Still the king.
The NBA 2K series has built a reputation as a juggernaut in the sports game genre over the last several seasons. Against high standards they have proven they can continue to evolve and improve what is already among the best gameplay in all of sports gaming. This year is no different as dramatic improvements to opponent AI, defensive controls, and new animations make this the best playing NBA 2K yet. Despite the huge step forward on the court however, some unfortunate steps backward in My Career keep 2K16 from delivering on its full potential.
As soon as I picked up the controller, the gameplay improvements in this year’s version were immediately apparent. The amount of “cheese” that I could get away with on the offensive end has been dramatically reduced through a huge improvement on the defensive end of the ball. AI controlled defenders play smarter, tighter, and are more true to life than ever before. If I was a guard who depended on my jump shot, I should expect defenders to play tight to the ball while I was on the perimeter. If I was more of an “attack the basket” type I could expect to really have to work the ball inside. No more “zig-zagging” my way past defenders for an easy lay-up.
Platforms: PS4, XB1, PC, 360, PS3
These defensive improvements also make their way to player control and the result is gameplay that has never been more satisfying. Rebounding is much easier and more realistic this year as well and the already solid offensive controls ensure that scoring may be challenging, but never feels unfair. Players will need to pick plays, rely heavily on Pick and Rolls to get open looks, and be smart with their passes to put up big points (especially on difficulties above Pro level). Don’t expect to pick up as many easy assists from perimeter to post this year, as more of those passes will get picked off. Overall this is the best playing basketball sim in recent memory.
A brand new suite of animations and physics helps this dynamic action feel fluid and realistic. This is just a part of an overall upgrade in presentation for the series this year. Players look better than ever thanks to more accurate imaging. New visual pieces of visual flair during the games include sweet looking voice acted insert studio interviews with select players. During My Career, the opposing player I was matched up against no longer got a static stats screen but instead I got their on court player (with everything around them blurred) and a slick looking overlay and new Pregame, halftime, and Postgame wrap-up shows with Kenny Smith, Shaq, and Ernie Johnson help enhance the TV style presentation. There are some visual hitches however, as the game froze on the My Career player match-up screen on me a couple times and imported created players from last year’s game don’t seem to match up well with the new mo-cap.
The commentary is again among the best in the entire sports game genre, with Greg Anthony replacing Steve Kerr for this year’s game. The commentary team has great, natural chemistry and is mostly on point with their observations (with a few minor exceptions).
The available modes for this year’s game are a mixture of old favorites with improvements and new modes. My League and My GM have been upgraded with some cool new features (including the ability to move a team to a new city, Super Sonics’ fans rejoice!). My Park returns and seems to run much better this year, although I still have some major concerns with the dependence here on Virtual Currency. As someone who doesn’t, and doesn’t intend to, purchase VC my player was almost immediately up against others who could not have achieved their level in the given time frame without spending real money. This discrepancy really hits home on the court (thanks to the improvements mentioned above) and really discouraged me from spending much time in the mode. There is also a 5 on 5 Pro-Am mode, but in the interest of full disclosure I was completely unable to get into a game of this so I can’t comment on how it runs.
Of course the largest and most highly publicized change to this year’s game is the addition of a Spike Lee penned/directed story to the My Career mode called “Living Da Dream”. The story follows a highly touted prospect from Harlem nicknamed Frequency Vibrations (because of his motion in the womb) from high school, through college, and into his rookie season as a pro. This linear story weaves cutscenes between 3 high school games, 4 college games, and 8 games of his rookie season to tell the story of the player, his connection to his family, and his relationship with a lifelong friend that everyone agrees he should leave behind for his own good.
I was a huge fan of My Career mode last year, and hoped desperately that 2K would take a page from MLB the Show’s book this year and allow my previously created character from 2K15 to continue where I had left off. Instead, I was incredibly disappointed with the changes made to the mode, both in order to fit in the “Living Da Dream” story and overall.
First off, let me say that when 2K claimed this year was about my ability to “Be the Story” they were exaggerating a bit. Nothing that I did while I controlled makes any difference at all to the story being told here. From character creation to my play on the court, nothing had any effect on how things play out. There are no decisions, a fact pointed out very clearly when my family broke into a huge argument about my decision to either stay in college or go pro after one year. The point is hammered home multiple times that “It’s your choice Freq” and yet when the cutscene ends, I just began my first pro season. I understand the purpose of the scene was to show the competing pressures and demands that a highly touted player faces coming out of college, but the lack of player agency seems a strange choice given the context.
The story, while incredibly well voice and motion capture acted, mostly falls flat. It is patently obvious from the beginning where it’s going, and I found myself going through the motions just trying to get out of the first year and into the real My Career. Frustratingly, the selected 8 games of the rookie season that corresponds to Living Da Dream are all of the first year in the league I got to play. Just like last year, the majority of my rookie season was ripped from me. There is no opportunity to win rookie awards or even really to establish a presence in the league.
I can respect what 2K was trying to do here, but I would suggest next year if they want to do something similar that they split it up. Have a story mode if you want, but also have a standalone My Career that allows players to play through college games and their entire rookie season. Also, they really should copy MLB’s model for carrying over career progress from one season to another. My attachment to last year’s My Player is so strong I’m contemplating going back to that game (despite what would be a clear step backwards from a gameplay standpoint) just so I can continue that player’s progress.
The other primary frustration here is that even though players are constantly built up throughout the story as a top prospect, despite the fact that they have the potential to go #1 overall in the NBA draft, and despite the fact that they are constantly referred to as a top level player they begin My Career with a 55 rating, the lowest in the league. This means that shots I was knocking down in college and high school (where my stats seem artificially inflated compared to others on the court, again to get across the point that I was a special talent) will not go in early in pro career, many times even if I was wide open and nailed the shot meter. Last year’s career mode had me playing an undrafted player and I still started out in the low 70’s. I can’t help but feel like this change was purposeful to intentionally push players to shell out real money for stat improving Virtual Currency. Either way, it is a huge oversight and should be a priority fix for next year’s game.
A new positive addition to the career mode this year is the Off Day feature. players have to choose how to spend their off days throughout the NBA season. They can build connections with other players off the court to earn unlockable items and new badges. They can also spend time working with sponsors to earn Virtual Currency. Perhaps the biggest draw is the Live Practice mode, where players join a shoot around with their team and perform in drills to earn upgrades and VC. Live practice has a lot of potential, but there are some bugs they need to work out first. There are optional activities scattered around the gym that players have to go up to to initiate. During one such activity I got locked in a glass room and had no option but to quit practice prematurely. There is also no way to change the camera angle for Live Practice, which means if I prefer the 2K camera angle I was stuck playing in Broadcast during practice which not only effected my performance in drills but keeps it from being “practice” at all.
Overall the improvements to 2K16 cannot be ignored. The gameplay is better than it’s ever been, the presentation is fantastic and the expansions to My League and My GM are very welcome. For someone like me however, for whom My Career is consistently the biggest draw, it’s hard to not be disappointed. My hope is that next year 2K addresses my concerns in this area and finally delivers what I would consider the perfect hoops game. As it stands 2K is still a definite buy for basketball fans in general and especially for would be GM’s or owners.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.