By upping the polish and hitching itself to the (still) unstoppable Michael Jordan bandwagon, 2010’s NBA 2K11 instantly became one of the best sports games of the current console generation… and so it remains. Last year’s follow-up was no slouch either, and while it wasn’t in possession of the same buzzing sense of event that 2K11 had, presentation was noticeably improved and it replaced its predecessor’s best mode – the Jordan Challenges – with richer and more expanded alternatives. NBA 2K13 is similarly thoughtful about how to improve upon past iterations, but the best thing about it is also the ballsiest: the brand new “Control Stick” control scheme. Deeply uninventive title aside, Control Stick represents an entirely new way to play, but be warned: there is a very steep learning curve attached to it. You’ll find a vast array of different modifiers, hesitations, ducks and stepbacks – to namecheck only a few – all there to be mastered, and that process is far from a brisk one.

As with the (vaguely similar) skill system in FIFA 13 though, you are never forced to learn anything that you deem to be unnecessary. If one thing is for certain however, it’s that you’ll need to head straight over to the brand new set of control tutorials (tucked away within Training Camp mode) if you want to make a proper attempt at grasping it all. This new control style is complex and unforgiving and probably only intended for long-term, hardcore fans, but it’s immensely rewarding once you’re in; even if you only ever use it to repeatedly execute a single specific manoeuvre. If you’ve played an NBA 2K game before and Control Stick sounds way too involved and detrimental to your game, it’s worth pointing out that you’re always welcome to revert to the standard face button-based controls of past instalments if you wish to.

If NBA 2K11 was the Michael Jordan edition of NBA 2K, then 2K13 is the Jay-Z edition.  The rapper apparently collaborated with the game’s designers on artwork and menu design, but his primary involvement here is (somewhat predictably) soundtrack-based. He does appear in a few brief, pre-match cut-scenes that are basically 30-second music videos – all comprised primarily of in-game footage – but the soundtrack is great; mixing old and new hip hop with some of the great man’s own recent material. NBA 2K13 also places an enhanced focus on footwear, and while NBA 2K12 allowed you to pick your own shoes for the first time, 2K13 gives you the opportunity to actually design a pair. It seems like a pretty extensive suite for something so throwaway, until you remember that many basketball fans are also hardcore footwear fetishists, who will probably spend a startling amount of time creating their own kicks.

NBA 2K13 takes another cue from FIFA 13 by implementing player-specific attributes, and presentation is once again absolutely sky-high; these remain the best-looking sports games on the market, bar none. MyTeam is a successful approximation of FIFA’s staggeringly popular Ultimate Team mode, and is destined to be this year’s overruling time sink. The laughably well-detailed player animations and collisions make FIFA’s look almost prehistoric in comparison, and Dunk Contests have been revamped completely; rather than asking you to simply wiggle the thumbsticks around a little, now you’re presented with a QTE game that resembles Rock Band’s iconic note corridor. Sound design is as brilliant as ever, with crowds and general arena noise always taking precedence over the ever-excellent commentary; a technique that only causes your involvement to escalate. Superlatives abound, but NBA 2K13 is equal to them.

NBA 2K13 is available now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Sony PSP and Nintendo Wii. A Nintendo Wii U version is expected to arrive before the end of the year.

Watch the launch trailer for NBA 2K13 here:

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