Up until last week I was still playing NBA 2K11. No other sports game has lasted me as long, and I was contemplating skipping this year's version because, hey, 2K11 is still fun and I like to take breaks between my sports games. That would have been a colossally stupid move. NBA 2K12 takes everything I love about last year and makes it better. Then it takes nearly all the parts I didn't like and turns them awesome. Hey, other sports games, you just got schooled. Again.
NBA 2K12 has three different covers highlighting the athletes that define basketball (though most gamers will see the Michael Jordan cover, marking the second year in a row his Airness takes the spot). But it's about a lot more than MJ this year. Last year's Jordan Challenges were the highlight of the game, but 2K12's NBA's Greatest mode trumps it. Michael Jordan is back, and along with him come Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, and 10 other basketball greats. They're matched up in games against other basketball legends such as the '93 Hornets, Dikembe Mutombo and Shaq with the Orlando Magic. Every team you play as and against is unlockable, letting you pit the greatest players of the last 40-plus years against the stars of today. Want to see Dwight Howard go head to head against Shaq in his prime? Of course you do because that's awesome.
Each game gets the full presentational treatment. (You're going to hear a lot about presentation in this review, because NBA 2K12's is astounding.) The games are treated like television broadcasts from the era, so Bill Russel's mid-'60s Celtics game is in black and white. The announcers treat the games like playbacks, talking about your performance as if it already happened and sharing trivia about the players.
Last year, two of the biggest complaints were the cheap defensive AI and the alien looking players. NBA 2K12 improves on both counts, but it's not perfect. The defense never lets up and will take advantage on every play if you let them. They still occasionally become psychic (my favorite was Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood executing a perfect backhanded block without ever turning around to see me coming in for the layup), but it's rarer. The fact is that you're given so much more control of your footwork and shots, that it's up to you to get around the defense, because the game won't do it for you anymore. Choosing which hand to shoot the layup from or which way to fake before a jump shot makes or breaks every point in the game, and NBA 2K12 give you full control. It takes a little while to get fully accustomed to, but the amount of control you have is incredible.
As for the players, many of them look better. Kobe Bryant got a noticeable improvement. There are still alien looking players on every team, and each time the game cuts to them it is a bit jarring. Everything else about the game looks so amazing, that it really stands out. People would watch me play and comment on how fantastic the game looks, and then boom, Jarret Jack comes on screen looking like he got stung by bees in his face or Steve Nash shows his hideous mug. (Granted, Nash is kind of ugly anyway, but still.)
For me, the improvements to My Player sold me on the game. Last year, My Player was the most popular mode in the game, which is surprising considering how slowly it started. For NBA 2K12, the developers streamlined the draft process. Instead of pickup games and a possible trip to the D-League, you hop into a single game, with full presentation, commentary, crowds, and flair. From there you go into interviews with three potential teams (so you can fine tune who exactly you end up with), and then it's straight to the draft.
After that, the mode feels very similar: you control your guy, meeting game objectives and trying to be a team player. But the developers made it easier to get into the game by making your player start out with higher stats and making the Teammate Grade system more forgiving. It's easier at first, but that's because this year you're trying to get into the Hall of Fame, which is no easy feat. You'll have to play your ass off to meet the requirements, and it takes a long time. My Player is one of the most robust single-player modes in a sports game, rivaling MLB The Show's "Road to the Show" mode. The gameplay is tighter, the presentation is broader, and it finally feels like your character is an actual NBA athlete.
Association, NBA 2K12's franchise mode, returns and is largely similar to last year's, but that's not a bad thing. Association does a wonderful job of putting you in control of the team. It's here that the presentation and commentary outshine other sports games. 2K12 treats every game like a televised matchup, with intros, animated roster lineups, and commercials for upcoming games. The crowds and stadiums are realistic and react to how well your team does. Seeing nobody show up to a Charlotte Bobcats game (a serious real life issue for the franchise) and then watching the seats fill as you take the Bobcats to their first ever playoff appearance highlights the level of detail. Playing the same team for dozens of games will cause the commentary to repeat a bit, but that's coupled with a multitude of commentary for every other team you play. There was an amazing bit where the commentators started joking about which famous politicians they roomed with in college, poking fun at Grant Hill's parents. I "WTFed" in the best way possible.
In Association, the trade AI is still smart, and won't be fooled easily, but they still offer up some odd deals that are objectively sound but realistically stupid. Sure, Chris Paul is having the best season of his career when I played him, but there is no way the Heat would offer Lebron James for him after their whole "this is a Dynasty" talk.
What I'm most excited about with Association is the new online mode. Players can set up a franchise and play with friends for an entire season. The demo I got and the few games I've played have been great, but it's hard to say how it will hold up when the servers get flooded. In a week or so, we'll come back with a full report on it.