Michael Jordan was renowned for making small improvements to his game during the offseason. His opponents would think they had a grasp on what His Airness was capable of, only to find that he had added post-up moves or a fall-away jumper to his already-impressive repertoire. NBA 2K12 has taken a few notes from the former Bulls' star. Last year's entry was already the most realistic simulation of professional hoops ever released, and a number of small but important tweaks make this year's edition even more engrossing. A revamped My Player mode makes your quest to turn your benchwarmer into a Hall of Famer more engaging than in years past. A slew of historical players and teams, complete with accurate television presentation for every era, also make this the definitive package for anyone craving some roundball action. There are a smattering of tiny flaws, such as occasionally prescient artificial intelligence and a couple of wonky animations, but you have to hunt for reasons to be put off by this experience. The greatest player who ever lived has been retired for years, but the best basketball game around is just entering its prime.
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The most noteworthy addition to NBA 2K11 was a mode that allowed you to participate in a handful of Michael Jordan's most famous games. In NBA 2K12, history is an even larger focus. Fifteen of the greatest players of all time are represented here, and you get to take part in some of their most important games. Teammates, opponents, and coaches are lifted straight from their eras, and the expertly designed presentation ensures that everything looks just as it should. Play as Bill Russell in the early years of the NBA and you see the action play out through grainy archival footage. When you select Julius Erving's Sixers' teams, however, the muted tones of the early '80s shine through. These touches add a layer of authenticity to a package that is already bursting with it. And, unlike last year, you don't have to hit certain statistical milestones to complete each challenge. Previously, this focus on raw numbers forced you to become a ball hog, which sapped away the excitement of taking part in classic showdowns. Now, if you'd rather light up the net with Joe Dumars than with Isiah Thomas on the Bad Boy Pistons, the choice is yours. And when you win a game, you unlock those older teams, so you can stage your own competitions.
No matter which era you happen to be playing in, the presentation is incredible. The sights and sounds mirror the real thing with meticulous detail. For anyone who grew up watching the NBA, it's hard not be whisked away by your nostalgic memories as you see these digital creations move just as they should. Take the flamboyant Dennis Rodman. If you find yourself at the charity stripe, you see him chuck the ball indifferently toward the hoop just as he used to when he was an active player. Shorts change in length and tightness through the eras, while players juke and lean with lifelike movement. Commentators also document the action with an air of confidence and understanding rarely seen in a video game. Small animations that you wouldn't expect further cement just how amazing this game looks. When you slam into a player who is attempting a shot, you may reach out to grab his wrist after the whistle blows, to prevent him from falling. It's stunning how many details are hidden in NBA 2K12. However, there are some odd moments when the facade fades away. Some animations, such as when you throw a pass on a fast break, look strangely robotic. And it's jarring to see modern advertisements in throwback games. But the presentation is mostly top notch, making this game almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.
Little known fact: Before he was an awful executive, Isiah Thomas played basketball.