We all have comfort games, right? These are the titles that prove to be a staple in the disc drive month after month, sometimes year after year. I have lots of games, hundreds even, it comes with the territory. And these games range from little indie curios on Steam and XBLA to 100-hour RPGs that I can sink into for weeks and lose myself utterly. Shooters, racers, fighting games, score attack hack'n'slash titles, platformers, puzzlers, and pretty much every Guitar Hero title out there. I have a decade of FIFA and PES filling up pages on my bulging disc case.
And I say this not to brag, for I've finished precious few out of those that I've not reviewed in the past few years, but rather to illuminate the scale of choice when it comes to picking out a game for those hours when relaxation and down-time are all I want to think about. We're talking about in between the highlights of the release schedule, the game that I always come back to, whatever my mood, whatever the time of day.
In the past such a role has been filled by the likes of Halo and Battlefield (Vietnam) and Forza and FIFA and PES (depends who's better that year) and City of Heroes and Perfect Dark and The Elder Scrolls and I could go on.
Then, this year, I started playing NBA 2K13. And it changed my life.
I've played instalments of the NBA 2K series before and found it to be reliably fun (I like sports in general), but reviewing NBA 2K13 led me down a path I'd not travelled hugely, into a sport I didn't really understand. So I did my reading, I bought the last two instalments of the series to see how far the franchise had come and how impactful the changes for this year (or lack thereof) might have been. I learned about the pick-and-roll, what constitutes travelling in basketball, the difference between a point guard and a shooting guard, what perimeter defence actually means, and set about filling in the gaps. The UK isn't big on basketball. I have a friend who plays in an amateur league over here, and I asked him whether or not he saw himself more as a shooting guard or small forward and he just looked at me blankly.
It took me a while to grasp the organisational things too. Though I was the most casual Chicago Bulls fan back in the mid-90s (it was Jordan-era dominance, who wasn't?!) and lightly followed Miami during the days of Mourning and Wade's prominece, I'd never taken notice of how the NBA season worked, or the nature of the structure behind the scenes. It wasn't a sport I followed, not even from the standpoint of lightly skimming a few bulletins to have something to chat about down the pub should I happen to bump into a wandering American.
I'd heard stories about the NBA 2K career mode offering the best sporting experience one could get from video games, and Dave extolled the virtues of the series on this very site for reviews from preceding years, but I'd yet to give it a chance. Often, when it comes to reviews, even if the game in question is good, you've spent so much time critiquing it and picking it apart that going back afterwards is unappealing. Not so with this one.
I can't get enough of MyPlayer, and it's ruined other career modes for me.
It might have something to do with the nature of basketball itself. It's a five-man team sport that means you're always involved somewhere, somehow. It's not like the personal, Be A Pro modes in FIFA or PES where you can go entire minutes without seeing a whiff of action. The RPG-lite mechanics helped too, earning coins with my performances, across other modes and supplemental games that could be spent on developing my character however I wanted. FIFA had that back in 09, but removed it in favour of a walled-off automatic unlock system, more's the pity.
I was taken aback the first time I heard Kevin Harlan say "And here comes Gardner..." I hadn't allotted a pre-recorded name to my character, I'd just punched it in as is, and the game had extrapolated that without me having to tell it to do so. You do that with a nickname -- I went for 'The Beast' -- but to hear my actual name being uttered during commentary, along with stats being pulled out from my previous ten games, Steve Kerr riffing on my comments in a past press conference, it added to the sense of immersion. No other sports title has ever made me feel as if I'm in the game, playing out there on court or pitch or rink, as this one.
It starts with the pre-draft showcase, a chance for the budding rookies to stake their claim for climbing up the roster of prospective new stars. Of course, not really understanding the game (NBA Jam never taught me about post moves or how to set a decent screen), my standing slipped, and thirty teams went past before I was snapped up as a benchwarmer for the Miami Heat. I was glad, Dwyane Wade was one of the few basketball players I could actually name. But I knew nothing of LeBron or The Decisionn, nothing of Bosh and Spoelstra, nothing of the significance of Ray Allen's departure from the Celtics. I didn't even know that the Heat were the ones who'd lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy last year.
But as soon as they drafted me in NBA 2K13, I became a fan.
The nature of the game is such that even as a role player or sixth man, you can skip the bench bits (or spectate from the sidelines) and move straight ahead to your next slab of on-court playing time. So it was that I learned the game of basketball by playing, adding nuances through virtual workshops with NBA greats such as Bill Russell and Walt Chamberlain. And along side that, I downloaded the NBA Game Time app for my iPad and made it a ritual every morning to catch the highlights of all of the games from the night I'd just slept through.
I downloaded the 2K supplemental apps to earn myself coins away from the Xbox, I installed the Facebook game in my browser. I'd pore over stats and box scores for virtual and real-life matches, I started getting involved in basketball forums, made tentative forays into Fantasy League stuff (though ultimately ducked-out in the end). It started off as a way of simply readying myself for a review, but it became so much more. I fell utterly in love with the game of basketball.
And I still play the game more than any other title in my collection. There's always more to do, always more stats to chase, and the superlative commentary is constantly reminding you of it. You don't get a pop-up from autolog to pull you out of the experience, you get a little aside from Clark Kellogg in the box, and more things to tick off in the pursuit of more championship rings and a place in the Hall of Fame. But NBA 2K13 rewards you for your efforts: more fans, a fake Twitter wall of adoration, endorsements from celebrities, advert banners, TV spots. The game lets you design your own signature footwear and produces a 30 second long TV advert for you. You end up getting signed by Jordan himself. It's incredible, and it never breaks the bubble the way other games so often do.
It's a game that made me fall in love with a sport in which I had no real previous interest beyond Space Jam. And that's awesome.