bad multiplayer support, and even more upsetting that it has become so predictable.
Despite what it doesn't do, or does poorly (in the case of multiplayer), NBA 2K12 is still one of the most fundamentally enjoyable sports video games I've ever gotten my hands on. I racked my brain for a reason why NBA 2K12's online problems rate it a benefit of the doubt that titles like Call of Duty would never get. The difference is in the singleplayer experience.
That's cold comfort for those who want this to take their game online. Despite the multiplayer woes and the justified anger 2K Sports is facing for them, this still is the best playing NBA simulation ever made, and can be tremendously engrossing when you approach it as a means to create your own reality—whether that's an alternate past between great teams or a present-day season that may not happen in real life.
NBA 2K12 is a desert island game, in that this, a console, TV and a fridge full of beer (and, yes, a generator) could get me through a long period of isolation. Or cause one back here in civilisation.