NBA2K12: Ending the Debate

NBA2K12, the latest entry in 2K Sports' long-running basketball franchise, hits store shelves today, and it's as slick and smooth-playing as befits a 21st-century sports juggernaut - and with the upcoming NBA season in some doubt, it's a good thing it mimics the real thing so closely. Maybe you won't be getting any NBA Today updates (and real-world rookies won't be appearing until the sport resolves its labor trouble), but the latest NBA2K looks back to the sport's golden years to give you a whole lot more.

The artists and designers took care to get all of the details right, and I mean all - they went so far as to make player tattoos recognizable. Especially when contemporary players are onscreen, aside from the telltale digitally rendered hair (Dirk Nowitzki's mane seems to have posed a particular challenge), you'll swear at times you're watching a live broadcast. All of the circus around contemporary sports is here; the draft, interviews, press conferences, product endorsements and signature footwear, courtside advertising, color commentary - it's downright ridiculous. And of course the game's Facebook page is more informative than the publisher's site.

Gameplay is as impressive as it's been in previous iterations, with a new set of streamlined menus and playcalling, and an AI that really does feel like it's playing against you, whether on offense or defense. You can't just run the ball up the court and hope for success - developers Visual Concepts have done a fine, fine job here.

But the real excitement, at least so far as I'm concerned, is the "NBA's Greatest" mode, which is so elaborate enough that it's almost a game in itself (it expands significantly on the classic teams) and it's where the careful attention to period-correct look and feel really pays off.

The mode includes full rosters of some of the greatest squads in basketball history, from the 1964-5 Lakers and Celtics, on through to the 1997-8 Chicago Bulls. The idea is that by pitting historical teams against each other and against today's teams, you'll be able to "end the debate" about who the greatest players and lineups of all time really were.

Of course, you may not be all that interested in debates - but even if you find such hypothetical questions better addressed by rotisserie basketball, the aesthetic presentation of the classic game may well be enough to keep you coming back for more.

While the presentation of contemporary games in NBA2K12 mimics today's broadcast approach, with multiple cameras in every conceivable position tracking players' every gesture and slow motion, multi-angle, highlight-film-ready replays available for very move, Visual Concepts went so far as to replicate period photography and camera moves for the historical gameplay. Not only, for example are the mid-1960s games presented in black-and-white, but the camera's more or less static throughout; a wide shot from the rafters takes in full-court play. The scorers sit at unadorned card tables, and there's nary a piece of advertising visible in the arena. Even the audio track has been bandpass filtered to replicate period broadcasting - and the commentary is a veritable hoops history lesson, full of thousands of tidbits on the players and lore of the game.

As you play through the last half-century of classic basketball, you'll be playing through the history of sports broadcasting, and the sport's transformation from a niche pursuit to a mass-market juggernaut over the course of the '80s. Color comes into play, more cameras (and more mobile cameras) are added, statistics overlays, wipes and animated effects make their way into the '90s game, as advertising eventually fills every available suface. The color commentary keeps pace with it all - it's hard to imagine the hundreds of hours of recording that went into creating enough content to keep the patter believable and apparently free of repetition.

If you've ever wanted to be Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan, or Elgin Baylor or John Havlicek for that matter – now you've got your chance. And it'll look and sound just like you remember.