Spend enough time around sports sim developers, and you'll inevitably hear about how they want to implement some really cool feature but don't have the time or the resources. The exception to that rule is Visual Concepts, whose exceptional NBA 2K has been in the top-tier of sports sims since Michael Jordan graced its cover in 2010.
Visual Concepts has long made a habit of throwing the kitchen sink into their games, among other things completely overhauling the franchise's GM mode at the advent of the current generation while other sims played it safe. This year, they've once again gone bold, partnering with director Spike Lee to create Livin' Da Dream - a story mode starring your customized player as they rise from high school and into the NBA. This is not entirely new territory for the series - the previous two years have had story elements as well - but Livin' Da Dream tries to go above and beyond in portraying the pressures of being a star athlete who has risen up from the streets of Harlem. It's exciting stuff for a subgenre that has traditionally leaned toward stats and technical improvements.
Sadly, it doesn't work, coming off more as a middling episode of Ballers than Hoop Dreams. It's hard to know where to start with the story, honestly. I guess the image above is pretty typical of what you can expect from Livin Da' Dream.
It's not even the fact that the owners, agents, and recruiters come off as coked up Jerry Maguire knockoffs, though. After all, such characters have been an NBA 2K staple since the series introduced cutscenes in MyCareer. It's more that Spike Lee, who had a large hand in writing the scenario, doesn't really seem to understand that he's making an interactive movie. One of the most surprising and disappointing moments came during a lengthy debate between whether my character should stay in college or continue into the NBA. I kept waiting for the opportunity to make my choice, and then I was genuinely surprised when the game made my choice for me. After all the talk of getting to experience the darker side of the NBA and make tough decisions, I was essentially put on rails for a middling story with a predictable ending.
I'll give Visual Concepts this: I love the idea. Playing a sports game can be a pretty dry experience, and it's always irked me that other sims haven't gone deeper into what it's like to be a professional athlete. Not only that, but changing up the story mode on a year-to-year basis adds a ton of value to the overall package, going a long way toward alleviating the staleness that has started to permeate other sims. I also admire the effort Visual Concepts put into the presentation. The high school and college sequences are fantastic, effectively capturing the flavor of those environments and even featuring accurate arenas for schools like Louisville.
Overall, though, I think this year's Career Mode is a step back from NBA 2K15, where you fought your way up from being an undrafted free agent and interacted with various players on your team on a regular basis (there's nothing quite like Andre Drummond begging you not to sign with another team). That element is pretty much gone, as is a good chunk of the fun that you could have with social media by talking trash to LeBron over Twitter. Admittedly, the ability to spend your off days building connections with selected players to open up perks like MyTeam cards is pretty cool, but it's also pretty sterile, with no cutscenes to drive home the fact that you're actually building up a connection with them. It's just a menu with a series of unlocks.
With all that in mind, I have to categorize this year's take on MyCareer as a disappointment. It's a bold attempt to tell an interesting story with some real gravity; but in the end, it doesn't even reach the level of a made-for-TV movie, a fact that is compounded by its near total lack of interactivity.
The Real Star of the Show
Even if Livin' Da Dream doesn't exactly live up its billing as an interactive sports movie, though, the rest of the package is once again quite strong.
Visual Concepts has gone out of its way to tune up the defense and the AI, and the result is a much nastier and proactive computer opponent that will quickly adapt to your strategies and deny you space on the floor. In MyCareer, it can actually be kind of frustrating since a 55 or 60 OVR player has almost no chance to make a dent against the new defense - accurate but occasionally demoralizing. But after a year in which it was possible to rack up some insane stats, the improvements to the defense are quite welcome.
Visual Concepts has also messed with the controls again, as they are frequently wont to do. There are now dedicated buttons for lobs and bounce passes, and you can go into the post game using L2 (or LT on the Xbox One). The interface in this game can be pretty intimidating for newcomers; but once you get the hang of calling pick and rolls with L1, you'll be knocking down buckets off fades in no time. If anything, the pick and roll may be a tad overpowered this year, though the computer will compensate somewhat if you call it too much.
As always, NBA 2K is a deep and entertaining basketball sim that gives you the tools to pull off some truly awesome highlight reel dunks and passes. It also does a great job of capturing the personalities of various teams, with Golden State bombing you with threes, Memphis and Philadelphia trying to bully you in the paint, and LeBron James doing LeBron James things. Of all the sports games I've played, only MLB The Show does a better job of capturing the feel of playing the real game.