For the next generation of consoles Visual Concepts could have trotted out a better-looking version of the same game they released on Xbox 360, PC and PS3. The NBA 2K series is already a perennial contender for Sports Game of the Year -- a hotly contested category thanks to a number of strong annual franchises.
They could have put a heap of effort into a lighting engine that accurately replicates not just the individual lights in every LED in the many stadia around the United State of America but also replicated accurate warmth charts for those lights (to perfectly render when certain lights overwhelm others). They could have recreated the reflections those lights have on the court, the player's sweaty heads, the backboards and every other reflective surface.
They might have put in a not inconsiderable amount of effort like getting high resolution captures of the players and coaches to make the game look better than ever before. It's almost expected that they would at least make the AI better, allowing it to read and react to plays more realistically to force gamers to up their basketball IQ. Adding in dozens of new animations would be par for the course, and changing the basics of the ball physics would be enough to force those serious about basketball games to consider upgrading to next-gen.
If they wanted to, they could have made a next-gen basketball game which was basically the same as their current-gen game but better
and most basketball fans would have been happy.
Visual Concepts went ahead and did all of the above, making the best looking basketball game ever -- and then they decided to also kick off the next generation of sports games.
Sports management games have diverged in a number of interesting ways in the last half-decade, primarily thanks to the arrival of the Fantasy League as a permanent fixture in many a fan’s enjoyment of their favourite sport. As a result, the major sports game franchises have all added two things to what was previously a team manager mode; the Collectible Card Game mode where players collect and trade cards to create their ultimate fantasy team, and the "Live The Life" mode where players take a rookie up from the bottom and try to get him into the Hall of Fame.
In the next-gen NBA 2K14 the CCG -- MyTeam -- stays the same, hovering too close to 'pay-to-win' while still remaining compelling enough to keep people involved thanks to a wide array of challenges and impromptu competitions. If you like, you're more than welcome to eke out wins with your Bronze Card team until you earn a gold or silver pack, and while the grind is significant it's not overwhelming. If this is where your interest lies, MyTeam is a prettier version of what you get in current generation.
For years MyCareer has been moving deeper into RPG territory -- it has always presented the best RPG Lite variant of all the sports games, but in next-gen 2K14 it drops the Lite and lets you play the role of an up-and-coming basketball player. You start your career with a rival -- Jackson Ellis -- who fights you every step of the way as the pair of you attempt to make a name for yourselves. You get hazed as a rookie (though nothing like Anthony Davis' hazing), make decisions about whether you should defend your teammates after hard fouls and talk to the GM and coach of your team frequently while trying to work out where you best fit.
While I think it's amazing, and I'm astounded by the level of effort that has gone into injecting some NBA drama into a mode I already loved, it's not perfect. The player character and Jackson Ellis are both fully voiced but almost nobody else in the game is, so your player will often yap for a bit only to hear silence in return (they speak in subtitles). It would be better if the game featured either full voices for all players or none at all, because the silence gets almost creepy at times.
On top of this, it seems you're now forced to play every single game in a season -- you can't skip to key games any more. When you're only playing a few minutes a game this isn't the worst thing, but I tend to skip as much of my first two years as possible so I can start earning some money outside of my rookie contract -- this is no longer an option.
Still, the addition of relationship management makes MyCareer far more compelling, and on top of that it also lets you into The Park - a mix between PlayStation Home and the Blacktop, where players can either play 2v2, 3v3 or 5v5 pick-up games, and while they wait they can hang out in a massive in-game lobby.
MyGM mode is another stunning effort involving relationship management. Previously you ran your franchise from the coaching role, staffing your assistants and scouts, but as the GM you're responsible for every element of the Team -- from ticket prices, up to keeping your star players and the team owner happy. It's thoroughly entertaining, though you do get punished a fair bit if you choose to Simulate matches instead of playing them yourself as you won't earn what you need to unlock your GM abilities.
Beyond these modes there's also NBA Today, which replaces the Quick Play option with The Daily Zap, an NBA.com highlight reel showcasing all the day's top games -- and a board full of the day's relevant stats for every team. After you've watched what happened in the actual NBA that day you can head over to play a Head-to-Head or Online game. While I love the addition of The Daily Zap, the manner in which you get to a Head-to-Head game really highlights probably the worst thing about NBA 2K14 on the PS4 and Xbox One -- the UI Experience is abysmal.
Menus are constantly hidden. The Head-to-Head option can only be accessed by pressing B in the NBA Today section of the front menu, and to get back to the front menu you need to select to Exit (which doesn't exit that menu, but exits the game mode "NBA Today"). When you're attempting to check statistics of players or League Leaders in your Career or GM game it's typically a case of selecting "news" and then switching tabs with the triggers -- except the tabs have tabs, which you switch with the shoulder buttons. So you switch some tabs with the triggers and others with the buttons until eventually you find the stat page you're looking for. It's all so obtuse, and I found myself forgetting the new menu paths and then having to relearn them again.
Apart from the UI, my other major complaint is the same one I had about NBA 2K14 on the 360 and PS3. The new control scheme is bad. With 2K14 dribble moves and shots became bound to the right thumbstick without the use of a modifier -- to do a dribble move you flick the stick in a direction, and to shoot you hold it. Unfortunately the window between shoot and dribble move is awkward to deal with, and there's no actual way to do a pump fake.
There are some positive additions to the game in the control scheme area -- holding the Left Bumper will allow you to automatically call a quick play (usually a pick-and-roll), but by removing the modifier Visual Concepts has made the thumbstick the least efficient way to shoot. Fortunately you can still use the X (or square) button to shoot, pump fake and dunk as much as you like.
NBA 2K14 is a truly next-gen experience -- it looks and plays amazingly, it offers a better connection to the real world of basketball than ever before and the way they've added in relationship management elements to both the MyCareer and MyGM modes makes the game feel significantly better. Whoever designed the menu system needs to be benched, and if they're serious about telling a dramatic Hoops story they need to hire a few dozen more voice actors, but everything else sells the sport of basketball like no other game before.
Joaby likes to think of himself as the Dwayne Wade of reviewing videogames which probably makes him the Monta Ellis of reviewing videogames. If that doesn't make any sense to you fret not, because his review of NBA 2K14 contains only one more esoteric basketball culture reference. Follow him on Twitter: @joabyjojo