Basketball fans, rejoice. Even though the first two weeks of the 2012 NBA season are cancelled with the team owners and the players’ union nowhere near reaching an agreement, NBA 2K12 will sate your hunger for dramatic blocks and game-winning shots. Historians of the game have the Greatest Players mode to finish arguments on which stars from different eras were supreme, while fans can aspire to the NBA Finals with their very own players or carefully managed franchise. All the facets of NBA 2K12 are fun and accurate representations of the sport, but the game lacks a consistent theme and presentation to surpass last year’s affair with Michael Jordan.

2K Sports made strides in perfecting its already extremely realistic basketball engine. To be effective, you have to get the ball to the open man and take uncontested shots. Even 7’2″ Wilt Chamberlain will find it difficult to score when surrounded by opponents, and passing through defenders, especially on a fast break, just results in turning the ball over. The controls respond to your commands well, but you’ll still pass to the wrong player unless you specifically select your target. Getting open off the dribble is not easy, and I liked that it takes some time to master head fakes and hesitation moves. And thank the maker 2K Sports figured out that lobbing full court shots after hitting the rebound/shoot button one too many times just wasn’t very fun.

The simulation isn’t perfect, however. The play calling interface makes it easy to get your team in motion, but I wish there was more visual feedback on how the players were going to move. Cutting through the lane is tough; getting too close to a defender will tie you up for a few beats. That may be physically realistic, but when it results in the whistle-happy refs calling a three-second violation, it’s just damn frustrating – not to mention illegal. The game also has a difficult time distinguishing between tapping a button for a pump-fake and taking an actual shot. Too many times the shot clock wound down with my player endlessly pump-faking instead letting loose with the ball. These are quibbles though; in general NBA 2K12 plays about as realistically as a game can.

I had the most fun with the new Greatest Players mode, which lets you play 15 of the game’s best players in their heyday. Debates over the selections aside – was it really necessary to give us 1998 John Stockton and Karl Malone instead of, say, Shaq or Bob Cousy? – the presentation of these games feels painstakingly accurate and the picture quality and on-screen stat graphics change with each era.The earliest game, Bill Russell’s Celtics in 1965, is even in black and white. The players move and react closely to how they did on the court. I had a great time playing the Big Three from Boston in 1986, listening to the announcing team offer insight and trivia on all the players on the court, not just the star being featured. When Phil Jackson entered the game for the 1971 Knicks, Clark Kellogg was quick to point out that before he was the Zen Master who coached both Jordan and Kobe to 11 championships, he was also a fan favorite off the bench in New York.

The popular My Player mode was overhauled a bit, getting your meticulously crafted power forward or crafty guard into the spotlight faster than ever. You only have to play one pre-draft game to set your position in the draft, and wasting time in the D-League is no longer necessary. After the rookie showcase game, three GMs will interview your player and how you answer their questions determines where you end up. You have a bit of control over your player’s fate, but I wish the game let you know which teams were interested before the first interview. After talking to the Pacers and the Rockets, the Knicks came knocking and I would have tanked the first two in order to play in New York.

For the first time your player’s career is judged by his performance both on and off the court. Each game has objectives that you must complete to earn skill points, but it’s a bit annoying that these range from simple to completely beyond your control. Being asked to score four layups isn’t that tough, but being tasked with grabbing two offensive rebounds is hard when your team refuses to miss a shot. The objectives also sometimes encourage negative behavior; I almost fouled out trying to get two steals in a game just to meet the goal.

The new post-game press conference is important as well. The press will ask questions and how you respond can increase local fan support and improve teammate relationships. These factors will affect what contracts you’re offered in the years to come, so how you respond matters. I loved that role-playing genre standards like multiple dialogue choices have made their way into sports games, even if the problem of not quite knowing what you’ll say based on the one line prompt persists.

The Association is the franchise mode for the NBA 2K series with many options for running your team as a general manager. Not much has changed or improved other than revising player ratings for the non-existent 2012 season. Offering trades, setting practice days and playbooks are all in a days’ work for an Association GM, but I also liked that I could ignore all that stuff and just play a few games. Online leagues allow you to invite a few friends and play through a season or two together even if you don’t live in the same zip code.

All of these features and modes should add up to a perfect sports game, but after delving deep into NBA 2K12 I felt something was missing. Last year’s NBA 2K11 opened up with Michael Jordan’s entrance from the tunnel to the adulation of the Chicago Stadium crowd and the flavor of the entire game was tinted red as you guided His Airness through his storied career. The experience was special for a sports game, and while 2K12 offers many improvements on the various modes, I never felt so engaged. NBA 2K12 is an excellent game, but it just doesn’t capture the magic of an overall theme like its predecessor did.

Bottom Line: Playing as NBA legends in their prime is awesome, and the My Player improvements are great, but the amalgamation of modes and features doesn’t transcend the genre like last year’s game did.

Recommendation: If you have always wanted to relive the history of the game through its stars, you should pick up NBA 2K12. Heck, the way the lockout is going, if you want to experience any representation of professional basketball in 2012 at all, it might be worth buying this game.

[rating=4.5]

This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.

Game: NBA 2K12
Genre: Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PSP, PC, PS2, iOS
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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