When I first heard that Spike Lee had been tapped to deliver a story-driven experience for the new NBA 2K installment, I was excited. Admittedly, sports games don’t really need a compelling storyline with interesting characters; Blades of Steel and NBA Jam never needed a plot. Even so, if you’re given the opportunity to see beyond the playing surface and experience an interesting character-based narrative where you are the protagonist, the possibilities are limitless. Unfortunately and in retrospect, I think this plan was a mistake and it weighs heavily on the otherwise solid basketball simulator experience in NBA 2K16 .
I must say, I was a little disappointed with the visual presentation. When I first saw NBA 2K14 on PlayStation 4 (it was one of the launch titles), I was impressed with the clarity, detail and new level of authenticity and realism. But it doesn’t seem like developer Visual Concepts has done much with that graphical display. Sure, the animations – of which there are over 1,000 – are still smooth and slick and the players look great but once you start examining the nuts and bolts, the visuals begin to show their age. Plus, they haven’t seen fit to eliminate last-gen issues like blatant clipping and I was surprised to see some low-res assets that really shouldn’t have made it this far. It doesn’t help that Lee’s “Livin ‘Da Dream” is hardly a graphical powerhouse, with unimpressive character models and drab environments.
The sound is a lot better thanks to competent and engaging announcers, excellent on-court effects, and a decent soundtrack. However, in relation to the latter, you will find a more diverse score in this year’s EA Sports productions. The audio excels when you’re in a tight battle on the court, as the combination of sneaker squeaks, bodies smacking bodies, and the crowd roaring in response to a breakaway dunk, really enhances the atmospheric appeal. The arenas can really get rockin’ in NBA 2K16 and that’s when the game is at its best, delivering a great presentation that is colorful, loud, and impossible to ignore. The balancing is another plus and playing with a good pair of headphones brings you deeper into a rich, rewarding mélange of sound. The voice performances leave something to be desired, though.
In a moment, I’ll get to the much-ballyhooed MyCareer mode, in which director Spike Lee has his way. For now, let’s start with the gameplay mechanics, which are always critical in any sports simulator. As you might expect, the control is excellent; it’s both deep and accessible and offers the player a wide variety of skill options. Not only have the developers fine-tuned and tweaked some of these controls, but they’ve also implemented some much-appreciated additions. For instance, now we have dedicated buttons for bounce pass and lob (with the added intricacy of double-tapping either for a flashy pass or alley-oop) and a grand total of 32 post moves that, if mastered, will let you dominate. The general physics feel just about right and despite a steeper learning curve than some would desire, the gameplay is designed to be quite fulfilling.
The simulated elements definitely shine, even if there are a few lingering snafus. The latter are minor enough that they won’t infringe on your enjoyment and excitement, and practicing allows you to peel back the control layers like an onion. At first, you might be content with the basics; simple passes, set shots, driving with only one or two juke moves, vaguely attempting to rebound and steal the ball, etc. But as time goes on, you’ll start discovering the true depth of this mechanic, which will ultimately let you gain full control over any player you choose. Sure, those 32 post moves might seem a little overwhelming at first, as might the dedicated pass and lob buttons, but it doesn’t take long to feel right at home on offense and defense.
These are all good things. At its core, I want to make it plain that NBA 2K16 plays very well and, while the additions and improvements aren’t enough to make me jump for joy, the foundation remains rock-solid. But as you probably know by now, 2K Sports tells us the biggest attraction is the game’s signature mode, the aforementioned MyCareer. This year, we get to see what it’s like to play out a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA…the only caveat is that we have to do it by Spike Lee’s terms. I’m usually supportive of linear storytelling but in a mode that ideally has freedom of choice at its core, the idea seems fundamentally flawed. On top of which, MyCareer is supposed to be about you and in a game that lends the player so much creativity of customization, it’s odd to be forced into the same pair of shoes over and over.
What I mean is, this is someone else ’s story so even if you did multiple MyCareers, it never really changes. You’ll always grow up in Harlem with the same family, land the same agent, and make the same friend in Vic Van Lier. Yes, you can still make choices; you can choose your college and the NBA team you’ll sign with (unrealistic, of course, as the draft determines that in reality), but that’s where the freedom ends. The rest is scripted and worse, predictable and boring. Clearly, Lee’s goal was to deliver a plot that shows us the emotional and dramatic side of trying to “make it” after being born into difficult circumstances. But not only do I find that particular theme woefully played out and completely uninspired, this story simply isn’t well-paced or well-constructed. And like I said, boring and predictable.
Livin ‘Da Dream isn’t really about you; it’s about Lee and his message, a message we’ve all heard eight million times over, I might add. I thought we could’ve gone a bit beyond the standard and the clichéd and the ho-hum, but we didn’t get that here. And besides, how many fans of the series (and sports games in general) will be attracted to a mode that gives you so little room to maneuver? Heck, sports sims are all about room to maneuver these days. There is some good news, however: Once you’ve worked past the drudgery of Lee’s narrative, things do start to open up. While the career itself stays on a mostly linear path, you can choose what you’d like to do in your spare time. Work on an all-important sponsorship deal? Attend a Live Practice, which is actually way more fun than you might think? Make friends off the court? You can do it all.
These are the open aspects that almost save Livin ‘Da Dream. Couple this with those great gameplay mechanics that are better than ever, and you’ve got an appealing package that does indeed go well beyond MyCareer. There are plenty of other modes to sample and perhaps MyTeam will become the one the hardcore basketball lovers will adore most. That’s just because it feels most like the current era of video game sports; it blends the fantasy craze with managerial control and traditional participation. Once I realized what MyCareer really is, I knew where I’d be spending the majority of my time, and I imagine that one time through the story will result in a lot of players with an affinity for MyTeam. It’s also the most diverse mode by far as well, offering The Gauntlet, Domination, Trials and Cards.
As for online play, it appears to be a little unstable. I think I had this happen last year, too; dropped matches and freezing are all too common, and general connectivity seems poor. There’s a new system for matching players of similar experience and skill in Play Now Online, but the technical miscues occasionally make online competition frustrating. Of course, if you don’t encounter such problems and you’ve got a group of willing friends, chances are, you’ll enjoy your multiplayer fun immensely. I just have to say that such issues do exist so don’t be surprised. I’m not sure why, but EA’s servers for their sports games seem to be operating smoother and with fewer glaring drawbacks. I didn’t experience much in the way of inconsistencies when playing this year’s Madden and NHL , for instance.
NBA 2K16 remains a great basketball game at its core, but makes a mistake in trying to give us a narrative-driven MyCareer mode. It just isn’t keeping with the spirit of the ever-expanding customization and freedom of sports simulators and on top of which, it’s just not that interesting or especially well presented. The online missteps are another problem, as are the good but somewhat languishing visuals that are starting to show their age. If you can look beyond this, however, and if you care more about basic gameplay, you should still be satisfied with this year’s production. MyTeam is where it’s at – I promise you that – and with great control and excellent on-court dynamics throughout, simply playing a game from start to finish should always be enjoyable. And maybe that’s all you really care about.
The Good: Tons of slick, realistic animations. Great in-game effects. Basic control remains tight and authentic. A refined gameplay mechanic with a few appreciated additions and improvements. MyTeam is wonderfully deep, engaging and diverse.
The Bad: Graphics, while still decent, are showing their age. MyCareer bogged down by Spike Lee’s narrow and predictable narrative. Online functionality is merely average.
The Ugly: “It’s nice to try something new but you still have to understand what works and what doesn’t.”