Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
Developers: Visual Concepts
Publishers: 2K Sports
The generation jump has, by and large, seen much of the same again in the short while since the Xbox One and PS4's releases. We've had a dearth of truly essential exclusives on both sides, coupled with generation-bridging third party extravagances that, though shinier on next-gen tech, are largely feature-complete and cheaper on old machines. What this had meant is that it feels as though we're still awaiting a number of studios to really commit to the future consoles and truly elevate their games to the next level.
Thankfully, Visual Concepts are on the ball. Sorry for the puns.
NBA 2K14 arrives on PS4 and Xbox One in markedly different form to the game that greeted PS3 and Xbox 360 owners. Instead of being a slightly tuned up version of NBA 2K13, what we have here is a title that has been resolutely overhauled both on and off of the court to striking effect. It hasn't all gone entirely swimmingly, but what we do have here is a truly next-gen title that shows great promise.
If you watched my initial impression video for NBA 2K14 on PS4, you'll no doubt have borne witness to my excited reaction to the player models and exceptionally fluid animations. Visual Concepts have always been excellent at player capture and recreating the spinning, Eurostepping balletic grace of a player such as Kobe or D-Wade. Creating a zippy point guard and giving him a devastating, Iverson-esque crossover has long been a delight. But here, on machines with more power and memory, the animations and level of physical detail on the players have been ramped up to an impressive degree. There's a solidity and physicality to proceedings that is very welcome, aided by an on-court soundscape that has been recaptured and given wider variety and impact.
This extra aesthetic fidelity also allows the developers to cram in more televisual trickery and cinematic segments than ever before. The commentary team of Harlan, Kellogg, and Kerr return in typical robust fashion, but Doris Burke now appears in person to interview players and coaches occasionally courtside. Elsewhere, StateFarm Assist of the Game pops up in third-quarters, and the Sprint Half-Time Report is even more slick and polished than before, with a wider array of phrases from Damon Bruce. The stadia are wonderfully realised, packed with crowds that no longer appear as angular cardboard cutouts and blocky mannequins. There's repetition in there, but you'll only really notice if you go searching for it, and given the choice between a few stock models and superior animation, atmosphere, and sound, I'll take the latter cluster every time.
A long lament has been the lack of any real innovation in MyCareer or Association mode over the past few years. Good though they are, stagnation has come about due to a lack of competition. Thankfully, as EA Sports step back onto the court for the first time in a few years, Visual Concepts have rung the changes.
I always felt more engaged with MyCareer than I did with any other sports game's equivalent, but the developers have finally pushed that further, creating a personal narrative to draw players in and make your character more than just an avatar and a stat line. Right at the start, you get an agent (your childhood friend) and your rookie rival (destined to be chosen just ahead of you in the draft). It adds a little spice to that opening showcase that's very welcome indeed. I was drafted by the 76ers, and I watched as my popularity with fans, my standing in the team, and my relationship with the GM fluctuated depending on decisions made on and off of the court. Refusing to carry Jason Richardson's bags, for example, cost me in terms of team chemistry but raised my profile with national fans. Having Thaddeus Young take me under his wing and help me practice free throws after I missed two in a row in a tight game was a nice touch.
Press conferences and conversations with team staff and players play out with response options chosen from a radial wheel, but though this notion of creating a story and some drama for you to inhabit is a good idea, the execution is patchy in places. The responses are usually presented along binary lines: you're either fashioning a future for yourself as an egotistical prick who's only out for number one, or you're a resolute team player. There's not much in between. Additionally, although your player is fully voiced and captured in these exposition scenes, other players are stoically silent and their faces don't really move. It's understandable -- getting half of the league in to provide voice work would have been ridiculous -- but often the writing is pretty awkward and frequently repetitive too, which doesn't help at all. I've lost count of the number of times that the GM has brought up the janitor's birthday. What this adds up to is a mode with enormous potential, but it's not quite there yet, though there are flashes of brilliance. There's not quite enough crossover between the two, and although you still get called out on social media and your coach will issue dynamic challenges (e.g. hit three of four shots to start off strong), there's still little to stop one match running into the next.
The changes made to MyCareer are, though, improvements. It's far more engaging than it ever has been, helped on by a wider variety of customisation options, skills to pump VC into, and special abilities, badges, and roles to earn -- both through VC and also general progression and behaviour on and off of the court. Sadly, MyGM hasn't quite received the same level of bespoke treatment as MyCareer. You once again take on the mantle of being a team's general manager, and you essentially handle everything. You can go enormously deep in MyGM and you'll need to balance the wishes and responsibilities of coaches, scouts, accountants, other GMs, your players, and the team's owner. Unfortunately, the back and forth dialogue here (and there's a lot of it) is significantly more clunky and dry than in MyCareer, making everything seem pretty sterile and mechanical. If you're ok with that, you'll find an enormous timesink here with serious depth; but it has nothing like the amount of personality that MyCareer offers.
LeBron: Path to Greatness is gone, but that's not a huge deal given the changes to MyCareer, and Crews has been replaced with The Park -- an online hub that allows you to trot about a little park stuffed with pickup games. All you have to do to join a game is wander up to the player rings by the side of a court, with the option of participating in 2-v-2, 3-v-3, and 5-v-5 matches. It's a nice little feature that allows you to build a bond with your MyPlayer avatar in a more social environment, as well as team up with friends and take down some wannabes. MyTeam also makes a return as 2K basketball's answer to Ultimate Team, but that's largely unchanged save for a few additional rare players and a new mode called Domination that'll let you play matches against existing teams and All-Star squads.
Ultimately, NBA 2K14 on PS4/XO presents the first truly meaningful advance for the series in several years. The on-court action presents an absolutely stunning recreation of the sport of basketball, with the most fluid animations we've seen from a sporting title, and broadcast-level presentation that is absolutely unmatched across the entire sporting genre. But it's the manner in which Visual Concepts have moved to make MyCareer a little more personal and more engaging than before that's truly welcome. It's not perfect by any means, and there's certainly room for improvement, but it's one of the first true titles that manages to capture the power of this new generation of consoles and use it to innovate in terms of form and function. Unmissable for basketball fans.
- The looks
- The animations
- The immersive atmosphere
- The tweaks to MyCareer
- The Park
- The iffy dialogue
- The inconsistent use of voice acting
- There's still more to come from MyCareer
- Integration of PS Camera is a bit dodgy
The Short Version: There's still room for improvement, but Visual Concepts have created a truly next-gen instalment for this year's iteration of NBA 2K. Everything, from the furrowed lines on LeBron's brow to the engaging back and forth between your MyPlayer and their agent in MyCareer mode, oozes personality like never before. Probably the best sports game on the planet right now.