NBA 2K16 did a lot to change the way people perceive basketball games and, in some ways, what sports games are capable of. It took the fluid, immensely satisfying gameplay that the series is known for and added wherever possible to create one of the most captivating games of simulated basketball ever. One year later and with the weight of expectation on their shoulders, can 2K Sports deliver again?
The passion for the sport seeps through every pore of NBA 2K17. It’s clear that the developers know more about basketball than simple memories of Bill Murray’s cameo in Space Jam: they’re fanatics. 2K17 feels more like a well-funded passion project than an annual sports game update. It would have been easy for them to simply update the roster, add a slightly different way to throw the ball, sit back and watch the money roll in. They instead chose to build on what they started with 2K16 and improve on it in almost every way.
Gameplay is where the smallest tweaks can be found, but as its predecessor already did so much of the work, a massive overhaul wasn’t necessary. The AI has had a noticeable improvement, particularly where the defence is concerned. Right from the lowest difficulty up to the highest, they don’t make many mistakes and are able to pull off show-stopping plays without much hesitation. You have to be on top of your game at all times, which means that the missed three-pointer in the first quarter can have bigger repercussions than you first realise.
Executing strategies on-the-fly and balancing general gameplay is a big focus of NBA 2K this year, allowing you to make the play and open up some holes in the defence with little fuss. It’s slightly overwhelming to begin with, though – dawdling while trying to choose the right move as the shot clock ticks down can be the wrong kind of intense. Practice makes perfect, another facet of 2K17 that helps it rise above what came before it. 2KU tries its best to teach you the basics, but they are the bare basics. You won’t be able to dominate the entire NBA after an hour spent with it; you’re going to just have to hump into one of the many modes and get shooting.
Probably the perfect place to learn how to successfully juke and dunk your way to victory is through MyCareer: the marquee mode for the series. 2K16 rightfully received plenty of praise and plaudits for what it did, adding more depth to a single-player mode in a sports game than any others have. Despite the industry-wide love-in, it certainly wasn’t without its flaws. Luckily, the whole process has been streamlined for this year and changes have been made where necessary. Although the loading times still err on the side of ridiculous, often inviting the player to go check their Twitter feed while they wait, that issue is easy to overlook once you discover what great leaps the mode has made toward true immersion into the NBA lifestyle.
Instead of holding you at a arm’s length away from the day-to-day of being a basketball superstar like previously, NBA 2K17 drapes its arm around your shoulder and invites you in. Countless hours have already been lost to fine-tuning my player’s abilities, skills, and animations, right down to the way he takes his shots. However, cultivating the ultimate basketball players is almost periphery compared to the great story that accompanies it. Playing as a rookie (of course) with the nickname Pres, you are able to pick up exactly where you left off in the Prelude and take steps on your way towards the top.
As a rough diamond, the bench is always beckoning in the beginning. Your minutes are sparing and you ultimately have few opportunities to make an impact on the match whenever you do take to the court. Just like any young athlete, you have to put in the time away from the matchday court to have any chance of getting on it. The bright lights of stardom also come calling, however, which means that you will have to find a way of keeping your sponsors happy as well as putting enough time in on the practice court. Become a social media star and force your way into the coach’s thoughts through sheer popularity or do things the right way, committing serious hours to the many drills the game has for you – the choice is yours. Choose the latter and find yourself paired up with Justice Young, played perfectly by Michael B. Jordan, which opens up one of the most interesting narratives in any sports games to date.
Young is jealous of you from the offset, the upstart flying through on hype and highlight reels. Go to enough extra practices and it becomes the start of a beautiful friendship that explodes on the court. You become Orange Juice and unlock new mechanics to use in-game, allowing you to take control of Young as well. This is a brave change for the usually solitary nature of MyCareer and it works okay, but not quite as well as you would hope. Once it’s activated after three assists between the two players, you are able to switch between them at will and give instructions to the inactive player. It doesn’t feel quite seamless, but it should come back stronger for next year’s edition.
With the talents of Creed’s Aaron Covington at its disposal, MyCareer shines. Although Spike Lee might have pleased some last year, the general consensus was that his cinematic talents didn’t translate perfectly to video games: it often wrestled control completely out of the player’s hands for minutes at a time and lacked focus or tempo. The dramatics of last year might be missed by some, but Covington has written something far more accessible and enjoyable. Dialogue focuses on the funny interactions between the two friends and perennial roster bouncer Denver Levins, leading to a lot of compelling cutscenes that are usually short and snappy. The amount of mo-cap work that must have gone into these sequences is almost staggering to consider and another indication that this isn’t your typical sports game.
MyCareer stands out as the highlight of the game, though there are other modes that do plenty to please. MyTeam returns with more ways to build your deck than ever and six new game modes to compete in. Until you’re stacked, stick to playing offline as the seasoned veteran card collectors will waste no time in making you look rather silly. Challenge modes and Domination are two straightforward of accruing enough coin to spend on the big names and serve as competent enough methods of grinding your way through it. As it’s all about building your deck, you can bet that it’s also weighted towards microtransactions. Unless you’re investing real money into the experience, it becomes tiresome very quickly, which is clearly the objective – you’re asked to invest more money into the game at every turn. It’s far too aggressive and even more blatant than last year, which is a shame. 2K Sports should have enough faith in their product that fans will be inclined to support the game without needing to cast their eyes at your wallet with alarming regularity.
Playing online is one of the reasons why so many love the NBA 2K series as it allows you to join basketball communities, play on courts with random people you bump into and possibly even put together a decent team to take on others. Of my twenty hours spent with 2K17, only a few of them came from playing online – finding matches and waiting for the loading times to have their wicked way with me was more often than not just a source of frustration.
Its flaws aren’t enough to distract from the overall package, however. The NBA 2K series has been taken to new heights this year with 2K17 and shows the competition exactly how it’s done. While everyone else plays catch up with them, I can’t wait to see how they can take the series even further this time next September.
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