by Adam Figman | @afigman

I’ll cut right to the chase: With the assistance of the good folks at Access Communications, I was given the opportunity to play the newest iteration of the NBA 2K series today. Given the status of the (actual, real-life) League, video game hoops may be the only NBA ball fans will get to experience for a while, so the anticipation around this year’s release—NBA 2K12, which drops officially on October 4, 2011—feels a little extra special.

Here’s what I knew going in: While Michael Jordan graced the front of NBA 2K11, MJ, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will all get their own covers of 2K12. And though last year’s version included a Jordan Challenge, giving the user an opportunity to recreate all of Money’s biggest games, 2K12 has an “NBA’s Greatest” mode, in which the user can play as one of 15 classic NBA squads—each led by a different legendary superstar—against a rival team of the same era. I played both NBA’s Greatest mode and the standard Quick Play mode today, and here’s some of what I learned:

The Gameplay

Each year, the newest version of a video game series—any series, really—aims to improve on the basic visual graphics of the previous year’s version. NBA 2K12 is no exception, it succeeds in doing so. It’s probably the smoothest hoops game yet, as players glide around the floor effortlessly, but the realistic physics of the gameplay that a user—specifically one familiar with the game of basketball—would want are maintained. So you can’t do things like, say, run one player right through another. If you’re controlling an off-the-ball defender and knock into a separate player, it actually looks like what transpires when one guy runs into another guy. Or you can’t just lazily toss a pass through traffic and expect it to magically fly through a bunch of defenders’ limbs. They’ll intercept it. (That was the case in NBA 2K11 as well, but it feels a little more natural this time around. A good thing.) You know, just like in real basketball. Except you’re playing a video game. You might need to remind yourself this every few minutes or so.

Beyond the standard graphical improvement, the developers put an increased focus on some specific aspects of the gamplay. Here are a few that stood out:

—Each tilt begins with an intense intro, not too dissimilar from the beginning of the type of television broadcast you’re used to seeing nightly each winter. There’s a song that plays as we see the players warming up, and, fortunately, there’s a rotating group of songs programmed to play in that slot (was told one’s an Eminem song, but wasn’t told which), so you won’t go crazy from hearing the same music over and over. During the Mavs-Heat game I played, the first on-court image was of Dwyane Wade pulling his head up through the rim, so yeah—the detail is solid.

—The in-game dynamic commentary has been held over. So the commentators—Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr—may be talking about a player’s back-story, then cut to some quick game action if something particularly wild goes down, then return right back to their story. And it’s all crazy relevant—their discussions include references to the 2011 NBA Finals, amongst other previous-season happenings.

—The standard play-calling system still exists for the in-depth, full-team maneuvers, but there’s a new, simpler way to call quick plays. (Worth noting: I’ve always been a fan of the pass-the-ball-around-until-I-can-somehow-find-a-way-to-score strategy, so I have no idea what the previous years’ play-calling systems were like. Apologies if something like this already existed.) By pressing an arrow on the D-pad, a few solid options come up, and they’re pretty self-explanatory. For example, if you’re playing as the Heat and hit that button, the options may be: (X) LeBron iso; (Y) Wade cut to hoop; (B) Bosh post-up; (A) Chalmers get open. And then you can easily choose a play and run it. Easy and effective.

—Post-up play has been refined, making the way things take place in the painted area even more realistic.

—You know how in most basketball games—well, probably in most sports games in general—there’s a kind of invisible wall surrounding the court/playing field, so if you’re controlling a player and run him out of bounds, he’ll just be stopped by a supernatural force? That doesn’t really exist anymore. If you run a defender into the scorer’s table, just like in real life, he’ll jump up and hop into the crowd, then gather himself and get back into the action. If you run him into the sidelines, he’ll leap over the folks lucky enough to be seated courtside before curbing his momentum and turning around. Cool, no?

—The game developers put extra emphasis on the accuracy of the players’ tattoos, so the guys look even more like they do in real life. It’s kind of unreal. Or insanely real, if you will. Whatever.

NBA’s Greatest

As you probably know, the user has the option to play with 15 classic players on 15 classic teams, as was shown in the game’s trailer. If you watched the trailer (embedded as the bottom of this post), you also noticed there are many more familiar old-school faces in there beyond the 15 legends. Why? Because, technically, it’s not only the 15 legends that you have access to. For each of the 15 legends in NBA’s Greatest mode (view them all here), you can play a game with his squad against one of its primary rivals. (So, when I played as Bill Russell’s 1965 Celtics, I took on the 1965 Lakers. Naturally.) If you win, both the team you played with and the team you beat become unlocked for standard Quick Play mode. (You can only play as the legends’ teams in NBA’s Greatest mode, though.) Meaning, once you beat the 1965 Lakers with the 1965 Celtics, you can play as or against either of those two in Quick Play mode, and may pit them against any regular team from 2011. If you use the ’94 Knicks (Ewing, Starks, Mason, etc.) to beat the team they’re matched up with in NBA’s Greatest mode, which is the ’94 Magic (Penny, Shaq, Horace Grant, etc.), you can use either of those two groups in Quick Play mode.

This is why, for example, you see Dikembe Mutombo in a Nuggets jersey in the trailer, even though Mount Mutombo isn’t one of the 15 legends featured. Beat his Denver team with whichever of the 15 legends’ teams matches up with that Nuggets squad—it’s Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets—and you can play with Dikembe and Co. Assuming you can win a few games in NBA’s Greatest mode, there are potentially 30, not 15, classic squads at your disposal. Proceed accordingly.

(Actually, there are potentially 32—if you pre-order 2K12, you get a code for two other squads: the Run-TMC ’90-91 Warriors and Chris Webber’s ’01-02 Kings.)

The actual gameplay within NBA’s Greatest mode is worth mentioning as well. Why? Because, it’s not like anything you’re used to. If you play as, say, Wilt Chamberlain’s 1971 Lakers crew—which matches up with the ’71 Knicks—it looks as if you’re watching, well, “playing,” a game in 1971. Everything’s in black and white. There are no corporate sponsorships on the court. Hell, there isn’t even a three-point line. The scoreboard in the corner of the screen has some old-school block font. The scorer’s table is actually a long table with a bunch of pieces of paper on it. It’s like you’re watching a YouTube clip of a game from 1971, or just watching a game on television in 1971, if you prefer. Except, of course, the game is still crystal clear—it’s not grainy or anything—and the graphics are as smooth as the standard Quick Play mode. And the teams are fully stocked with their actual rosters, so it’s not like you play with the five starters and that’s it—there are actual substitutions with the reserves from these classic teams. (So if you’ve been fiending for an opportunity to play as a young Phil Jackson in 1971, just beat the Knicks with Chamberlain’s Lakers, and you can.)

For a full review of the game, stay on the lookout for SLAM 152, which will hit ‘stands in September. As you could imagine, there are a bunch other improvements and updates from 2K11 to 2K12 not detailed above, some that you’ll have to wait until you pop the game into your PlayStation 3 or XBox 360 to learn about. At this point, all I can do is recommend that you make sure that takes place as close to the October 4 release date as possible.