Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed) - Coming to PS4/Xbox One in November
Developers: Visual Concepts
Publishers: 2K Sports
You have to hand it to Visual Concepts and 2K Sports. No sports series comes close to the consistent quality of the NBA 2K franchise. Last year's effort, though it wasn't exactly a huge step up from its predecessor, led me to fall head over heels in love with a sport and embrace the irresistible personality and depth of NBA 2K with open arms. How could this year's instalment possibly top that?
Well, it starts with the control system. Once again, Visual Concepts have overhauled their input system in the pursuit of intuitive perfection. But for anyone who spent a fair amount of time in NBA 2K13, this new system will prove a source of frustration until you realise that you'd better learn it from scratch. The right stick -- the Pro Stick -- has no need of the left trigger modifier when it comes to shooting this time around. Isomotion and post move trickery-- the crossovers, Dream Shakes, hesitations, spins -- these are conducted via little taps and precise movements, with shooting a matter of pushing and holding the stick towards the direction you desire. Should habit force you to nudge the left trigger and then flick the stick, you'll now perform a range of showy passes. Or, more likely, hurl the ball into Row Z.
It takes some getting used to, but it's customisable so can just use the stick for nifty fakes and dazzling ankle-breakers if you'd prefer to use buttons for shooting and passing. There's some crossover, too, so you'll be able to switch between control inputs on the fly and pull off Steve Nash-esque no-look passes to your heart's content, whilst still having the solidity of shooting via a face button. On top of that, there's streamlining elsewhere: now you just have to nudge the left bumper to call a play, rather than abandoning control for a split-second to fiddle with the D-pad.
Of course, this would mean nothing without improved animations to take advantage of a more fluid controller interface, and NBA 2K14 doesn't disappoint. Though the game doesn't look particularly different to last year's title on current-gen machines, the wider range of animations is readily evident. It'll be even more visible on next-gen systems, of course, but the variety of layups has dramatically increased, and the game has come on in literal leaps and bounds when it comes to the art of defence.
Rejections are rapidly becoming as crowd-pleasing as dunks in the real-game, and NBA 2K14 brings blocks to the fore in a big way by opening up the space around the rim. Now you can stick a big hand in the way of pretty much every shot out there, including dunks. You can smack shots off of the backboard, chasedown rejections are now an art in themselves, and there are plenty of variables, from decisive fingertip shot-stoppers to the cheer-worthy big smackdowns. Previously a bit of a fiddly chore in the games that came before, dominating on defence is a lot of fun this time around.
The Signature Moves, which have been expanded and given a little more emphasis, also bring a little more to proceedings this time around. Playing to the strengths of each player is more important than ever before, and when playing against trickier AI opponents or live competition, it's important to note the things your team is best at. These are little things, but it illustrates the enormous difference between the way a high flying point guard such as Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook might play compared to a more precise dime-dealer like Nash.
It's not all perfect, of course. Glitches pop up here and there, and the high detail of the on-court action provides a stark contrast with the crash test dummies and blocky 3D South Park creations sat in the stands. But ultimately Visual Concepts have done a truly commendable job in managing to push forward the core action in meaningful fashion. They've even managed to make the commentary exchanges between Kevin Harlan, Steve Kerr, and Clark Kellogg even more diverse and natural-sounding than ever before, with more ubiquitous player name integration in MyPlayer, which is a tiny thing, but important nonetheless. When you've spent the best part of an hour creating the Platonic Form of yourself as an athletic power forward, tweaking every single animation set, to have the commentators cry out, "And that's Gardner with the big 3-pointer!" is cracking. It never gets old.
There've been many additions away from the court too. Euroleague is a big addition for basketball's international fans, and the slightly different rules yield games with a different focus. The nature of the European game is such that matches tend to favour teams that move the ball better, take advantage of the smaller 3-point distance, and aren't afraid to throw the rock down to big men in the post. Isolation plays come more rarely here, and there are 14 fully licenced teams to choose from: Alba Berlin, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, EA7 Emporio Armaniilano, Montepaschi Siena, Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul, Anadolus Efes Istanbul, Olympiacos Piraeus, Panathinaikos Athens, Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Zalgiris Kaunas, Unicaja Malaga and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria.
The biggest new addition, though, comes in the form of the greatest player in the world at the moment: LeBron James. James is everywhere, from the opening motivational video, to the menu aesthetics and soundtrack picks, to a new mode that sees players trying to get the Freight Train into the Hall of Fame by besting Michael Jordan's record of six championships. There are two main options players must choose between at the start, options that will no doubt face James when the 2013-14 season comes to a close: does he stay in South Beach and craft a dynasty with the Heat, or does he look elsewhere. I won't spoil any of the details of how 2K's soothsaying journey for LeBron unfolds, but there are plenty of juicy, dramatic, compelling highlight moments and matches to get stuck into, and it's all enormously entertaining.
Sadly, however, these new bits and pieces have come at the expense, once again, of developing the hugely popular MyCareer and Association modes. The former seems rather buggier than it has been in previous games, but otherwise pretty much identical in form and function. And the GM AI on show in The Association is frequently baffling in a mode that is crying out for some renovation. The on-court improvements have a lot going for them, but LeBron: Path to Greatness is no substitute for driving the real time-sinks forward. Even Crews, which makes a welcome return, is relegated to being a mode of pickup blacktop games rather than cultivating any meaningful competition or drama. It's good, sure; but it could be so much better.
And that's the rub for NBA 2K14. Having reached a limit in terms of squeezing power out of current-gen systems, we could perhaps have hoped for the basketball game to end all basketball games: a deafening statement of intent that elevated the series into true greatness just as the competition is set to return. But it still feels like there's something missing.
- Improved animations and fluid control system
- Better defensive systems, particularly when it comes to blocks
- Commentary is somehow more astounding than ever
- LeBron: Path to Greatness is a nice bit of fun
- Still the most comprehensive sports game package out there
- No historic modes
- Were the control system changes really necessary?
- MyCareer and The Association showing their age
- Crews return is a bit half-baked
The Short Version: For all of its charm and personality on-court improvements, NBA 2K14 hides a fair amount of dust under the hood. It's an outstanding package, certainly, and oozes style and substance, but the modes that have been begging for improvement for the last couple of years are still left relatively untouched, and series veterans might come away a little disappointed in spite of the on-court improvements.