“Basketball isn’t easy.”
This is the way LeBron James greets you every single time you load up NBA 2K14and you can’t skip the intro cinematic until after he says it, so get used to it. That the greatest player on the planet, a human being who has built himself into a basketball machine, is telling you this says something, both about him and about the game whose cover he graces.
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Release date: October 1
That’s because 14 years into this series, 2K Sports is still striving to understand how best to bring the game of basketball to virtual life. Rather than re-invent the wheel, NBA 2K14 brings subtle changes a handful of new options to the table, pivoting the series from its recent focuses on -- in order -- Michael Jordan, historic greats and Jay-Z to a focus on James, specifically through the sneakily compelling Path to Greatness mode.
The NBA 2K series will live on into the next console generation, but as far as the PS3 (which this review was written for) and the Xbox 360, it ends here, with this edition, as effective a summary of what is possible on the digital hardwood -- and what remains imperfect or unattainable -- as one could ask for.
The on-court action of an NBA 2K game has likely never looked more similar from one year to the next than it does from 2K13 to 2K14. Fittingly for a game that has been exploring every nook and cranny of a set of hardware for eight years, NBA 2K14 is more about refinement than revolution.
The Control Stick has become the Pro Stick in a way that’s so facepalmingly obvious and intuitive that it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner. As the ballhandler, you flick the right stick in familiar ways to produce familiar dribble moves: down to go behind the back, in a 1-2 beat from ballhand to offhand to produce an in-and-out. And then when you want to shoot, you simply hold it in a direction to begin a shot. No modifier button. This allows for greater fluidity, specifically around the basket where you can take advantage of opportunities as they open up. It’s more problematic if you want to pump fake on the catch as the timing of the fake has to be somewhere between a dribble move and a full-on shot. I advise you to stick to the shot button for this.
Beyond the Pro Stick, the two biggest changes to the gameplay are the reorganization of passing commands and the new blocking mechanics. The good news is that passing is once again a joy in a way it hasn’t been for years. Even without the new array of options at your command, the passes are crisper without feeling cheap; you’ll still get picked off if you blindly dump it into traffic in the post, but there are far fewer eyes-in-the-back-of-their-heads plays from defenders.
Fittingly for a game that has been exploring every nook and cranny of a set of hardware for eight years, NBA 2K14 is more about refinement than revolution.
When it actually comes to throwing a pass, you can modify it with L2 button. Holding L2 and hitting X delivers a bounce pass; hitting square throws an alley-oop; and best of all, using the right stick throws what 2K calls a “flashy” pass. Basically, this means a no-look or hard-spinning bounce pass or a dump in over the heads of the defense. With gifted passers like Steve Nash, Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo it means that passing has finally arrived as a deadly weapon in the 2K series. The mechanic actively rewards you for its smart use because defenders will get legitimately suckered by it. Abuse it, though, and you can expect to turn it over.
The new blocking mechanic makes post defense a lot more fun with big men like Roy Hibbert and even active wings like LeBron James and Andre Iguodala. Blocking from behind is a real possibility now, with chasedowns and weakside defense coming into greater prominence. It goes a long way to making teams built around big men (Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers) more fun and viable options. That said, the removal of auto-contest -- which went a long way towards making defense feel smooth in 2K13 -- will be a speed bump if you’ve grown used to it. Simply standing up to defenders in the post will likely not trouble their shots; you now have to actively block them both in the paint and on the perimeter. Some will cheer this decision while other will just have to get used to it.
The fast break has also received a welcome tune-up from the last few iterations of the series. It’s now possible to get out ahead of the defense, with faster, smaller players outrunning big men and athletic players finishing with slam dunks on the break. Without tweaking the settings, the balance feels about right: you probably score at the rim a few times a game if you’re really looking for it and turn it over or get stopped about the same number of times.