As mean spirited as it may look to start a review of a superb game by kicking the publisher’s biggest competitor in this genre, EA Sports should probably consider throwing in the towel as far as NBA games are concerned.
For the foreseeable future at least, NBA belongs to 2K. NBA 2K16 looks, plays and feels like a dream and even though certain elements of its campaign mode, ‘Livin Da Dream’, may rub veterans up the wrong way at times, this is still the franchise basketball fans should plump for. It’s really that simple.
NBA 2K16: Livin’ Da Dream
The campaign is probably the best place to start with any assessment of the game as, in some ways, it’s the game’s most interesting aspect. Instead of guiding a relative nobody named after themselves to stardom in the NBA, players instead take on the role of Frequency Vibrations – yes, really – as he makes his way from aspiring high school ‘baller from the projects to NBA top dog.
Written and directed by Spike Lee, ‘Livin’ Da Dream’ initially feels really restrictive – and not just because whatever you decide to call your player, everyone in the campaign will continue to refer to him by his nickname ‘Freq’. The opening of the campaign is framed much the same way as a movie; it’s a parade of cutscenes peppered with basketball games, which is where the lion’s share of the player’s interaction is allowed.
The characters are engaging enough, even if they conform to tropes widely associated with sports films and shows like ‘He Got Game’, ‘Ballers’ and ‘Hoop Dreams’. There’s the feisty sister/manager, the doting parents, the shady sports agent and the friend from the ‘hood who seems to have a knack for getting into trouble.
The story is quite corny in places, although the performances are decent, but veterans used to getting stuck into the campaign action in previous iterations will find that the drama in Livin’ Da Dream is rather intrusive. Not only are they stuck in the shoes of Freq, but the cutscenes break up the momentum between actual games.
Furthermore, once Freq graduates from college ball to the pros, he plays just 8 games in the entire season (which is comprised of 82 games) and spends most of his rookie year as a bench-warmer.
The games he does get to play in are hellishly challenging – which probably makes sense since he’s a rookie – but for the five hours it takes Livin’ Da Dream to wrap up its narrative, players aren’t really going to feel like a young phenom staking their claim to future greatness as they have in previous NBA 2K games.
The campaign mode has no tutorial at all. If you’ve never played an NBA 2K title, this game throws you in the deep end. Veterans will also experience some teething problems as the in-game action has been tweaked somewhat, and a quick look through the menus reveals very little help is on offer.
There are series of short videos in which some NBA stars demonstrate some moves but the barely scratch the surface of the game’s deep control system. There’s always the option to look up the control system online – hooray for the internet – and practice in the Quick Game mode, but it feels a little like the developers dropped the ball on this.
That having been said, if you’re prepared to truly give yourself over to NBA 2K16 and work hard at mastering its mechanics and controls, it’s arguably one of the best games in this series – especially if you’re after a challenge.
NBA 2K16: Mechanics & Controls
Players can’t run the same play against the AI and hope to score cheap points this year; pick and roll will work a couple of times, sure, but if you spam it as an offensive move the AI will fight players off early.
Momentum is now a bigger factor than before. Players on the court can’t stop dead, spin and shoot flummoxing the AI; instead they have to take into account how fast their player is moving before they try to short-foot the player guarding them. The offence is more helpful this time round, though; teammates don’t simply stand still, waiting for the players to beat the man on them. Instead they run through the key forcing defenders to open up gaps around the hoop and creating opportunities for passes and shots.
Off the court there are a couple of interesting additions this year. Once Spike Lee’s Joint has been wrapped up and players are free to pursue their own careers in the campaign mode, they’ll find that their on-court encounters are separated by off-days, during which they have some free time.
Rather than just time passing to the next match, they’re able to have interviews about endorsements, train and improve their skills or they can hang out with teammates to improve the overall on-court chemistry. A lot of this feels far more immersive than having to deal with Freq’s circus of relatives and pro contacts.
NBA 2K16: Online Modes
The online modes are a better than last year – mainly because NBA 2K’s servers don’t seem as shonky as they were last year and online play is less frustrating. That’s not to say the bottom won’t fall out at some stage, but for now you can get an online game (relatively) hassle-free. MyLeague Online allows players access to full online seasons, while 2K Pro-Am offers them the chance play custom 5-on-5 teams with other players.
MyPark is perhaps the most interesting new mode; it offers players the chance to engage in a little street ball. It’s essentially like a real-life pick-up game; form a team with your friends and challenge other teams online or you can just call the next game and form a team with whomever is present. It’s a fantastic addition to the series.
NBA 2K16 Presentation
Finally, it should be said that NBA 2K16 is one of the best-looking sports games released in ages. The animations are slick and fluid, players look like their real-life counterparts more than ever and the soundtrack to the on-court action (squeaking sneakers, crunching dunks and crowd roars) make players feel like the centre of the action.
NBA 2K16: Conclusion
NBA 2K16, then, isn’t perfect but it still manages to advance the series from last year. Aside from a few issues – lack of tutorial and a corny first five hours – this is still a deep and rewarding basketball simulator. If you’re a basketball fan and you’re prepared to dig into its controls and mechanics, NBA 2K16 is an essential purchase. Just don’t extend too much bad feeling towards Spike Lee if you don’t like the campaign initially. He’s a Knicks fan after all. He’s suffering enough.