For returning fans
It's tempting to focus entirely on NBA 2K's presentation, but the thing that really jumps out at me about this game is just how smart and ambitious it is. NBA 2K always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else on an annual basis, and this year is no different.
Case in point: The ability to start in the 2016 offseason. It's a small feature in the grand scheme of things; but after one of the wildest NBA offseasons in recent memory, it's essential. Honestly, I can't believe I never thought of it before. But that's just what Visual Concepts does: They're ahead of the game.
Another interesting new addition to MyGM is the ability to add expansion teams. On the face of it, it's not a big deal, but it's actually a lot of fun to download a random user-created team and drop them into a new league. On a whim, I grabbed the best Sonics team I could find, and was pleased to find that the whole process was completely painless. I downloaded the team, let it run the expansion draft, then went on with my life. It's a great addition, and it definitely beats simming through a whole season just to move a single team from one city to another.
As usual, NBA 2K is full of these nuanced little additions. You can go much deeper into setting your rotations, for example, micromanaging it to the point that you're setting when individual players will come into the game. You can also start a franchise mode on whatever day the NBA season happens to be on and seamlessly go from there.
But NBA 2K doesn't skimp on the big picture additions either, and one of the biggest is their overhaul of the animation system. In previous years, one of the biggest complaints was how movement felt overly artificial, with some moves taking multiple steps to play out with no interaction whatsoever. This year, you get a lot more control over how moves play out, which is both daunting and liberating. It lets you combo together moves more effectively and put on a real show as you drive the lane, but the degree of difficulty is expontentially higher. Tougher still is the fact that even individual layups have a timing component to them now, so it's that much harder to get an easy bucket.
I'll admit, I've felt frustrated at times. Nailing the timing on shots can be hard; and more than ever, you have to run plays to be successful. This is a net good for the series, but it has served to widen the gap that needs to be crossed to get to high-level play. NBA would be wise to take a cue from Madden and find a way to integrate tutorialized skill games in a way that feels seamless and rewarding, and not just like more practice.
More broadly, NBA 2K improves on last year's game in a lot of ways; and truthfully, it has never looked or played better, its piece de resistance once again being MyCareer. After last year's flawed and disappointing Spike Lee story, NBA 2K17's MyCareer rights the ship and rightfully puts the focus back on life in the NBA. It brings with it all the hallmark features of the past several years: Remarkable presentation, a satisfying if slightly goofy storyline, and a huge amount of flexibility in how you grow your character.
As usual, MyCareer's biggest strength is that it understands that its players are basketball fans who want to experience the fantasy of being a pro athlete. It goes a long way toward realizing that fantasy with its huge range of customization options and stars to meet, as well as in the way that it integrates your character into the presentation. Now if it would just let players skip the cutscenes and simulate practice, it would be pretty much perfect.
Actually, let me amend that last statement: It's not perfect, but it's close enough. When you play sports sims year in and year out like I do, it can be easy to get caught up in minute details and forget that NBA 2K is just a really amazing sport simulator. It's a truly enormous game - the kind of sim that can last you an entire year - and it's done the most to capture the soul of its sport. Other sports games are only just now catching up to MyCareer's ambitious storytelling, and no sim outside of Football Manager can match up to the depth of MyGM.
In overhauling the animation system, refocusing career mode, and making meaningful additions to MyGM, NBA 2K17 has addressed many of my lingering criticisms while losing none of its polish. And lest we forget, NBA 2K17 is one of the sports sims to feature a credible online franchise mode, with this year's MyLeague Online now offering multiple years and some fun new concepts like Keepers, which keeps stars players rotating around the league. I can ding it for a lot of little issues; but overall, NBA 2K17 is a remarkable achievement.
Right now, NBA 2K17 is the bar to which all other sports games aspire. And so long as Visual Concepts continues to attack each new entry with the same kind of vigor and ambition they have demonstrated with this year's version, it will continue to be the bar for the forseeable future.
Load times can be a little long in places, and it's a bit silly to have your character automatically return to their court just so they can leave and go straight to practice. Otherwise, NBA 2K's interface is solid, if a bit too crowded.
NBA 2K is known for its outstanding commentary, and this year is no different. Kevin Harlan returns to offer his typically smooth and insightful commentary, and the studio crew has plenty to say as well.
NBA 2K17's dumps canned animations for a much smoother experience overall. The arenas and players look terrific, and NBA 2K17 has the most elaborate halftime and postgame show of any sports sim. Seats empty during blowouts and crowds clap along to arena music. In short, it looks amazing.
NBA 2K17 addresses most of my biggest issues from last year in cutting out canned animations and going back to basics with MyCareer, and it's still as polished as ever. It's easy to take its excellence for granted, but Visual Concepts' ambition and willingness to take risks keeps it from ever becoming stale. NBA 2K17 is the champion, and it's tough to see it losing that title anytime soon.