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NBA 2K12 Review

This photo provided by Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc./2K Sports shows NBA 2K12 Basketball video game. (AP Photo/Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc./2K Sports, Adam Larson NBA 2K12

A year after raising the bar to unmatched levels for a basketball game, 2K Sports set out to prove it could eclipse its own high-water mark. But with the NBA lockout nullifying offseason roster moves and denying developer Visual Concepts the inclusion of rookies, is NBA 2K12 a must-buy after last year's blockbuster?

NBA 2K12's standout new mode is NBA's Greatest, a collection of 15 games that features some of the NBA's most legendary players. Some of these matchups pit Dominique Wilkins' 1985 Hawks against Larry Bird's '85 Celtics, the '94 Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Dikembe Mutombo's '94 Nuggets and even the '64 Celtics with Bill Russell against the '64 Lakers and Jerry West. The developers go through the painstaking task of applying signature styles to each of these legends, recreating these players' go-to moves. But the authenticity doesn't stop there. The matchup between the '64 teams is in black and white and the announcers have that muffled, antique radio quality. The stat overlays and graphics also feel like they've been pulled from the '60s.

This level of broadcast authenticity permeates throughout the mode. Games in the '70s are shown in Technicolor and matchups in the '80s have a grainy look and period-specific graphical elements. Steve Kerr has been added to the broadcast team with series staples Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg returning. The trio calls the game as if it were a rebroadcast from years past, providing engaging anecdotes that even die-hard basketball fans may not have known about these legends.

Unlike last year's Jordan Challenge, there's no statistical milestone you have to accomplish in these games. The goal is to win each game, which unlocks both teams for use throughout other modes. For fans of David Robinson, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and the other greats, this mode allows you to play with some of the game's all-time greats but now with 2K's fantastic gameplay, which breathes life into these once-towering stars. You can even play with younger versions of Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, providing a more explosive version of some of today's aging stars.

But 2K12 is far from a one-hit wonder. The developers have upgraded its vastly popular My Player in almost every way. The customization has been beefed up. A deeper collection of sneakers and accessories along with a more robust facial creation suit allow you to mold a player all your own. The bevy of jump shot animation decisions is almost overwhelming, giving you freedom to choose nearly every detail of your player's on-court signature style.

Once on the court, you're no longer tasked with performing in front of a half-empty arena to prove your worth to scouts. The addition of a rookie showcase, a one-game tryout at a packed Madison Square Garden with the three-man booth calling the action, removes that hollow feeling from last year's draft combine. After completing this game, teams interested in your performance will interview you. The teams will ask anything from if you're interested in playing your entire career with them to would you mind playing behind the team's intrenched starter at your position. Your answers will influence where you might be selected in the draft.

The draft is another highlight. The Visual Concepts team has brought on board NBA Commissioner David Stern to introduce all the draftees. Even Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver calls out the second round. After the draft, your career begins. Experience points are doled out for performing in-game tasks, finishing with a solid teammate grade and completing dynamic goals. Experience points can be spent on improving your attributes, but this year you can also buy abilities, which improve your effectiveness for specific moves -- like a spin move or hop step.

Another addition this year to My Player is contracts. After your two-year rookie deal is up, you can negotiate a new deal with your current team or opt to go elsewhere for bigger bucks. You will be paid every two weeks and can spend money on a number of items, like throwing a party for teammates, donating to charity or even buying different dunk packages.

On the court, your teammates in My Player perform more lifelike than in previous versions. Veterans to the series will notice the scores are more realistic and you won't reel off long winning streaks like in years past. If playing every game is not your thing, you can play only key matchups, allowing you to play through multiple seasons quickly and if your play is something special make the Hall of Fame.

But the meat and potatoes of the NBA 2K series has always been the gameplay, and 2K12 has also refined this. The biggest change for series vets is moving the post-up button to the Y (triangle for PlayStation 3). This tweak has opened up the post game by freeing the triggers on the controller to allow you to pull off up-and-unders, shoulder fakes and countless other moves with more ease. The ball itself also seems more alive. Dribblers will lose the ball without opposing players going for steals, rebounds are less predetermined as the ball sometimes will bounce between players before being corralled. Couple this with additional animations that breathe even more life to the on-court action, and 2K12 has leapfrogged its predecessor in an area that seemed impossible to top in 2K11.

Association mode is as deep as ever, allowing players to tweak a number of options to make the experience taylor made to your liking. The three-man booth will call out the action with lifelike accuracy while also providing ever-changing information that pertains to what's specifically happening in your Association. In-game percentages are also spot on and the graphical overlays provide more in-depth stats, like the amount of points a specific player has scored compared to the rest of his teammates.

The presentation has received a tremendous facelift. There are a number of different pregame introductions that keep each matchup fresh. You can customize in-game music to be played during specific moments in each game. Camera angles will change depending on which arena you play in, providing an even greater broadcast feel. The developers also have upgraded a majority of the player's faces and the in-game lighting really lends more realism to each player's likeness.

The development team is also prepared for an eventual resolution to the lockout -- if it occurs this season. The rookies that are not under contract and are not in 2K12 are still on the disc and will be unlocked via an online roster update if there is an agreement. But Visual Concepts has upgraded its roster updates too, allowing the team to alter a player's hair cut, tattoos, sneakers or even if a team makes alterations to its court. But if the season is cancelled, this feature will not meet its full potential without real NBA players taking the court.

NBA 2K's biggest achilles heel has been its online performance and it appears this is still the case. Attempting to play the team-up mode -- where you and four others take on a team of five other human players -- was an arduous task. Waiting to get into a match was a slow process and once in, disconnections were common. Some matches would begin with the maximum number of players (10) but that number would dwindle as the game continued. A number of my games abruptly ended because of no more players in the match.

When these issues were not occurring, the gameplay itself was mostly smooth. A "waiting for opponent screen" would pop up from time to time, interrupting the action and timing -- a key element when trying to defend guards or attempting to knock down a jump shot.

One-on-one matches were a much smoother experience. There was some slight lag initially but that disappeared as the match continued.

The biggest addition this year to 2K's online suite is Online Association, giving players a chance to use nearly all the features of the offline mode against other players online. All 30 teams can be controlled by human players or some teams can be controlled by the AI. Season length can be adjusted and flexible schedules are also available to help a league move along at a steady clip.

But as Visual Concepts giveth, the developers also decided to taketh away, eliminating the very popular crew mode that allowed players to take their My Players online and form a persistent team. This mode had been plagued with hacks in years past and it appears Visual Concepts opted to remove it.

Online notwithstanding, 2K has outdone itself once again. The gameplay has been given an another tuneup, refining the little things that make this the most comprehensive simulation of the hardwood to date. With a prolonged lockout appearing to be on the horizon, NBA fans can get their hoops fix and more from NBA 2K12.

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