Before 2K Sports blew the dust off the iconic 1992 Dream Team for its 20th anniversary and plopped them into NBA 2K13, our only option for controlling them in a video game was a grim one. In EA’s Team USA Basketball, published the fall after the Dream Team came together like Voltron and took home the gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics, you could choose one of 14 international teams. Inevitably, you’d have one of two unappealing options—play as a team like Australia, made up of subpar athletes you’ve never heard of (unless you’re the type of basketball wonk prone to cite the underrated career of Aussie guard Andrew Gaze), or select the American team and attempt to simulate their real-life 79 point victory over Cuba.
Inserting the greatest team ever into the modern comforts of the NBA 2K series and letting you pit them against real competition—like the gold medalists from the recent London games, or say, the 2012-13 Miami Heat—is the most interesting new feature of NBA 2K13. You can finally settle the media-inflated war of words between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan about which All-Star Olympic team is better on the virtual court.
Unfortunately, the rest of what’s new in NBA 2K13 doesn’t reach Dream Team heights. Jazzing up a game from year to year is the kind of thing that publisher 2K Sports has specialized in recently, and I don’t just mean because the Utah Jazz are involved. NBA 2K11 took a LeBron-like leap into greatest sports simulation ever territory with a handful of visual upgrades and the addition of Michael Jordan Challenge modes. Last year’s game solidified 2K’s claim as king with a host of playable classic teams and a much improved My Player mode.
In the quest for a three-peat, however, NBA 2K13 clangs too many shots off the rim. The majority of this year’s add-ons range from the bizarre to the unnecessary. The cardinal sin is the subtraction of “NBA’s Greatest,” which lovingly recreated key moments from the careers of the best 15 players in the league’s history, in exchange for a new MyTeam mode. Aping the contemptible “Ultimate Team” from EA’s Madden Football, MyTeam hands you a few cards representing individual players, coaches, and arenas. Your task is to upgrade them with booster packs, purchased with tokens earned through regular play or real-life money. Because I took the thrifty route, I was forced to play my first MyTeam game against a fantasy team of superstars like Kevin Durant with a ragtag group of scrubs: Spurs backup center Matt Bonner was my top player. It did not go well.
NBA 2K13 really wants you to know that Jay-Z is the executive producer. The rapper’s name is located just under the title logo on the box, and each game begins with a short featurette that alternates between basketball highlights and clips from some of his videos. It’s a little jarring to watch Hova performing on stage intercut with a Jeremy Lin layup in slow motion. Jay-Z’s handpicked soundtrack is full of questionable decisions, too. (Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” for an NBA game? Does Jay-Z owe Chris Martin some money?) Perhaps Jay-Z should go back to doing what he does best—rapping, producing, owning a stake in pro sports teams, creating clothing lines, buying real estate—okay, well, you get the picture.
Speaking of star power, Justin Bieber appears as a playable character in NBA 2K13 with a higher overall rating than almost every player in the league. Midway through a Bieber windmill dunk, I wondered if 2K Sports was actively trolling its largely male fans. Bieber is part of a celebrity team that also boasts a couple of cast members from Jersey Shore, hip-hop artists, and—most memorably—actor Brian Baumgartner, who plays the paunchy accountant Kevin Malone in NBC’s The Office.
There are other odd flourishes, like a new “Dunk Intensity” meter that seemingly throws up numbers at random. Why did my reverse jam in traffic score only a 50 while that pedestrian fast-break slam get a 75? I was amused the first time that I was called for a technical foul after my Kinect sensor picked up my shouted expletives, but this little gag got annoying. (You can turn it off.)
Trifling distractions aside, developer Visual Concepts has managed to create an experience that feels like I’m in direct control of a television broadcast of the NBA. Unlike football or hockey, where faces are obscured by helmets and masks, basketball is an up-close and personal sport. NBA 2K13 succeeds in capturing the ways the players look, move, and behave. From Kobe Bryant’s gliding fadeaway jumper to Allen Iverson’s disgruntled scowl—the man still hates practice—each athlete’s essence is captured appropriately. The little moments also shine, like the jostling of bodies when players fight through screens or the flailing limbs of players after you’ve hit the “flop” button. NBA 2K13 still shines as a sports sim when it gets all of the reality TV stars and gimmicks out of the way and captures the buoyant personality of the sport itself.