In our constantly evolving culture, the honeymoon phase of a sports video game release lasts about the lifespan of a Mayfly. If a release isn't satisfactory, it will be discarded to gather dust or even sold on the secondary market, whereupon the consumer will use his or her earnings to purchase the next game, which invariably came out 0.6 seconds after the disappointing acquisition.
Luckily, the NBA 2K series has rarely delved into the disappointment well. Released in the busiest time of the year for sports gaming developers, the NBA 2K series has been nothing short of a yearly success. I mean, there may be no better compliment to the series as a whole than it being so far ahead of EA Sports' NBA Live that the company had to cancel the series for nearly a half-decade to catch up.
NBA 2K14, which was released on Oct. 1, follows in its predecessor's footsteps. Equipped with a Metacritic score of 87 (on a scale of 1-100), the game has gotten rave reviews from critics and fans alike.
Now, if you ask those reviewers what their favorite aspect of the game is, they'll probably come up with a bevy of answers. Association mode. Path to Greatness. My Career. The return of Crew mode. All of those things help make NBA 2K14 a worthy addition to this growing monolith.
But ask those same people what keeps them coming back, you'll invariably get the same answer: gameplay. NBA 2K drove NBA Live back to the drawing board not by beating it in the depth of its game modes but by the depth and understanding of the sport 2K's trying to recreate.
The game has been out a week now, and I have some thoughts on how the gameplay works in this year's release. Spoiler alert: kudos, 2K Sports. With that in mind, here's a quick breakdown of the biggest takeaways from the game thus far.
Don't Expect Athleticism to Rule the Day
When playing sports video games, we all sign a silent social contract that acknowledges the medium's pseudo-realism. It's that way in all games, of course. But sports gaming developers strive for a completely different level of accurate representation. When you die in Call of Duty, the game doesn't just, like, end for good and become completely unplayable.
In sports games, a majority of the same rules still apply. You still can foul out, get injured, etc., and each of those in-game traits are supposed to follow a line similar to that of real life.
Majority, though, is the operative word. You're still playing a video game. It's impossible to create actual reality, and thus there are some stretches of the truth we've come to live with. In Madden, it's long been known that speed is king; you'd much rather be scampering past folks with Chris Johnson than, say, Arian Foster. These are the most minor exploitable traits in a game, ones that everyone notices but no one complains about because, well, just because we're not all angry message board dwellers.
The most "exploitable" trait in the NBA 2K series has always been anyone with a three-point jumper and athleticism. Many an online game has been won by dropping 40 points with J.R. Smith, and last year Bradley Beal became one of my favorite building blocks in Association mode for that very reason. If you can shoot a three, it draws defensive respect and makes it far easier to blow past the initial line of defense to the rim—exactly as it is in real life. But slightly ratcheted up for a video game, wing players with bounce became nearly unstoppable.
Until NBA 2K14, that is. One of the subtle differences in this iteration is a slightly more deliberate pace. Players aren't able to cover as much ground as quickly. Coming cross-court for steals that stretch the bounds of even video game truth has been eliminated.
This was done mostly to improve on spacing and make defense a more fun experience—mission accomplished, by the way—but has also had a trickle-down effect on our once-beloved exploitable players. Their quick first steps and unabated drives to the rim are a thing mostly of the past, with defensive AI understanding where to rotate on the floor and the increased proliferation of blocks near the rim making things more difficult.
Don't get me wrong, it's still better to roll with athletic players than a group of 30-somethings. Just remember that skill is slowly creeping up on athleticism in the video game world.
Do Yourself a Favor—Run Some Plays
Speaking of subtle changes, hopefully you all have gotten used to the different controls by now. (Or just changed them back, but whatever. We're not talking to you right now, Mr. I Don't Like Change.)
The folks at 2K Sports decided to switch a few things up this year. The shot stick is now activated by holding in the right stick—for what it's worth, I'll be using Xbox 360 as a controller reference—rather than a combination of the left trigger and right stick. Alley-oops no longer force you to combine X and A, but rather X and the left trigger.
The change that's most noteworthy—at least for my money—has been the alteration of the play-calling system. As someone who rarely takes time to read instruction manuals (OK, never reads instruction manuals), I was three games deep into playing online before I realized engaging in pick-and-rolls now begins with the B button. I tried holding in the LB, tapping it, bringing up drop-down menus after pressing it. Everything.
Twas flabbergasting. Pick-and-rolls are the bread and butter of any good offense, NBA or video game. So being unable to access that play—which, again, could have very easily been found by taking a look inside the book—proved frustrating.
But in that frustration came a gem: The new, revamped plays that feel like they came out a real coaching playbook. These options were here in the past, mind you. You could run sets like the Spurs' weak-side motion in the past, but getting to that play too often felt like running through minefields of encrypted code that made it not worth using.
In NBA 2K14, the initial LB option runs a "smart play." That play will depend on team and situation, and its on-court implementation has been superb. Those who don't know the X's and O's of NBA basketball will have the play walked through for them via on-screen commands and icons on where to take the user-controlled player, and those who are well-versed will have a field day by basking in the realism.
Run properly, the plays are also deadly effective. The deeper you get into the game, you begin figuring out which plays work best for which teams and can even begin moving away from the "smart play" option accordingly. Even if it proves too difficult in a game situation to keep things steadied, running real-life plays is a great opportunity to leave the mundanities of isolations and constant PNRs behind.
Get Yourself a Big Man: It will probably be addressed at some point with a patch, but the ease of blocking a shot under the basket could be tuned down. The developers made an admirable effort in addressing the complaints of NBA 2K13, where it was impossible to block dunks and nearly impossible to take down shots at the basket. Just a half-step too far here, especially when you're getting chase-down stuffs from the likes of Steve Nash. Nowhere near a deal-breaker, though.
Time Your Shots: In keeping with the game's improved realism, the developers have also made knocking down shots a bit more difficult. I've found that in previous years gamers could get away with being a couple ticks too early or too late without being punished. Not so with NBA 2K14. Plenty of B-rated free throws and closely timed shots will clank off the rim this year, which makes getting an open look even more important.
Do Not Play Anyone Using the Miami Heat Online: For obvious reasons. (LeBron is that good.)
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