NBA 2K17's The Prelude hits you with a tough choice right out of the gate: Deciding which college is right for you. Do you want to attend a traditional powerhouse like Kansas? A Big 10 power like Michigan State? Illinois for some reason? It won't affect more much more than the presentation, but it is a choice that will stay with you for a while, because The Prelude is much more than a demo.
NBA 2K17's The Prelude, which arrived on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One yesterday, both promotes the full game and gives you a chance to start building up your MyCareer. It encapsulates your entire run through college and into the NBA draft, which was easily the best aspect of last year's career mode - the flawed "Spike Lee joint" Livin' Da Dream. By the time you're finished, your draft position is set and you are ready to get going in the full game.
In taking this approach, 2K has made The Prelude much more than the typical disposable sports game demo. It doesn't offer an opportunity to play a normal game, but it makes up for it with a much richer and more involved experience than the typical demo can offer. It's reminiscent of the demo for Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, which let you delve into the game proper and carry your progress into the full game.
You begin The Prelude by creating your avatar and choosing your position, with comparisons to actual NBA stars being there to help you along. Once you're finished, you're treated to (ugh, sorry Lakers fans) Kobe Bryant introducing the mode with a handful of highlights from his actual career. Then you're in the shoes of a high school All-American nicknamed "The President" who is on his way to play college ball.
(Sidenote: What a shame there isn't more demand for a mode featuring women's basketball. It would be a lot of fun to take on the role of a female athlete playing for a powerhouse like UConn. It'd certainly be a step up from what FIFA attempted a year ago, which was decent but ultimately unexciting).
The President's college career follows a handful of big games in which your performance can affect your overall draft stock. When you're finished, you will see quotes from analyst's like ESPN's Ric Bucher either praising or criticizing your game, then a visualization of your draft position either rising or falling. In-between, you're treated to scenes of college life as your character goes to class, plays video games with his roommate, and offers glimpses of what life might be like for a big-time college athlete (minus the partying, sex, and under-the-table booster payments).
As usual, the cutscenes are... fine. They're unskippable, which is a pain if you just want to get into the games, but they're still far more impressive than what you'll find in any other sports game (minus FIFA, which I'll get to in a second). Happily, they're much more focused on basketball than your character's family, who dominated last year's career mode. In that, it seems like Visual Concepts has learned from last year's mistakes.
The kicker for all this is that once you've completed your run through college, you're locked in and can no longer affect your draft stock. In taking this approach, Visual Concepts is trying to raise the stakes a bit and make every game feel like it matters. It's a little frustrating in that it makes it feel as if you have no room for error, but it's nevertheless effective. And thankfully, The President really does feel like a man among boys on the court, able to grab rebounds and points with ease. I played poorly and still managed 13 points along with a bunch of steals and assists, which quickly pushed me into lottery pick territory.
The whole experience ended up being pretty meaty for a demo, and ultimately served to put me in the mood to play some NBA 2K17 - which was obviously the goal. It also gave me a firsthand look at the improvements Visual Concepts has made to its engine, which appear to be substantial. I was stunned by how smoothly the action flowed and how good the players looked - minus my player, of course, who looked a lot like Vanilla Ice with a soul patch.
It also keeps NBA 2K17 one step ahead of its nearest competitor, FIFA, which is releasing a story mode of its own called "The Journey." FIFA's demo dropped the same day as NBA 2K17; and while it includes a nice glimpse of The Journey and the opportunity to play some full games, it's not a must-download like The Prelude. As usual, NBA 2K17 sets the pace and everyone else follows.
The full version of NBA 2K17 launches next week on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. You'll be able to find my full review along with additional thoughts soon.