Considering that 2K Sports‘ NBA 2K series has been a standout among all sports franchises over the last several years, you might expect that for the jump to a new console generation, its developers would be more than satisfied simply giving its existing game a visual bump, while keeping its various modes and features largely untouched, for a first time out. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. NBA 2K14 on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is a very different beast than the releases for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The tight, complex gameplay fans have come to know and love is still front and center, mostly no worse for the wear. But in terms of features, 2K has gone back to the drawing board on several of its biggest modes. In some cases, this has resulted in considerable improvement, but not in all. Still, even with what it’s missing, the wide swath of visual improvements to NBA 2K14 alone make it worth consideration for anyone looking for a great looking sports game to go along with their new console purchase.
Let’s just get those visuals out of the way right now. NBA 2K has always provided the best-looking representations of the game of basketball available on video game consoles, and for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, 2K has gone all-out. Body models are as realistic as any sports game I’ve ever seen, and the faces are especially amazing. 2K reportedly scanned the faces of 80% of the league’s current players, and the level of detail in each face is fantastic. Granted, that means there is a qualitative difference between, say, a LeBron James and a Cody Zeller. Less popular players look a bit more robotic when they emote, and the faces do look a bit more uncanny the further down the NBA rabbit hole you go. But the vast majority of players look really excellent.
They animate wonderfully, too. The animation has always been this series’ best feature, and this is one of those games you could very easily mistake for a real TV broadcast if you just happen to catch it out of the corner of your eye. The level of detail in each arena certainly helps, with wonderfully reactive crowds, terrific court and crowd graphics, and tons of minutae you won’t even see until you pause and dig into the instant replays. The commentary from trio of Kevin Harlan, Steve Kerr, and Clark Kellogg is as good as it’s ever been–if perhaps a bit more repetitive than usual–adding to an already stellar broadcast presentation.
On the court, the game plays just as well as it did on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. All the right-stick-based ball-handling mechanics that were available on those platforms work just as well here, and the A.I. is also just as strong. If anything, it’s maybe a bit tighter, but not in a way that feels cheap or broken. The only issue I noticed in this version that I didn’t see in the others were a few ball-oriented physics glitches. Specifically, every now and again, a shot will hit the rim and continue spinning around it for several seconds while every player just kind of stands around. You’ll also periodically see passes or blocked shots bounce off players and go flying off in some bizarre, unnatural direction. Thankfully, these only happened a few times over the hours I spent playing, and never got in the way of my enjoyment.
With the gameplay and visuals leading NBA 2K14′s featureset, that leaves the game’s selection of modes to bring up the rear. The story mode from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, which saw players living out an imagined version of LeBron James’ future career, is entirely absent here (which really isn’t much of a loss, honestly), and features like The Association (its franchise mode) and MyPlayer have seen massive overhauls that leave them only somewhat resembling the previous versions. In the case of the new MyCareer mode, that’s actually a very good thing. In the case of the new MyGM mode, it’s a bit less so.
Let’s get that last one out of the way first. MyGM is an attempt to personalize the experience of being an NBA general manager a bit more. Rather than just sifting through menus and doing all the dry math involved in managing an NBA franchise, MyGM adds a bit of flavor to the experience by giving your GM more personality. It’s not just you, as you’ll have an owner to talk to, other GMs to converse with, and a whole host of NBA player egos to deal with as you manage every aspect of your team. Really, you do end up digging down pretty deep in this stuff, as you juggle contracts, your coaching staff, and, of course, the ticket prices at your arena. It’s possible to do a lighter, single-season version of the mode that doesn’t require owner oversight, but the full-on mode features a number of goals and objectives given to you by your team owner. Maintaining trust with your owner has to be balanced against building trust with your players, your coaches, and the media.
You do this with a lot of dialogue that, sadly, reads pretty badly. It’s stiff, robotic stuff that has no place in anything resembling a conversation between humans. That said, if you can deal with the sterile feel of the mode, you’ll find quite a lot to play around with. Keeping everyone happy is a pretty intense process that requires some smart thinking, and while the UI is a little ugly, it’s easy enough to do what you need to do in the mode without getting lost or wondering why the hell anything is happening. I feel like in a year or two, the developers will be able to flesh this out into something pretty exciting. As it is, it’s a deep, if not overly thrilling management experience.
The converse of the MyGM mode is MyPlayer. This has been one of the better features of the last few NBA 2K sequels, and the Xbox One/PS4 version of this mode has been given a terrific overhaul. Now when you create your personal baller, your vicarious NBA career includes numerous cutscenes, a storyline with branching paths, and in-game challenges that provide you objectives to hit as you play. The storyline itself isn’t anything too spectacular, mind you. It opens with you jumping into the Rookie Showcase before the NBA Draft, and developing a rivalry with another rookie that carries over into your NBA career. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to decide how you react to situations on the court. You can be a dickish prima donna who only cares about his minutes and eventual stardom, or be a team player who will do whatever the team asks of him in the hopes of crafting a winning squad. Unfortunately, the choices are just about that binary always. There’s very little nuance to it; you’re either the worst kind of asshole or a saintly team player. But considering that before, all you could really do was make some comments during press conferences and get a few endorsements as you went along, this is still a notable upgrade.
There are quirks, to be sure. Cutscene conversations with your GM start repeating very quickly–you’ll hear him talk about Bob from maintenance’s birthday no less than four times during your rookie season–and you’ll see weird stuff like the same teammate show up as two different characters in the same scene, or players who are nearly a foot taller than you standing at your eye-line. There are a few issues with the in-game objectives too. Most of them are great, and make total situational sense. But sometimes it’ll ask your player to take over a game and score ten straight points, even if up to this point you’ve just been a selfless, pass-happy point guard who assists more than he scores. Those few problems aside, I really liked what 2K was going for with this mode, so much so that I’ve played it for hours longer than I expected. Again, this feels more like a framework for something much better down the road, but what’s there is surprisingly entertaining.
Elsewhere, you can play online (which periodically seemed a bit laggy on PS4, and not at all on Xbox One), both in head-to-head battles and in the new The Park mode, which features street games in 2-v-2, 3-v-3, and 5-v-5 matches. The MyTeam mode–2K’s equivalent of EA’s Ultimate Team with collectible player cards–is also present and largely the same as it is on PS3 and 360, save for some additional rare players and a new Domination mode, where you can play matches against existing NBA teams and all-star squads.
It’s a solid roster of features that only looks a bit more skeletal in comparison to what was released last month on PS3 and 360, and it’s more than enough to make NBA 2K14 an easy recommendation on these new platforms. Certainly, there are plenty of the sorts of issues one generally sees in launch games, especially launch games from franchises that have opted to start over, rather than just delivering a prettier version of the same game already released. But those seams in the fabric aren’t enough to detract from what is otherwise a terrific game of basketball. If anything, NBA 2K14 signals that great things are on the horizon for this franchise on these new platforms, and that things are already off to a very good start.