If NBA 2K15 has taught me anything, it's that getting real-life NBA players to act in your game often brings with it hilarious results.
Mostly, it means bearing witness to the range of a guy like Detroit's Andre Drummond, who has exactly one tone of voice for every mood that he's trying to convey, whether it's outraged, jubilant, or cajoling: a bored monotone of the sort that you often hear players use with the media. Far from detracting from the overall experience, however, I think it actually adds to it, if only because it never fails to crack me up.
Stilted as they are, though, the player voice-overs are also oddly thrilling. If sports games are about fulfilling the fantasy of being a pro athlete or having direct control of your favorite team, then being mentored by a virtual version of a familiar athlete is an extension of that sort of wish fulfillment. Much as I chuckled at Drummond's delivery, I still felt guilty about picking up stakes and moving to the New York Knicks after the Detroit Pistons had given me my shot. I had let Andre down.
It's moments like that, ultimately, that set NBA 2K15 apart from other sports sims. Sure, Madden NFL has a Twitter feed, but only NBA 2K lets me troll virtual Derrick Rose with a tweet after a big game . As a basketball sim, NBA 2K15 fundamentally understands that the NBA is driven by superstars and outsized personalities, and cheesy voice-acting aside, does an amazing job of conveying that through its gameplay.
Of course, this is nothing new for NBA 2K, which has long been lauded for its ambitious superstar mode, high-quality presentation, and realistic graphics. Ever since taking control of the market in 2010, NBA 2K has built on those strengths year-by-year, putting it just a hair below FIFA 15 as the best sports sim around. Of all the sports sims to make the transition to current-generation consoles, NBA 2K14 was by far the most ambitious, introducing a movie-like storyline to its historically popular MyPlayer mode and dramatically overhauling its GM Mode. But surprisingly, it actually stumbled a bit due to to the questionable decision to tie many key abilities to Virtual Currency, making it difficult to make meaningful advances without spending money. Happily, NBA 2K15 fixes many of those issues while taking a step forward in other respects.
Having heard many of last year's complaints, Visual Concepts has completely overhauled MyGM mode, making crucial functions like the ability to set lineups and minutes available from the start. It's still possible to buy GM levels using VC, but it's framed more as a boost. Leveling up now has the benefit of unlocking various perks, such as the ability to negotiate more effecively with potential free agents, with XP being earned by winning games or completing trades.
In many respects, I really like NBA 2K15's MyGM. It's not as elegant as the manager mode in FIFA 15, which remains the gold standard for career modes in sports sims, but as with the rest of NBA 2K15, it's more ambitious. Among its more interesting features are a bevy of mock drafts and RPG-like conversation trees, as well as gauges depicting your character's relationship with the press and the players, all of which do a good job of simulating the concerns and pressues of being a general manager in the NBA. At its worst, it can feel a bit overstuffed, which is mostly to do with its less than ideal menu structure. But for those interested in pretending that they are an NBA GM, MyGM is far better than it was last year.
And yet, I might actually prefer the "new" MyLeague mode, which is a much more basic career mode that features a variety of neat customization options, such as the ability to reconfigure the divisions—a feature that was introduced by NCAA Football and inexplicably ignored by pretty much every other sports game that followed until now. Like I said, MyGM is interesting, but there's almost too much going on at times. For that reason, the option to play a more traditional franchise mode, or even a basic season, is much appreciated, and should frankly be available in every sports sim.
Of course, as usual, my own interest lies primarily in MyPlayer, which has likewise been completely overhauled this year. Gone is erstwhile rival Jackson Ellis, who served as an over-the-top foil in the climb to the top of Bill Simmon's NBA pyramid. Instead, you are cast as an undrafted free agent with a hyperactive Jerry Maguire-like agent, with the goal being to climb the ladder into your team's starting lineup and beyond.
In my opinion, MyPlayer is the beating heart of the NBA 2K experience. It's quicker and more satisfying than the somewhat ponderous MyGM mode, fostering the sort of desire to play just one more game that has made FIFA so successful. It also benefits heavily from NBA 2K's outstanding presentation, featuring a variety of intros, customizable introduction music (I picked "Spiderwebs" by No Doubt, because why not?), and of course, voice-acting by the aforementioned NBA players. Unlike other superstar modes, it rarely becomes repetitive, throwing a variety of storylines, cutscenes, and scenarios at you from game-to-game. One moment your teammates might be pissed at you because you're contemplating signing with another team; the next, you're riding high from a winning streak and collecting endorsements.
MyPlayer is a great example of a sports sim understanding its subjects underlying appeal and weaving it deep into the game. Since basketball is a much more individual sport than say, football, it's much easier to implement rivalries, dynamic personalities, and storylines. FIFA does much the same with its own career modes, successfully capturing the fun of supporting a club, playing the transfer window, and rising from the bottom of the barrel to the heights of the Champions League. In that sense, NBA 2K and FIFA "get it" in a way that a lot of other sports sims still don't.
Of course, these modes would mean nothing if the actual gameplay didn't deliver as well; but as usual, NBA 2K is very good in that respect. Over the years, one thing that has continually impressed me about its gameplay is the way that it gives you as much or as little control over the moment-to-moment decisions as you want. I'm far from what you would call a basketball aficianado, so much of the in-depth strategy goes over my head, but that's okay because the virtual manager will intelligently call timeouts, intentionally foul opponents when the situation calls for it, and handle substitutes while I focus on scoring buckets.
Which is not to say that NBA 2K is simple. Actually, it's a very difficult game to really master, and its tutorials don't go nearly far enough to really give you a handle on the advanced mechanics. There are videos, which are good enough for the basics, but they don't do much for nailing the timing on high-level moves. It also doesn't help that they are buried under a sub-menu, which is something you'll see a lot in NBA 2K.
Despite that, NBA 2K manages to feel smooth and relatively intuitive once you get a handle on the analog dribbling mechanics. The controls are helped along by a new shooting gauge; which, after some initial trepidation, helped to refine my timing quite a bit. Intimidating as NBA 2K might feel at first, it becomes shockingly easy to perform a double move around an opponent and drain an easy jumper once you get the hang of the controls. And even with my rudimentary understanding of the tactics, it was obvious enough what I should be doing based on the way my teammates moved around the floor.
If there's one thing that stands out to me about NBA 2K's gameplay, though, it's the way that it captures the personalities of each of its stars on the floor. As a point guard, I regularly found myself guarding the likes of Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, and Damian Lillard, all of whom are terrifying in their own way. Lillard is just ridiculously fast, able to blow past you for a layup before you even realize it. Curry is a devastating shooter. Rose will lurk, wait for you to get screened out, then appear seemingly out of nowhere to grab an easy bucket. In some ways, the gameplay feels a little too canned, occasionally relying heavily on what seems like pre-defined animations, especially when guarding an opponent. Like every other sports sim, it could learn a good deal from the dynamic physical interactions found in FIFA. But very few sports games capture the raw fear and adrenaline that comes with trying to keep the likes of Stephen Curry at bay as time ticks away.
Those elements, along with the excellent presentation and the ambitious MyPlayer mode, have formed the core of NBA 2K's appeal for quite a while now, and are a large part of why I plan to continue playing for the near future. Beyond that, I'm not going to lie—I don't like the MyPark mode. It's really clever, and the backdrops are gorgeous, but it's altogether too clunky for my tastes. Standing in the "Got Next" circle waiting for my turn, I started having flashbacks to standing in line for a chance to play an arcade game in PlayStation Home; which, I'm sure that they were trying to reduce the artificiality of the matchmaking, but I would rather just get automatically teleported to an open game. Once I got on the court, it was often tough to determine who I was supposed to be guarding owing to the fact that everyone was wearing different outfits. Novel as it was to play street basketball against a handful of online opponents, it felt like it was missing something. I'd be interested to see what improvements Visual Concepts introduces to the mode next year. They can start by making it easier to figure out how to go in with a friend, since no matter how many times I selected "Play with a friend," my friends were never on the list.
MyPark, I think, is a key example of one of NBA 2K's biggest achilles heels: Its propensity for going big without nailing down the foundation of the gameplay. Last year, much the same thing happened to MyGM mode. And though I'm glad that Virtual Currency is less pervasive and unbalanced this year than it was in NBA 2K14, I'm still concerned by how much of the experience is tied to remote servers that can only be accessed by playing online. If the servers are down, for instance, then it's impossible to upgrade player attributes in MyPlayer, since VC information is stored remotely. Given how badly NBA 2K14's servers were slammed over the Christmas last year, I think this once again has the potential to be a real problem.
It's issues like these, along with its really basic head-to-head online play and wholly inadequate online league play (no CPU-controlled teams... again), that keep NBA 2K from climbing all the way to the top of the mountain and dethroning FIFA as the best all-around sports sim, though it comes pretty close at times. It certainly has the ambition and the vision, and the core modes are extremely strong, but in other respects it's not quite there. Unfortunately, as much as I wish it would, I don't expect NBA 2K to disentangle its online and offline experiences anytime soon. That ship has sailed.
Still, NBA 2K15 is a really strong basketball sim, and one of the best sports sims overall. What it does well, it does very well, and its sports movie-like storytelling and outstanding presentation has yet to be replicated by any other sports game. Already, I'm feeling the itch to take it to put Andre's hurt feelings behind me and take my game to the next level with the Knicks. Coach Rivers is counting on me.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: NBA 2K15 is the best-looking sports game on the market today. The arenas, the players, and the coaches are all extremely detailed, and I was constantly impressed by how realistic they looked. Additions like mascots and cheerleaders are also fun.
- Sound: NBA 2K15's commentary has yet to be topped by another sports sim. Kevin Harlan and company offer detailed, accurate commentary, react appropriately to big moments, and rarely seem repetitive.
- Interface: There's no getting around it: NBA 2K15's menus are a bit of a mess. Everything is jumbled into a variety of non-descript sub-menus, some seemingly at random. The controls continue to be excellent, with in-depth dribbling mechanics being a highlight.
- Lasting appeal: MyPlayer is NBA 2K15's crown jewel, and it's what will keep people coming back for many month to come. Online play is a bit more wanting, particularly online leagues, but its balanced by a strong single-player experience.
NBA 2K15's scope and ambition as a sports sim is admirable; and though its execution doesn't always match its vision, it's still an altogether polished and impressive package. Even if you don't care much about basketball, it's worth checking out for its highly entertaining MyPlayer mode alone. Once again, Visual Concepts has nailed what makes the NBA so appealing to a wide swath of people.
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