Annually, the NBA 2K series returns to the basketball courts with outstanding graphics, a blazing new soundtrack, and a bevy of mode, highlighted by the story driven My Career mode making it the most realistic basketball simulation and perhaps the most authentic sports simulation period.
In NBA 2K16 the series mainstays are back. This year’s edition looks as amazing as any other, and while developers can certainly boast that there are improved animations and graphics, the game looks the same as last year. However, that is not a knock on the game as, truthfully, I do not know how this game could look any better. Every player and coach looks photo realistic, and most of them have their characteristic and mannerisms. Steph Curry will chew his mouth guard at the line, Kobe’s arrogance shows on his face, and the post-game team of Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Shaq make jokes and go through the highlights like a television broadcast.
Related to the post-game show, the presentation of NBA 2K16 is another big step forward in sports video games – the broadcast team of Clark Kellogg, Kevin Harlan, Doris Burke and Greg Anthony all describe the game with expertise and reference previous games in the season as well as provide insight into player’s careers. I went several games into My Career and My GM modes before I heard the broadcast team repeat themselves. Between quarters, the game uses overlays that include brief interviews. Add that to the already surreal post-game interviews, the cheerleaders, mascots, interactive bench players and fans and the NBA 2K16’s presentation is easily the best in sports video games. Regardless of how good it is, players generally skip past all of this pageantry in order to quickly get on and off the court. Kudos to the Visual Concepts team for putting so much time and effort into what essentially are cut scenes that a number of players refuse to watch.
As previously mentioned, games in the NBA 2K series are usually highlighted by My Career mode, a story driven look at the life of an upstart NBA player. Unfortunately, NBA 2K15’s story proved that the mode had gone stale.
In order to add layer of interest and improve storytelling, NBA 2K16 includes Spike Lee, the film director, producer, and actor who made the basketball focused He Got Game, a 1998 film that made household names out of NBA star Ray Allen and actress Rosario Dawson.
In the film, acclaimed actor Denzel Washington plays the prisoned father of a high school basketball phenom who is let out of jail in order to convince his son to play for the State Governor’s alma mater in exchange for a reduced sentence. The film’s premise is notable because despite how absurd it sounds, it is incredibly entertaining. That ‘Spike Lee Joint’ has the same attributes as the NBA 2K16 My Career mode, referred to as “Livin’ the Dream” and we are reminded at every loading screen that this is a ‘Spike Lee Joint’. Despite the ego-stroking of the award-winning writer and producer, NBA 2K16’s My Career mode is very entertaining. While there are some incredibly corny moments, particularly any dialogue coming from your superstar’s agent, the story is well written, and it plays out like a movie.
The story essentially separates My Career into two parts, the “Livin’ the Dream” portion is heavily story driven, and regardless of how you perform on the court, the narrative comes out the same after the roughly four-hour story. The mode loses most of the story elements and your character settles into his life as an NBA player.
As absurd and entertaining as the story driven portion of the mode is, there are also portions of this part of the game that cannot be edited. For example, regardless of what you name your character, he will be referred to by the nickname Frequency Vibrations or Freq for short. Similarly, regardless of your character’s ethnicity his family, including his twin sister, will be African-American. As an African-American, I applaud the developers for making a game whose story includes a cast of minorities, but everyone should be able to tailor the family’s appearance to match their characters. Diversity in gaming is not only good it is important, but that means games need to become more inclusive, not maintain the exclusivity but feature another race. Aside from being unable to change the appearance and background of your family, the player is locked down to a specific number of games during “Livin’ the Dream” as you work your character up though high school, college, and then the early stage of his NBA career. Regardless, if you suspend your disbelief, the mode is still far more entertaining than it has been in years.
Other changes for the 2K franchise come in the area of controls, which usually has something different each year. In NBA 2K16, the controls feel tighter overall, moving around the court, the player feels capable of moving with or without the ball and getting to their spots. This change feels good and was necessary as the series continues to evolve; however some of the button configuration changes feel pointless. For example, calling for a pick and roll used to be a very simple button press. In NBA 2K16 calling for a pick and roll requires the player to use a bumper, a trigger, and to maneuver with the analog stick in order to get around the pick. This change makes the whole exchange cumbersome, and the fluidity of this style of gameplay is negatively affected. Truthfully this change feels associated with the fact that for years players solely relied on the pick and roll as their offensive strategy. It seems the developer wanted to make the task more difficult.
In addition to making the pick and roll more difficult, the AI defense is far more adept at guarding it. Players handle the switch well, cut under are over the pick with ease and generally guard both offensive players well enough to prevent easy drives. As a whole, the AI is far more responsive on the defensive end of the court. The teams take into full account what your go-to strategy is and work to defend it. This is evident by the fact that the team is far quicker to execute a double team on hot shooter than in previous years. In NBA 2K15 a player could have 20 points before the defense started to double team. In this year’s version, if a player takes too many shots or handles the ball on the majority of the possessions, the defense begins to take note. This level of intelligence is what will fuel the Player vs. CPU portion of sports games in this generation.
With all the modes and the gameplay improvements as well as the story in My Career mode, NBA 2K continues to improve upon what a sports game can be. All these positives still come with some negatives that remain from previous years. First, so much of My Career, My GM, My League, My Park, and My Pro-Am are focused on VC, the game’s virtual currency which is used to do everything from upgrade a player’s skills to select the jump shot animation you prefer to use for your created superstar. VC is also required to keep your player from looking like a hobo in the game’s many cut scenes. Want a particular pair of sneakers? Use VC. Want to wear a T-shirt that does not look like Kanye West’s derelict new clothing line? You will have to use VC. These requirements essentially attempt to force micro transactions on a person that just spent $60 on the game.
The other glaring negative that is a holdover from previous years are NBA 2K’s awful servers. Roughly an hour into My Career, I attempted to use the VC I had earned from games to upgrade my player. The game attempted to connect to the 2K server and failed, kicking me out of the mode. I spent a full hour attempting on and off to get back in to the mode. This is by far the worst thing about 2Ks’s many modes: there has to be a connection to the server for players to even be able to enjoy them. Couple that with the fact that the publisher’s, 2K Sports, servers have been a social media punchline for the past few years and what we have is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially NBA 2K16 is a solid game that delivers on presentation, sound, gameplay, and story, but you cannot count on the platform necessary to support it to be available when you really want to play.
+ Absurd by engaging story
+ Tighter controls
– The servers are unreliable
– VC attempts to force micro transactions