It's possible that basketball fans have been spoiled by the NBA 2K series, which over the preceding four titles has churned out some of the most conspicuous year-to-year improvements from the brutal treadmill of annual sports video games development. Looking back, the highly polished gameplay and presentation that other series would kill for seems almost taken for granted.
It won't be this year, because while NBA 2K14 is not a no-frills product, nor is it a disappointing game, it seems to invoke the prerogative of a well made series choosing not to fix what isn't broken this year. Taking this approach as the series transitions to a new console generation — where it will face competition for the first time in four years — is somewhat understandable.
But there is a palpable sameness carried over from last year's edition in its two principal career modes, and a tribute to cover star LeBron James, imagining an idealised future, lacks the kind of oomph that made retrospectives on Michael Jordan and the NBA's all-time greats so compelling.
The gameplay is refined in three key areas. First is that play around the rim is a lot more realistic, involving a lot more contact and a truer ability to disrupt shots — either by blocking them outright or altering their trajectory. Fouling and even goaltending comes a lot more frequently and naturally because of this, for both user and CPU. The improved viability of blocking shots is a big help to those who play an active defence rather than playing off the ball to deny passes, which is most everyone.
The downside is that making the ball more contestable brings the game somewhat back to the days when passing was an adventure, and taking the extra step to bring up icon passing is a necessity. There is now a "flashy pass" that's activated with the left trigger and a whip on the right stick in the direction you want the ball to go, replacing the old "total control passing" that involved the right bumper and right stick. It's a cleaner way to do analogue passing but guys with bad ballhandling and passing ratings are going to get jumped easily.
Your teammates also are more loosely spread around the court, something you'll notice when you play in MyCareer or use its camera angle instead of the broadcast view. They move more proactively on offence, to the point where even a bonehead like me could improvise a decent ball reversal or drive-and-kick, without calling for it in a play, every now and then.
Finally, 2K changed the controls for the third straight year, though this is more of a refinement than an overhaul, still for the better. Last year's game required a left trigger modifier to differentiate between a dribbling move and a shot on the right stick. As such, control spammers like me preferred to use the button commands. This year the right stick is now the "Pro Stick", which recognises that the stick held in a certain direction is a shot, while quicker taps and flicks are used for ballhandling. As such, novices will find analogue stick play a little more accessible — but there still is a dizzying number of actions — as minuscule as a jab step or as instinctive as a crossover — that require specific commands to engage. You'll need these to create space to blow by a defender because the left stick is a barebones move-this-way command, with no way to exploit momentum or physics to make hard cuts, hesitation moves or direction changes.
I've got to be blunt, by any measure I am objectively bad at simulation-quality basketball, owing to an overall lack of familiarity with how the game is played in real life. My review time consists of focusing on learning a few moves with a single guy in MyCareer, though I always create a shooting guard because his role is the easiest for me to grasp. Then I go get my arse kicked, mostly, in team play. I turn on a lot of assists — automatic playcalling, full floor art diagramming the play, and automatic shot contesting. I also go with the top-down "2K" camera angle instead of broadcast. Newcomers and casuals should take this approach; it helps take the edge off the game, but you can't just play a basic Double Dribble style of pass-and-shoot basketball and expect to win much here.
MyCareer remains a great laboratory for learning fundamentals — underappreciated for this, in my opinion. But it regrettably has had little done to it this year, apart from stocking the draft with this year's class (and using audio from the draft itself in announcing the picks, including the "whoa!" from a stunned Bill Simmons when Anthony Bennett was selected No. 1.) For some roles, there is a predictable path to success in this mode that boils down to setting a pick in every half-court setup, making an extra pass or two and, frankly, not calling for the ball, but waiting for the AI distributors to work it over to you. There's an element of grind, too, because simply playing key games won't rank you up with enough XP to acquire signature skills on top of attribute improvement, which is where you really start to do damage as a superstar.
The distinguishing new mode of NBA 2K14 is now something called Path to Greatness, which though it takes on the subject of cover star LeBron James playing in the final year of his contract with the Miami Heat, doesn't do it in a particularly bold way. The goal is to win seven NBA championships through two different paths — either remaining with Miami or going on a "fantastic journey" which doesn't seem to let you pick the team where you end up.
On the first leg of my journey, the game resurrected 38-year-old Allen Iverson's career and sent him back to Philadelphia, where he became just goddamn unstoppable in the Eastern Conference finals. After I was sent packing, the game informed me I'd chosen to play for the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony was summarily sent to Chicago where Erik Spoelstra decided to go coach. Some new guy was drafted No. 1 overall and it became incumbent on me to remind him who the greatest is before eventually passing the torch. The player movement and introduction of new adversaries may be the reason you don't get to pick LeBron's new team if you elect to take your talents out of South Beach.
I've been told that, had I beaten the Sixers, I would have ended up in an NBA Finals where LeBron suffers an ankle injury in game seven, misses most of the game, and then has to lead the team back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter, which someone of my experience can just forget about (difficulty and quarter length are not alterable in this mode.) At any rate, leading LeBron through heavily scripted fictitious encounters (both guards are injured, so he has to run the point, for example) is really no more intriguing to me than the emergent narrative coming from my created player's career. It's a nice concept but it feels thrown together and if LeBron isn't your favourite guy, so what?
Here's a quarter of basketball from Path to Greatness, in which LeBron faces a resurgent Allen Iverson. Like I said, I'm pretty bad. But AI just seems super-powered in this mode, which is kind of hard to choke down.
Online, I did not yet see much of what the game will offer (the game releases Oct. 1, and servers came on only over the weekend) but for those who enjoyed running ball virtually, Crews — teams of individually controlled MyCareer players — will return this year. They'd gone missing after NBA 2K11 as the series overhauled its servers and got the mode to play nice with them. MyTeam, the ultimate-team mode introduced last year, has tournaments added to the menu of play-now options.
I realise that some of the things I've said about NBA 2K14 here were said about Madden NFL 25 a month ago, earning that game a No in my review. The difference is NBA 2K14 doesn't have issues that I'm hoping will be corrected with a next-generation release. It also doesn't fail to deliver on promises made year-in and year-out. A next-gen NBA 2K14 should be a better game, and should definitely be distinct from the series, but the game that is available now on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC doesn't grate you with underdeveloped commentary, unpolished presentation or teammate AI that frequently thwarts your intentions. If NBA 2K14 didn't extend itself much from the past year, well, the past year's game was still very enjoyable, with an attentive, responsive broadcast presentation that just puts everything else in the field to shame.
Still, it is fair to say that something feels held back even if the overall enterprise is sound and well executed. It's dispiriting that jewel-box modes like the Jordan Challenge and NBA's Greatest remain shackled to NBA 2K11 and 2K12, respectively, where they would be even more enjoyable with streamlined controls and the gameplay refinements described above. I'm not sure why those features are held out when their teams remain on the play-now roster, with a few exceptions (Julius Erving is not on the 76ers, alas. The 1992 Olympic Dream Team also does not return). It's also aggravating that the entertaining mini-games of the All-Star Weekend can be accessed only when you get to the all-star weekend of an Association campaign. You can set up a throwaway association savefile and sim up to the weekend if you want to fool around in the dunk or three-point contest, but why couldn't these be broken out?
We've been told for some time that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 version of this game is going to be a distinct experience from the current generation version. It had better do more than just restore old modes and dazzle us with sharp looks, though. I don't mean to judge this game, even partially, against the promise of one that does not yet exist. But strangely, I think NBA 2K14 on the Xbox 360 and PS3 places more pressure on its sibling releasing in November than vice versa. This is still an elegant sports product that, if it earns few new laurels, at least did not rest on its old ones.