In the eyes of many basketball loving gamers, 2K Sports and the team at Visual Concepts have produced the NBA 2K series to be the reigning king of the court for years. With the release of NBA 2K15, the franchise looks to continue its dynasty run even as EA Sports’ NBA Live series attempts to mount a comeback. Armed with more than a few improvements over last year’s entry, NBA 2K15 can bear the franchise name proudly but there are also more than a few shortcomings this year that may have just opened the door just enough to get a few fans looking at the game across town.
First, the elephant standing at center court has that to be addressed is 2K’s problematic servers. Last year, server issues for 2K14 were well documented and put a blemish on that game’s launch. Sadly, little improvement seems to have been made for this year’s release. Since release day, 2K’s servers have ranged from completely down, to buggy, to laggy, to competent. This could be overlooked if not for the fact that elements of the solo play portions are tied to server performance… or lack thereof.
Performance has improved greatly over the last few weeks but is still not perfect. We've all too recently seen what botched game launches can do to the communities of well established franchises like Diablo and SimCity. Hopefully this is the last year the phrase "server issues at launch" has to be written in an NBA 2K review. Now if they can patch out the game's long and frequent load times, then they'd be in business.
Pivoting over to the positives, the most notable aspects of NBA 2K15 are the continued improvements in capturing the look and feel of NBA basketball. While player models themselves aren’t vastly improved over last year, player behavior has been taken to the next level with an attention given to the details of movement, spacing, and physicality. Thanks to the 5,000-plus animations on display, the on-screen action finally has a tangible weight and realism that has to be experienced to be believed. Watching these players cut, create space or fade just before taking a jump shot is visually the best this or any NBA series has ever looked.
Another improvement over last year is the extra attention given to things on the offensive side of the ball. From a control standpoint, NBA 2K15 offers the most accessible offensive control scheme to date in terms of raw input simplicity. Everything feels sharp and deliberate with less chance for incorrect input or haphazard playmaking. Even though the game still doesn't offer much for new players in terms of understanding the offense, the barrier of entry for controlling the basics is the lowest it's ever been.
Unfortunately, while offense got the "keep it simple" treatment, defense was left a mess of unintuitive control schemes and convoluted button presses. And while players are trying to remember which shoulder buttons to press just to start a cut, those new and beautiful animations actually manage to work against them because making the wrong choice or hitting the wrong button results in a defender who may move get locked in an unintended animation just long enough for the offense to blow by them for an easy layup. It can happen with enough frequency that the finesse and reflexes of defensive basketball become more about playing a dull waiting game where the best anyone can do is cut off passing lanes until the AI decides to make a move on an AI teammate, thereby removing the player from the equation. Not exactly fun interaction.
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Additionally, the simple act of shooting the ball has been addressed this year. Memorizing release points has been replaced with a cleanly implemented shot meter. Acting as a dynamically changing tool that takes the guess work out of not only where a player’s higher percentage shots are but also gives a visual guideline for when to release the ball, this new meter actually often felt like a blessing and a curse. It definitely makes things easier. However, it also becomes easy to get a case of tunnel vision and lock eyes on the meter rather than paying attention to the entire floor. It also seemed wildly inconsistent at times. Too often, wide open shots released right on the money rattled in and out of the iron while other contested shots released early or late would drain the bottom of the net. When it felt like it was working, it became one of the best new tools in Visual Concepts’ belt. But when it didn’t seem to want to play by its own rules, it became increaslingly frustrating to use.
Overall, the defining theme of NBA 2K15 is that this is the year Visual Concepts’ ideas outreached their ability to execute them. And because of this, the game, through its various modes and presentations, is full of some of the most exciting basketball ever offered, along with just enough failings that it’s hard to believe they exist in a franchise that usually gets just about everything right. Nothing embodies this more than MyCareer mode.
Creating a player who goes undrafted and has to fight his way into the league is absolutely a compelling new angle to play. But right from the start, the trend of things only half working becomes evident with the facial capture feature. Those who are able to actually complete the scan will be treated to The Elephant Man version of themselves created on screen. Getting into their career, players are given a ten-day contract to prove their worth to an interested team. Between-game cutscenes feature voiceovers from real NBA stars, which seems like a great idea. But the reality is that many of these "performances" are cringeworthy at best. Additionally some of these scripted events don’t seem to correlate logically to the on-court play. For example, veteran AI may admonish players for selfish play even though the previous game's stats show anything but. The quirks go on and on, but it all boils down to 2K's otherwise stellar level of polish being compromised by numerous areas of poor execution.
NBA 2K15 is both tough to love and hard to hate. It’s loaded with the familiar modes and content that fans have come to love, and when it’s on, it is some of the best virtual basketball anyone’s thumbs have ever been a part of. It just seems so hard to get that experience with any consistency because of all the little blemishes that are plaguing this game. Long time fans may find plenty to love here, or it may strike them as a bit of a step back in overall polish despite the on-court action being the best around. Overall, NBA 2K15 will likely go down as one of the more polarizing entries into an otherwise storied history, and possibly the one to let the Live series back into the conversation.
NBA 2K15 is available now on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The PS4 version was provided for this review.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @fascistPLAGUE.