The King and I
There was a time when sports titles used to really wow us. NFL 2K did it in 1999 and Madden in 2004. The iterable release schedule means that seldom do we get to see major leaps in quality, and the small improvements over time get lost in the shuffle. NBA 2K’s first opportunity on the current generation brought over the acclaimed look and gameplay from previous years but stumbled hard in delivering stable online servers. This time, despite a few dubious directions in MyCareer and microtransactions, NBA 2K16 valorizes itself as a year when it all came together.
2K16’s excellent translation of complex, athletic movements into a game of basketball does come at the cost of a steep learning curve. Brief video tutorials provide for a few simple tactics and difficulty can always be adjusted, but novice players will have to rely on learning on the job so to speak, picking up on the best matchups possible for whatever team they select. This is the beauty of it, though, as the depth is a boon for anyone familiar with the fundamentals of basketball, even if it may seem overwhelming at times. Without tinkering in the coaching settings, the AI reacts well provided you understand your role.
When playing on defense, attempting anything other than anticipating an assignment’s offense, following the movement of the ball, or manning your respective zone will more often than not result in an an exploited opening by your opponent, leading to a basket. It almost never feels cheap or without logic. It’s the way it should be. As a quick guard or forward, you can’t get away with holding down the turbo and chasing your man. With 2K’s updated physics, you will need to have a sense of court and body presence. Doing so will make for rich and satisfying moments where you’re able to stifle an opponent’s run at the basket. Using the right stick to struggle with your defender and adjust the requisite use of the Intense D button showcases an accurate, sporting, and fun tussle for position.
Even a rookie, however, knows that in basketball the best defense is a good offense. When playing the front court against the stellar AI, 2K16 brings an absolutely slick feel along with a minutiae of options. There is a certain transitive weight that comes through when manning a flighty Point Guard or seasoned Power Forward. These aren’t intangibles either, the ball handles differently according to player and the effect of loose or tight defense can be felt when taking an open jumper. The degrees of offensive complexity 2K16 is able to push out from just a few buttons is something to behold. Any player can jump in and find their bearing with just a run, pass, shoot, and jump button, provided they are presented with a decent matchup. Or players can employ mountains of planning and playcalling based on how the game unfolds.
Also, it is not a mere stacking of options. With some work, I can freestyle a standard pick-and-roll play into one that collapses the defense and leaves open my best mid-range shooter. There is such a tremendous satisfaction in calling a pick for a specified teammate, switching to a fading screen, watch the AI adjust, handing off at the last second, and see your defender get trapped behind your big as you sink the bottom of the net with a mid-range jumper off the dribble. Simply, you can’t get away with cheesing your way to a win unless you make some drastic changes to the gameplay sliders, and you’ll be appropriately punished for trying to NBA Jam your way to victory without doing so. The meticulous improvements made toward presenting a cleaner, smoother, and more true game of basketball are thankfully present beyond the regular NBA team vs. NBA team mode—exhibited throughout MyCareer and online.
Visual Concepts doesn’t sit on their on-court technical achievements alone, as they’ve advanced the extra modes and features fans have come to know and love throughout the years. However, in advertising the more intimate MyCareer, NBA 2K16 seems to hang its hat on being a collaboration with director Spike Lee, which is unfair since so many will judge the game on this merit alone. To do so would be punishing yourself from enjoying the games’ best aspects previously mentioned. To be sure, Livin’ Da Dream’s 90-minutes worth of cutscenes that more or less cushion your MyCareer with a stringable narrative is not awful and is definitely worth a look. The issue here is that it really doesn’t belong at all given that you are reduced to spectator as the story and it’s path develops without your input.
Nonetheless, no one should be turning to a basketball sim to indulge in their RPG needs, but the catch-all narrative means that Frequency Vibrations, your character, exists in the middle—a prototypical Mary Sue. Spike Lee directs R-films and maintaining an E-rating limits the director’s traditional voice. The result is another piece of after-school special hokum. It is better to consider Livin Da’ Dream as an experimental prologue, as the core of MyCareer thrives once your character enters their second season in the NBA. Finally, you can build your player from bench-to-starter by scheduling practices, playing well, and booking the occasional reputation gig.
The managing of your life as a up-and-comer is an entertaining meta-game of scheduling, but progressing on the court with your MyPlayer is at its best when NBA 2K16 helps you master the mechanics of the deep basketball sim they provide. Whether you decide to fill a Guard, Forward, or Center position, the game goes out of its way to aid you in making the most of your role. Following the coach’s directives, teammate feedback, and AI will make you a better player without holding your hand. Here, you can really experience how well your AI-controlled teammates operate without you, as they space the floor and adjust to your offensive or defensive schemes.
An inspirational coach or family member may have once said to you that if you show up and work hard, success will soon follow. True, your MyPlayer may reach the heights of success in the league, perhaps a MVP distinction to go along with it, but if he were to have a mind of his own, he would amend the saying instead to, “if you show up with enough Virtual Currency, success is guaranteed.”
There is a concurrent plague among sports games and it manifests itself here in the form of microtransactions disguised as the returning VC, or Virtual Currency. It is familiar and vatic and you can ignore it if you so choose but the itch persists because others feed it. Some players you just can’t reach, so you get what we had here last year, which is the way they want it. Well, they can get it. I don’t like it any more than you.
Give a minor squint and you’ll be unable to distinguish NBA 2K16 from an NBA on TNT broadcast. It’s beautiful and you’d be hard pressed to find repeated animations given the thousands 2K has added. The curated soundtrack presents enough variety that no single track should have you rushing to switch songs. The playlist does carry the dubious honor of keeping the sporadic long load times more entertaining.
As a caveat, there is no real way to predict the quality of the servers months or weeks out as of this writing. During my time with online portions, only the 2K Store was down intermittently, but Pro-Am, MyPark, and the rest were fun, tight, and stable. Thus is the nature of the beast and players who spend most of their time online are likely already aware of this tension.
A few features have returned in a form familiar enough and competent enough to not warrant lengthy discussion here such as manager-sim MyGM, and card game MyTeam. These modes rely on VC but 2K provides enough little ways to grind for it throughout, providing for a mostly anodyne use of the feature.
Every iteration under the 2K banner has ebbed and flowed toward best simulating the diverse nuance and character that comes when 30 teams pit their five best men on the court in a war over an orange ball. NBA 2K16 does it best. But like the comedy and horror genres’ maligned foray into cinema’s highest honors, video games designed around sports traditionally never take home the best overall performance in their industry. This can be attributed to the fact that most of basketball’s elements of play existed in the world long before being translated into digital form—and even at peak performance, they are regarded as merely a substitute for something people should otherwise be doing on a sunny day. An evident issue is that a basketball sim is still a video game in a sea of other games that offer more than one mastered area of play.
As a result, games like NBA 2K16 will tend to overreach in how it chooses to occupy your time outside of the virtual arena. This is where most players will find the fault with 2K16, as not every mode external to game time is as fleshed out or competent as the main course. Not every returning 2K player will welcome the minor adjustments to the control scheme. Some online hiccups will frustrate others, and the addition of a MyCareer that doesn’t always feel like yours will split many down the middle. Still, NBA 2K16 remains a refined technical masterpiece that rewards rookies and veterans alike with a showcase that belongs in the basketball hall-of-fame.
|Developer: Visual Concepts • Publisher: 2K Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.15|
Marvel at NBA 2K16’s drive for excellence and all they’ve put into making this year’s sim incredible. Year by year 2K has learned to make a more solid sports title, and now it’s not just a highlight-reel player, but an accomplished All-Star video game.
|The Good||Meticulous representation of a basketball sim with refined presentation.|
|The Bad||You’re a spectator to Spike Lee’s movie and hardly a participant. Virtual Currency makes All-Stars. You can still miss dunks.|
|The Ugly||After consulting a mirror, it’s unclear who these strangers are, calling themselves my parents.|
|NBA 2K16 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by 2K Sports for the benefit of this review.|