2K Sports’ NBA series pretty much established itself as the undisputed champion of basketball simulators over the past few years. Even without any competition the developers have consistently elevated the game to the delight of fans on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Now a new generation of consoles has launched and former foe NBA Live has also returned to steal some of the spotlight. With plenty of new developments to consider, does NBA 2K14 manage to debut with a splash on the PlayStation 4?
On the court, NBA 2K14 is still a winner in terms of gameplay. Not much has changed in terms of controls or playing mechanics. The game still balances depth and accessibility, keeping the game equal parts fun and competitive. The AI is strong but after playing for a few hours an astute player can predict what will happen in most situations during a game and know just which shots and tactics will lead to constant success. Personally I dislike having so many evasive moves being mapped to the same analog stick that controls shooting on offense, but with enough finesse you should get it to work. That said there is nothing really wrong with the gameplay here; it just does not feel all that different from 2K13 or even 2K12.
I spent most of my time with MyPlayer in MyCareer mode. Here you can create your own baller and guide him through his career, starting from your rookie season onward. My major complaint is that the creation options are sorely limited even though I was somehow able to construct a player that satisfies the vision I had in mind. The mode has an engaging narrative built around it that responds not only to how well you play but also to critical choices you make on and off the court. Early on you are assigned a rival to compete with for the spotlight. You earn VC points based on your performance in the game, graded on an A-D scale. Using these points you can upgrade your individual attributes as well as buy new clothes and accessories.
In MyCareer you go through everything from the rookie showcase exhibition to the draft and beyond. You will form active relationships with your team as well as people in the front office. Many of the segments feature voice acting and the writing is sharper than you would expect from a sports game. Overall MyCareer is a truly engrossing experience that I became more invested in than I initially thought possible. Some story segments drag on a bit too long and some conversations start to repeat themselves after a while though. The best parts are the unexpected moments like when you have to decide whether to stand up for a teammate that was fouled hard or whether to stay out late to celebrate with your team after a big win. Your decisions come with ups and downs that affect your popularity and opportunities you are given later down the road.
MyGM offers a reboot of the traditional franchise mode. You serve as active GM of your desired team and take responsibility for both the competitive and financial success of your franchise. You manage according to a particular style that can be improved by upgrading individual attributes, and are put under pressure to meet goals set by the owner as well as tasked with managing relationships between players and staff. Of course you can take direct control of your team to ensure success against the AI, but with so many other options for playing I found I would rather simulate through the matches and just focus on the front office stuff. It’s not for everyone, but players looking for something else to do besides draining threes and slamming dunks may find it a worthwhile distraction.
NBA 2K14 has a wealth of online options that allow you to test your skills with players all over the world. The fastest way to play is a Quick Match online, though you can also participate in Online Leagues and play with various configurations of friends and opponents. Your online experience will largely depend on whether the people you play with are good sports or not (most people I encounter are trash talking sore losers) and the strength of your online connection.
The Park brings the experience of challenging strangers to consoles. You will be dropped in a virtual park with other created players. You can stand by and watch games in progress as well as stand in line for a spot in the next game. It is nice how it mimics real life but most of the time I was wishing the game would speed up the entire process with random matchmaking rather than having to wait for a game of 21 to conclude. The 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 match-ups with all-created players are a blast to play when you do get to play. At The Park you can also show off some PlayStation exclusive clothing items as well as play on a court with the PS logo in the center.
Graphically, the game looks phenomenal. The added level of detail and polish provides a stunning showcase for the power of the PlayStation 4 hardware. The player models have been upgraded in terms of realism, to the point where the game approaches the depths of the uncanny valley. Star players such as cover athlete Lebron James look the most impressive but the whole league is gorgeously recreated. The 1080p 60 FPS presentation provides for a vivid on-court experience. The animation seems effortlessly fluid as well. I admit there were some times when I noticed spotty collision detection or ball physics, but they were few and far between.
Perhaps my favorite improvement is the look of the crowd. Personally, a lackluster and phony looking audience has always been one of my biggest gripes when it comes to sports games’ visuals and 2K14 is the first game to convincingly correct the problem. The players on the court are still the main attraction but the appearance of the crowd only deepens the immersion. The various courts and arenas of the NBA all glitter as if freshly coated with wax. It is a good sign of things to come over the next few years in terms of graphics.
Long loading times are the one technical area that sticks out like a sore thumb alongside the rest of the well put together package. There is a lengthy wait between going from the menu into a specific game mode or before starting a game. The menus are slick, but they could be easier to navigate; in the beginning it took me a while to figure out how to access everything the game has to offer.
The audio presentation is excellent. A great new addition is the Real Voice feature where during and after games the sideline reporter will interview players and coaches using actual soundbites from the real-life person that corresponds well with what is happening in the game currently being played. The commentating is among the most dynamic and engaging you will find in any sports game. Clark Kellog, Kevin Harland, and Steve Kerr are as strong as ever, interweaving real life NBA happenings and your own accomplishments in-game convincingly into their color commentating. The soundtrack is also really strong. Current and past hits interweave nicely, always providing something upbeat and energetic to listen to. Artists such as The Gorillaz, Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, and Drake contribute well known hits. The strong soundtrack is especially appreciated because the PlayStation 4 does not allow you to import and playback mp3s while playing, so your only other option is Sony’s Music Unlimited subscription service.
All yearly sports game only have a 12 month window in the spotlight before being replaced, so it is nice that 2K14 is packed with enough content to make it worth the commitment. I doubt I will ever get tired of the local multiplayer experience against my friends but the single player aspect also has a lot to offer. There is the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, NBA Today Challenges, Trophies, and much more to keep would-be ballers occupied. That being said there is not much here that cannot be found in last gen iterations of the game so it's not worth the lofty investment of a current gen upgrade on its own merits.
In a launch period where a lot of the so-called “next-gen” games feel shallow and rushed, NBA 2K14 feels refreshingly complete. It sets a strong foundation from which to build on for the rest of the new hardware cycle and maintains its position as the best basketball sim in the wake of NBA Live’s disappointing return. I look forward to seeing how the developers can keep innovating but in the meantime they have already delivered plenty to keep me satisfied until next season.
This review is based on a retail copy of NBA 2K14 for the PS4