CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For everything that developer Visual Concepts had added to its "NBA 2K" franchise in recent years - Michael Jordan, NBA legends and classic teams, to name a few - something was missing for me. And no, that something isn't Jay Z, whose influence as executive producer is felt throughout "NBA 2K13," from the soundtrack he helped select to the stylish menus and snazzy game intro videos.
No, what was missing from "NBA 2K12," and even "NBA 2K11," was the fun. That's not to say the last two "NBA 2K" titles weren't good because they were. But in order to get the most out of those games, you had to master a complicated control scheme and deal with a hefty learning curve that, frankly, sapped much of the fun from the experience.
In "NBA 2K13," Visual Concepts has addressed this by simplifying the controls via transferring dribbling moves to the right analog stick, while maintaining the simulation feel of the gameplay. The end result is a game that is now much more inviting to both series newcomers and basketball beginners, yet still offers plenty of depth for hardcore hoops junkies. Small things like manual bounce passes and improved fast breaks are welcome additions, and the introduction of Signature Skills for players helps further blur the line between what I see on "2K13" and what I see when I sit down to watch the real NBA. Best of all, the change in controls and subtle additions to the on-court gameplay has brought the fun back to "NBA 2K."
"NBA 2K13" offers plenty of ways to experience this great gameplay, from an improved My Player mode that brings an RPG-feel to the game and a beefed-up Association mode to the new My Team mode that has you building your own squad of NBA stars, a la EA Sports' various Ultimate Team modes. Classic teams and players are back, and "2K13" has added both the most recent Olympic team along with the famed 1992 "Dream Team," so gamers can finally answer the question of which team is the best.
Away from the core game, gamers can dabble in the Shoe Creator, designing their own custom kicks and assigning them to players in the league, or take the court with a team made up of "celebrities" like Justin Bieber. These additions to the "2K" franchise likely won't add much for those just looking for a great NBA sim, but it further adds to the game's push into the mainstream that began with its more accessible control scheme.
The Xbox 360 version that I reviewed also features Kinect functionality that allows you to call plays, substitute players and yell at referees by way of the sensor's microphone. The feature works as advertised and adds a whole new level of immersion to the game. It felt surprisingly natural to call for screens and switch defenses using voice commands. This is the best use for Kinect I've seen in the sports genre.
"NBA 2K13" may be the only basketball game in town this year, but the developers at Visual Concepts haven't rested on their collective laurels. This is the most polished, refined and yes, fun, iteration of the "NBA 2K" franchise ever. It offers something for everyone, whether you're looking to control one player or an entire franchise, build your own Dream Team or play as the real deal, or maybe just throw down a dunk on Bieber. By default "NBA 2K13" is the best basketball game you'll play this year, but it has earned the distinction of being one of the year's best sports games.