NBA2K16 is a mainstream sports video game, meaning its full of things like stats, complex controls and painstaking licensing. But it's also home to something a lot more adventurous and potentially important: a role-playing game where you take a kid from high school to the NBA.
It's far from the first sports game to offer a mode like this — most big titles have done something similar for almost a decade — but what sets the NBA2K series apart is that they do it right. Well, in theory at least. The execution (and writing in particular) needs some work.
Other sports games, from Madden to FIFA, have you create a player, name them then throw them into the game. You're sent the odd personal email, and the option to control only that player, but aside from that those modes play out much as any other sports game mode: a conveyor belt of games interrupted by menu screen traversal.
DeMarcus Covington and his sister, who is one of the few likeable characters in Livin Da Dream.
For a few years now, the NBA2K series has tried something a little more ambitious. Rather than just build a player, their MyCareer mode has had you build a character, and that character is the star of a story that plays out like a "proper" video game's singleplayer mode, complete with a supporting cast and cutscenes which drive a narrative.
I wrote about last year's version, and how much I loved it: my Wizard, DeMarcus Covington, was an average player with a big heart, and while the constant stream of basketball got tiring after a while, I loved getting to the end of a game and seeing a cutscene play out showing how I'd climbed the next rung on the career ladder, whether that be a meeting with an agent, beef with an existing player or even something as trivial as a stadium employee asking what music I'd like played when I walk out onto the court.
All trivial and not at all related to the act of playing basketball on the court, but that's what made it so enjoyable. By padding the sports part of the game with a bunch of story, it did what stories have been doing for other video games for decades: draw you in and make the whole thing feel a little more personal, a little more immersive.
When you select a college team to play for, there's a weird home-made video shot in the style of LeBron's "Decision".
I love the Yakuza series. For the bike-throwing combat and the gangster soap opera, yes, but also for the mundanity of its real-world setting. When you think about it, almost every video game you play is set in a fantasy world, whether obviously (elves, wizards, starships) or less so (remember, Los Santos isn't a real place).
But the Yakuza games are set in Tokyo. You can walk into convenience stores and buy some branded ramen and a branded magazine, for no other reason than, well, you can. Which sounds dumb! But there's something weirdly comforting in simulating the everyday. Not every virtual world needs to be COMPLETE fantasy. Just a little bit of fantasy, sprinkled on top of something real, can be just as good.
This is the space NBA2K's MyCareer mode has been excelling in over the past few seasons, but this year they went a little crazy and hired Spike Lee to handle things (or, at least, lend his name to the project), with the addition of a fancier story to MyCareer called Livin Da Dream. It promised to bring a bigger, more engrossing experience to what's fast becoming one of 2K's biggest draws. So...does it?
You can't choose who you're drafted by. Me, I got...the Bucks? *reaches for reset button*
Sort of. Yes, no, not really, just a little. I'm so torn by the whole thing. It's a train wreck in so many ways. Consider the following, any of which should be a dealbreaker:
The writing sucks. It's really bad. There's just so much awkward slang, hokey "father knows best" and "slick agent" garbage going on that a lot of the cutscenes play out like they were penned by a cliche generator, which has been fed the screenplays to every sports movie made since 1974 and programmed to just pick stuff at random and spew it out.
If you're not afraid of spoilers, Chris Smoove put the whole "movie" together in the single clip below.
It's all over so quickly. Don't be fooled into thinking Spike Lee directed you an entire NBA career to play through; by the end of your first NBA season the heaviest of the story stuff pretty much dries up (complete with a 20-minute ending sequence), leaving you to spend the rest of your career with the odd cutscene and just regular sports game business to keep you busy. I'd have rather seen the big story split up over the course of a career — All-Star selections, NBA Finals heartache, retirement tears — than be crammed into the earliest years of a player's journey. As it stands, it's a rags to riches tale that bails before you get the riches.
Don't go expecting a meaty NCAA experience: you only play four college games.
There's little choice. If you thought that being a weird kind of sports RPG meant that you'd have an RPG level of story input, you'll be bummed out. Outside of picking which fictional high school you play for, and then which college you attend, you're pushed through a pre-written basketball movie in which the beats play out regardless of how well you're playing or what you think of the ride. Absurdly, one of the longest cutscenes involves a debate over whether to go pro or remain in college for another season; you don't get to actually make that decision.
You have a dumb name. NBA2K16 lets you choose whatever you want for your player's actual birth name. And commentators will often use this. But where NBA2K15 also let you choose from a pre-recorded list of nicknames, this year's game locks you into "Frequency Vibrations", often shortened to "Freq". If you think it was painful reading that, wait until you have to hear it said aloud by commentators 20 times a game.
So the story in a story mode (mostly) sucks. That should sink this grand experiment.
"OK, five more minutes of basketball, then I can settle in for ten minutes of cutscenes with a guy telling me how proud his mother was that he rang the bell on the New York Stock Exchange..." (and yes, that is a cutscene that happens)
And yet...deep down, I still liked it. I enjoyed parts of it in a corny, soap opera-kinda way, but I'm mostly behind the idea of it. Maybe not for what it is right now, but for what 2K's investment means for the series next year, or the years to come after. After all, sports games are rarely wholly new things; they're usually iterative, next year's version tweaking and improving on this year's effort.
So while NBA2K16's latest attempt has its problems (their drier, but less ambitious effort in NBA2K15 was a lot less clunky), I still found the experience of sitting through lengthy cutscenes in a sports video game a strangely enjoyable one in principle, the promise and intent behind it all so fascinating in today's video game landscape that I could endure its lowpoints and just appreciate the parts that do work. How absurd the whole thing is. NBA2K16 is a licensed sports game. It sits alongside titles like Madden and FIFA, which sell themselves on mechanics and multiplayer and digital card games and broadcast realism.
And what's been NBA2K16's biggest sell this year (even though it also has a lot of those things)? A singleplayer story mode! Directed by Spike Lee! With characters, and a plot, and hokey dialogue, all about a kid from Harlem with a shitty friend and bad agent and dreams of getting out of the projects and making it big.
Even executed as poorly as it is, it still has a decent amount of success in achieving its primary goal: to give more meaning and context to your gameplay than simply a win counter ticking over and some stats getting better. It's one thing to play well and win a game. It's another to play well and have your digital sister and digital girlfriend and digital Shaq (yes, there's digital Shaq) go nuts about it.
Sure, the cinematic side of things could have been better. People will be expecting better from Spike Lee's name, and will be quickly disappointed to find that this is a "video game" level script, not an "Academy Award nomination" level script.
Digital Spike Lee looks weird.
But I applaud 2K for spending big on Livin Da Dream, and am excited to see what they come up with next year. Other series like FIFA, PES and Madden seem to be at best tolerating their singleplayer modes, catering to them out of deference to older fans while simultaneously focusing most of their attention on their money-making variations of Ultimate Team.
Which, fine, if that's where a lot of people's interests lie, then so be it. But not everybody plays sports games to beat up on human opponents. There are still people, like myself, who prefer to play their sports games like they play a lot of other video games: by themselves, with a narrative to push the gameplay. Livin Da Dream may not be perfect — it's far from it — but it's a definite step in the right direction towards the kind of experience many singleplayer gamers are expecting from their sports games.
I only hope that Livin Da Dream is seen as just that — a positive step — rather than some grand, expensive failure that didn't produce an amazing cinematic experience right away. Maybe with some more work we'll look back in 2018 and say, wow, wasn't Ridley Scott's Young Larry Bird one hell of an NBA2K storyline.