NBA 2K has consistently been one of the highest sports sims since the debut of NBA 2K11 - the game that pushed the series into the genre's highest tier alongside FIFA. This year is one of the most ambitious entries yet, with Spike Lee stepping in to turn MyCareer into a full-blown sports movie. Will it be enough to overcome NBA 2K's most glaring flaw?
What happened with NBA 2K15: NBA 2K15 set out last year to correct the problems plaguing the well-liked but deeply flawed NBA 2K14 - the franchise's current-gen debut. Its GM mode was overhauled, making crucial functions like the ability to set lineups and minutes available from the start, it introduced a streamlined MyLeague mode for those who didn't want to bother with RPG conversation trees, and it included all of the usual gameplay upgrades. But the star of the show, as usual, was its expansive MyCareer mode, which put you in the shoes of an undrafted free agent and let you interact with digitized versions of NBA stars. It was a little cheesy at times, but way beyond anything shown in a sports game to this point.
In giving it 4.5 stars in my review, I wrote, " 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." High praise. But I also made note of one the game's biggest problems: Its deep ties to often unreliable online servers.
Going back to at least its current-generation debut, NBA 2K has relied on Virtual Currency - in-game currency that can be earned by completing various activities or by spending real money. VC is mainly used to boost your GM and your player in MyCareer, but it can also be used to buy accessories like t-shirts and shoes. It's all tied to remote servers, which has proven to be a huge headache for 2K. As players have rushed to play NBA 2K at launch, and again at Christmas, the servers have become overloaded, effectively locking them out of a good chunk of the game's content.
NBA 2K15 made it possible to create offline saves for MyCareer, but 2K's famously unreliable servers have been a continual black mark on the series since jumping to the current generation of consoles.
What NBA 2K15 did well: A lot of things, actually. It was one of the best-looking sports games outside of MLB: The Show. It made its players feel distinct, especially dynamo point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. It had a fabulous presentation with multiple intros for every team, and it had a relatively strong MyGM. All in all, the series rebounded rather nicely from the problematic NBA 2K14.
As I already said, though, MyCareer was what truly set NBA 2K15 apart from the pack. It effectively made you the star of your own sports movie, giving you a taste of what it would be like to be an actual professional athlete. No other sports sim comes even close to this level of ambition. It was a mode that let you hang out with Andre Drummond, make hard decisions about whether to stay loyal to your team or take New York's money and team up with Doc Rivers, and troll Kevin Durant over Twitter. It was all incredibly cheesy - like a low-rent episode of HBO's Ballers - but the level of immersion it brought to the table was captivating.
Where NBA 2K15 struggled: MyPark was an interesting and ambitious attempt to integrade pickup basketball, but the execution didn't always work. In my review at the time, I wrote, " 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.
Beyond that, nice as it was to have some semblance of an online league system, it was painfully simple. Operation Sports has a pretty good breakdown of its strengths and weaknesses, as well as its myriad weaknesses. Something is better than nothing, especially with so many sports sims cutting online leagues, but the mode's weaknesses were nevertheless disappointing.
In terms of gameplay, NBA 2K15 was often very good; but like every sports sim, it had its problems. It felt like canned animations took over to a greater degree than they should have at points, especially when trying to play defense. And the defensive A.I. was actually pretty limited, allowing some Youtubers to build up crazy stats.
Its biggest flaws, though, were its online servers, which were tremendously unreliable in the early going. They continue to be NBA 2K's achilles heel, dragging down an otherwise remarkable sports sim.
This year's outlook: In what has become a tradition for the series, the 2K team has poured a host of new features into NBA 2K16. They've completely revamped the MyCareer mode once again, this time handing the reins to Spike Lee, who has put together a story that looks like something out of a 30 for 30 documentary. It looks like Lee is going to be spending a lot of time on the less savory aspects of being a professional athlete - something that every other sports sim has avoided like the plague. Outside of that, you will now get to select how you spend your off days in MyCareer - training or a charity golf tournament with Michael Jordan being among the decisions - and build relationships with established stars. In MyGM, it will be possible to relocate your team, with the league automatically realigning to accomodate your relocation.
NBA 2K16 looks set to address most of the nagging issues from NBA 2K15 while building on its strengths. After spending some time with it last week, I have to say that the defensive A.I. does indeed seem smarter this year. Amusingly, even the expert Youtubers who were brought in to see the game were losing to the computer. Of course, that might have been due to the fact that we were locked into the side-to-side broadcast camera, which is somewhat awkward. Still, it's great to know that playing as a defensive team like the Memphis Grizzlies stands to be fun this year.
Looking at everything that 2K has accomplished with the series over the past few years, and the level of polish that they bring to the table, NBA 2K seems like a prohibitive favorite to win Sports Game of the Year, its closest competitor being Rocket League. It's truly remarkable that they've crafted what amounts to a sports movie for this game; but with a really strong set of baseline technology and considerable freedom to implement their ideas as they see fit, it's not surprising that 2K has managed to squeeze in so much content.
Now we'll justh have to see if the servers work this year. And, you know, not to be that person, but it sure would be nice to get the Jordan Challenge mode back someday...