2K Games doesn’t really have any competitors in the basketball circuit. EA, forced to hide under the bed and cancel its own title after the phenomenal reviews of NBA 2K10, spent years trying to revive its own franchise only to fall short this year with NBA Live 14. Now, 2K Sports teamed up with the Miami Heat’s LeBron James to release the next iteration of the famed hoops franchise. There are newly-refined controls in this latest entry, and interesting experiments in the current-gen version of this game that definitely make it worthwhile for series vets, but NBA 2K14, like it’s predecessors, offers an unnecessarily steep learning curve for newcomers that keeps it from drawing in the audience it could.
NBA 2K14 is a visually magnificent game. The graphics are crisp and keep a solid, skip-free frame rate. New physics refinements detach the ball’s animations from the player, allowing for more fluid and complex ball handling on the court. The right stick gets even more use than it did in NBA 2K13 because of this system, and veterans will find that they can set picks, execute crossovers, and setup stellar plays more efficiently than ever once they’ve mastered this new system. 2K14, like its predecessors, may be hard for newcomers to really grasp and play efficiently, but series veterans and sports aficionados will find that this game is one of the best sports games to grace store shelves.
Sports games generally have a reputation for being derivative, but considering the rules of basketball itself don’t change much from year to year, it’s hard to criticize the game for being “like the others.” It’s the little refinements from year to year that make the new iteration worth purchasing, and 2K14 doesn’t disappoint. The game features updated rosters as would be expected, but particular to this update are some LBJ-centric updates that, both for better and for worse, push the franchise in a direction that feels fresh and experimental. Player models looks fantastic, and even though the new engine makes new players prone to losing the ball, it feels tight and almost as precise as the FIFA games, the best sports games out. Combined with the star power of LeBron James, 2K14 offers a lot.
2K’s partnership with resident all-star LeBron James has been touted all over advertisements for 2K14. He hand-picked the soundtrack for the game (including Drake’s catchy-yet-somewhat-inaccurate “Started From the Bottom”), and though the announcers are generally fairly vocal, they get especially vocal when the Heat and LBJ himself are on the court. It almost goes without saying that if you’re not a fan of LeBron or the star-power he brings to the game, then you should probably grab a copy of 2K13 and wait this one out. Honestly, one of my biggest gripes with the game was the way it seems to play to LeBron’s ego; not only is he a super-powered player in the game, but the announcers simply can’t stop singing his praises whenever he’s on the court. The 360 and PS3 versions of the game even feature a “Path to Greatness” mode which feels like a sort of LeBron campaign mode; you’ll play as LeBron trying to capture championship rings while announcers talk about the possible trade prospects James may have on the table and how amazing a player he is. After seeing the kind of attention the game pays to James, it’s hard to feel inspired to create your own player because you know they’ll never pay him the level of attention that they pay James. There’s customization and depth to the career mode, but the game rates your player based on his performance, and without a good tutorial/training mode, it’s easy to look sloppy and get a bit disheartened.
2K14, like most sports games, provides precise and complex controls to let players skillfully execute all the moves that they see on TV to evade and astound opponents. Series veterans will find that the controls are modified from the setup in 2K13, and with a bit of practice they’ll be set to take on the pros. But newcomers to the franchise, particularly those who aren’t already familiar with the technical aspects of the real sport of basketball, will find a steep learning curve between them and success. The “Training Camp” mode has actually gotten worse since 2K13; instead of forcing you to execute the same move multiple times to reinforce the command, you’ll execute each movement once to check off the box and progress. The moves are divided into categories which you’ll move through the first time you perform the moves, but if you go back to review a move, it kicks you out to the main training menu after each success. I’d love to see a “Training Camp” mode that not only teaches the controls for the new game, but also teaches the basics of play-calling and strategy in basketball. This is an aspect I find practically ALL sports games miss out on, and I think it would help draw in newcomers if they made the atmosphere less intimidating by explaining basic terminology and tactics.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re offended by micro-transactions then you may want to steer away from 2K14. Many game modes require you to be online to play, and you now have the option of paying for virtual currency that can be used to buy swag for your custom player or to boost his stats. Perhaps I’d be alright with just buying cosmetic upgrades, but free-to-play mechanisms crossing the divide into full-priced console titles is definitely a trend that I don’t appreciate.
Even for those who aren’t sports fanatics, NBA 2K14 is a pearl of a game and is a blast to play. The refined controls and new game modes add to the experience, but at its core this game is pure basketball, and the closest you’ll get to being on the court without physically being on the court. I’d love it if the game didn’t spend so much time stroking off LeBron James, but there are probably just as many people out there who are fans of his and like that he’s getting the attention as one of the best players in the game. Regardless of preference towards players, the franchise should do a better job of teaching new players and making them comfortable with the game. If you’re already familiar with the sport either in reality or as a video game though, NBA 2K14 is a good addition to your sports game roster.