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Review: "NBA 2K13" delivers stellar soundtrack, gameplay

"Allow me to reintroduce myself ..."

As executive producer Jay-Z welcomes you to "NBA 2K13" with one of his classic anthems, you immediately realize the NBA 2K series has seemed to reach its zenith. The bombastic opening cinematic is apropos, because there are enough gameplay changes and upgrades to feel somewhat foreign but the faithful recreation of the NBA reminds you that this is still the award-winning sports series. The developers at Visual Concepts Entertainment have stepped up their game in nearly every way - from the on-court gameplay to the ever-increasing modes - to craft one of the most engaging sports titles ever.

For a franchise that has cornered the market - literally - the past few years, the NBA 2K series wasn't in need of wholesale changes. But the developers refused to rest of their laurels, opting to make a fundamental tweak to one of the core elements of the game - the dribbling mechanic. But this risk, coupled with another year of honing gameplay that has become second to none on the hardwood, has translated into a must-own title for any basketball fan.

Since its inception, the NBA 2K series has used a dribbling system dubbed Isomotion, which mapped dribbling moves to the left stick while advanced maneuvers were pulled off by pulling the triggers. This freed the right stick to control shooting, allowing for more control of layups, dunks and momentum-based jump shots.

This year, Visual Concepts opted to map dribbling to the right stick while allowing players to still control their shots with the right stick by holding the left trigger. What has resulted is a more responsive, easier-to-control dribbling system that enhances what has become a near-lifelike experience on the court. Crossovers, spin moves, inside-out dribbles and hesitation moves seem to be more accessible this year than ever before in the series. But the developers, who strive for authenticity, were smart to have these dribble moves affect your player's stamina, penalizing players who think they can devolve the on-court action into a streetball affair.

Another apparent upgrade was made to the on-ball defense. In years past, the offensive player seemed to have a distinct advantage, especially on the perimeter, because defenders were almost unable to keep players from getting to the basket. In "NBA 2K13," defenders seem to have more weight and lateral movement, negating offensive players from almost morphing through their defenders. On-ball defense has never felt so rewarding. Now, with proper positing, defenders can deny players driving lanes, creating a more realistic experience.

Passing has also undergone an overhaul. For years in the series, crisp passes were the exception - not the rule. This has been rectified in NBA 2K13. Players now whip the ball around the court, providing more realism and penalizing double-teaming defenses. The developers also added the ability to perform bounce passes on command. Now taking advantage of small passing windows by threading a bounce pass between defenders on a fastbreak is very satisfying because you're dictating the type of pass.

NBA 2K13 2K Sports

Gameplay isn't the only aspect that has undergone significant changes. Jay-Z's contributions are unmistakable. The soundtrack is hands down the best hip-hop compilation in any sports game ever produced. Classics like Nas' "The World is Yours", Eric B and Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke" and Mobb Deep's "Shook Ones, Pt. II" are some of the many hand-picked tracks by the hip-hop mogul. Jay also added some of his own hits like "Public Service Announcement" and "Run This Town."

But his influence goes far beyond the soundtrack. Pre-game intro sequences are a mixture of gameplay footage and real music videos, keeping the intros fresh and providing an emotional lift before hitting the hardwood. Not all of Jay-Z's contributions hit the right note. The game's menus have more gold accents and now pulsate to the music. However, the look of the menus and overlays is not for the better. The series was inching closer and closer to a broadcast presentation, but this change breaks the immersion.

The three-man broadcasting crew of Kevin Harlan, Steve Kerr and Clark Kellogg has never been better. Harlan, the play-by-play man, flawlessly keeps up with the action while Kerr and Kellogg provide background. The NBA 2K series continues to lead all sports franchises in this aspect, providing a level of depth and continuity that is unrivaled.

My Career, formerly known as My Player, also received a facelift. You now have more control over your career with the ability to have meetings with your general manager, in which you can discuss playing time, your relationship with your coach and teammates and other aspects of your NBA journey. You can also choose which endorsements you want to accept, from Nike to Team Jordan and other brands.

The mode still rewards you with experience points (dubbed Virtual Currency) for on-court performance that you can spend on attribute upgrades, but Visual Concepts added other avenues to spend your VC. Signature Skills provide temporary attribute boosts during certain situations, such as Corner Specialist, which gives a 5 percent bonus when shooting from the corner at a standstill position. There are 31 skills to choose from and three levels per skill, each level providing a greater boost but also costing more XP.

If you'd rather have your player be more flamboyant, there are additional options at your disposal. You can now spend your Virtual Currency on clothing to wear when you enter the arena. If that's not enough, there are pregame rituals, such as LeBron James' powder toss along with a number of other unique ones that can be purchased. To add another layer of customization, there's a shoe creator, which allows you to alter 45 different components to allow for countless combinations. Once you've finished crafting your concoction, you can outfit your player with his new virtual kicks for the next game. You can even customize NIKEiD sneakers and once you're finished, those sneakers can be sent to you to sport in the real world.

But My Career isn't without its flaws. When I tried to create a player in my likeness I was greeted with a message about vulgar language (look closely at my last name to figure out the issue). My Career is now linked to the online My Player mode, so I understand the developers don't want their game littered with inappropriate names online, but I do hope they address this issue for "NBA 2K14." Another disappointment is the omission of Crew mode, which was pulled in "NBA 2K12" and has not returned. This highly popular mode pitted five My Players vs. five My Players with each team given the ability to create team logos, jerseys and team names. Hopefully, this mode can make its return next year to further enhance this outstanding series.

Despite this omission, the online features are still plentiful. The big addition is My Team, which is a card collecting team creation mode. As you earn Virtual Currency (which is awarded whenever you play any mode in "NBA 2K13"), you can purchase packs. These packs contain players, jerseys, Signature Skills, coaches, playbooks, boosters and other enhancements. Your collection of players is then pitted against other teams either in exhibition games against the artificial intelligence (AI) or online in a tournament-style playoff structure. As you gain more Virtual Currency, you can purchase more packs and higher level packs (bronze, silver and gold) for a chance to collect better assets. If you don't want to try your luck, you can purchase players outright, but it will cost you substantially more.

2K Sports continues to reach new heights with its NBA series. From meaningful gameplay tweaks, additional modes and an upgraded presentation, "NBA 2K13" is the crown jewel for a franchise that continues to deliver. With the NBA Live series sitting out for the third consecutive year, "NBA 2K13" will continue to win over basketball fans and keep them coming back for more.

"NBA 2K13" is rated "E" for everyone by the ESRB and is available for PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360, Wii and PSP.