“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
Price: $59.99
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Score: 9/10

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.

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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.

GAMEPLAY

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.

 

There are little touches as well. For example, defenders biting on pump fakes will come crashing down into the shooter and knock them to the floor on occasion, and the ball in general feels a little less glued to players, resulting in more 50-50 balls on the floor.

It’s not all gravy, though. The rebounding in particular remains squishy and sometimes ghostly. I frequently saw three defenders go up for a rebound and then just slough off to the side of the offensive player who grabbed it for an easy putback. In fact, against the CPU it feels like any offensive rebound they get around the hoop is an automatic bucket, while your own offensive rebounds feel like a coin flip.

This disconnect in rebounding is also only the most obvious symptom of a more pervasive lack of genuine physicality in the game. For whatever reason -- and this may be down to endless tinkering with finesse elements over the years -- NBA 2K14 lacks a certain visceral weight on the court. Dunks in the paint don’t have quite the oomph one would expect, nor even on fast break alley-oops from LeBron. Earlier versions of the game (maybe 2K2 or 2K3) somehow felt heavier, a feeling whose return I would welcome in the next generation.

This is maybe how the overall level of realism the game achieves also serves to highlight the moments when it fails, as when CPU playcalling results in players standing stock still waiting for a play to develop. This leads to things like Chris Kaman isolations beyond the 3-point line (a thing I saw multiple times in one game against the Lakers) that ruin the illusion of competent play the CPU generates when it does smart things like entering and re-entering the ball into the post or exploiting mismatches. The latter actually seems to be a mixed bag in terms of awareness; sometimes the CPU is very savvy about it while at other times it completely misses Derrick Rose matched up against Roy Hibbert on the perimeter.

There also seem to be a preponderance of bailouts for the CPU on offense. If the shot clock gets under five seconds, shots seem to magically stick to the rim and drop or else fouls get called with eerie regularity. In spite of this, the seesaw of the games feels good and balanced. With evenly matched teams, the first half will stay close until one team can grab momentum and surge ahead, at which point it’s up to the other team to turn the tide. The crowd’s reaction during these momentum shifts is the best I’ve seen it in NBA 2K with a realistic roar building as a team builds a ten-point lead or falling silent as the opposing team cuts into it.

PATH TO GREATNESS

It’s not insignificant that after this mode was announced, no one could quite figure out what it was. Previous new modes in the series seemed clear enough just by title: Franchise Mode, 24/7, My Player, MyCAREER (confusing capitalization aside). But Path to Greatness is 2K’s experiment with speculative fiction and it succeeds more than it has any right to.

The mode sets you up with two different visions of LeBron James’ future: building a dynasty with the Heat or signing on with the New York Knicks after the 2013-14 season in what 2K calls a “Fantastic Journey.” The goal in either scenario is the same: win five more championships to beat out Michael Jordan’s six. A LeBron voiceover intros each matchup no matter which path you take. The “Heat Dynasty” option is quicker and dirtier, dumping you immediately into a Finals matchup against the Houston Rockets, complete with dramatic sepia-toned montage to open it. With the Heat up 3-2, Miami is looking to close out a third straight championship. From there, it’s a matter of playing a game here and there to secure James’ legacy.

The “Fantastic Journey” option is more compelling of the two, reducing the season to a handful of pivotal games rather than just one. At first, it seems a little bland. Your first task is a rematch of last year’s Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, which is only middlingly interesting. But things immediately pick up when James is forced to play point against the Los Angeles Clippers due to injuries to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.

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This is fun because it forces you to play a different kind of role on the court, and what you begin to see is how well developer Visual Concepts has threaded a story through these games. During a lull in the action in this “LeBron’s On Point” game, returning announcers Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr drop a seemingly unrelated story about Kobe Bryant’s miraculous resurgence following last season’s Achilles injury and how he’s the sentimental favorite for MVP, especially given how voters sometimes get tired of voting for the same guy (in this case, LeBron James, back-to-back MVP winner of the last two seasons).

I didn’t think much of it when it happened, but then the next game you play is a showdown on the last day of the regular season against the Los Angeles Lakers where your task is to dominate Kobe to prove your case as the MVP. It helps give games an extra whump, the kind of thing that never fully arrives in traditional Association or Franchise modes. You might end up with a scoring title race in those more emergent modes, for instance, but the commentary won’t call attention to it.

This narrative approach to the game is at once compelling and troubling. On one hand, it allows for crazy scenarios -- like Allen Iverson returning to the Philadelphia 76ers and leading them to an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Heat -- that are entertaining and fresh, but on the other, it obscures a deeper understanding of the game itself. MVP voting doesn’t -- or shouldn’t, at least -- come down to one game. The mode feeds some of our worst impulses towards a highlight-based understanding of basketball, but damned if it isn’t fun as hell to drop in and out on LeBron’s projected career.

 

PRESENTATION

NBA 2K13s golden sheen has been replaced by a cool blue in NBA 2K14. And that’s most of the way the presentation elements of the game have changed on the macro scale. On a smaller scale, a couple of very smart changes have been implemented. Drills in MyCAREER have been streamlined so there’s no backing all the way out of the gym and reloading it every time you want to do another drill. Instead, the gym loads and you’re allowed to select from a menu. The drills themselves have also done away with the confusing points and point threshold requirements. Instead, your success is predicated only on, say, eliminating all the players in Around the World or your time in running the Dribble Course. That said, the drills in general are still kind of silly and don’t provide enough in the way of reward to incentivize you to actually do them. It’s more effective to build your MyPLAYER by playing any mode other than MyCAREER, which is still frustrating.

And speaking of building your MyPLAYER, some of the confusing relationship between MyPLAYER and MyCAREER has been fixed as you can now go into your closet and the store from within the MyCAREER mode, but why can’t I change the height of my socks right away? Certain blindingly obvious options like that are either hidden or non-existent. It feels like 2K punted on some things in anticipation of next gen. Create-A-Player, for example, is exactly the same as last year, with no new hairstyles or tattoos or accessories. Oh wait: Now there’s a wristband with “I Promise” written on it because LeBron wears them (prominently so in the opening cinematic). It might seem minor, but I am sick to death of “The Patch” hairstyle (which Drew Gooden invented and hasn’t had since 2007). Player style needs a good freshening up.

At its heart, NBA 2K14 is a tremendously enjoyable vision of basketball if what you enjoy is NBA 2K’s vision of basketball

For the first time, NBA 2K14 allows you to play as a handful of European teams and the way the Euroleague teams is presented is noteworthy, if only because of the potential it shows for the future. As they stand, the European teams exist in a universe of their own where players are not editable or able to be moved to NBA teams (which is too bad because Sergio Rodriguez’s majestic beard deserves another shot in the L), plus they seem to be graded on a curve. Exhibit A: Jordan Farmar on the Lakers is a 69, while Jordan Farmar on Anadolu Efes Istanbul is an 80.

So you can play NBA teams against Euro teams on courts that look convincingly FIBA-ish, but the ambiance leaves something to be desired. The in-arena music is the same as in any other mode and so are the sparkly cheerleaders, which feels wrong. Visual Concepts went the extra mile when it put historic games through filters that made them feel old. If this inclusion of European teams is just the first step, there’s great potential for expanding their inclusion by adding the little touches that can make the games feel more true to life.

ONLINE

Online play has long been a contentious issue with fans of NBA 2K, especially when it comes to the much loved and long lost Crew mode from NBA 2K10 and 2K11. The good news is that the mode has returned as Crews, allowing you to once again team up with friends via their MyPLAYERs and compete against other crews. The bad news is that instead of games in NBA arenas on the clock, the setting has been changed to a blacktop and a first-to-21 format. And there’s even more bad news: online wasn’t fully up and running while I was working on this review, so I didn’t get to try out Crews (or MyTEAM or anything else). Time will have to tell if this new mode quiets the grumbling over Crew mode being eliminated, intensifies it, or splits the difference.

CONCLUSION

NBA 2K14 for the PS3 and Xbox 360 is the Fast and Furious 6, the Saw 3D of video games. It’s not a brand new idea, it’s not a reboot. It’s the result of all the lessons Visual Concepts and 2K Sports have learned in this console generation, and yet it struggles against its own excellence. For the hundred things we now take for granted, there are a few new things that work brilliantly and a few old things they still struggle to get right. This is the struggle any maker of an iterative franchise takes up, but it’s a worthy one.

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At its heart, NBA 2K14 is a tremendously enjoyable vision of basketball if what you enjoy is NBA 2K’s vision of basketball. At the level of complexity that sports simulations have achieved, it’s hard to call any control scheme “intuitive,” but NBA 2K14 has moved a step closer to a smooth interaction between controller and controlled on the court. The reward for a well-timed no-look pass to a streaking player for a thunderous dunk is palpable. Building teams through Association is still an entertaining way to explore what-ifs; building your own avatar through MyCAREER is still a slog (with no ability to sim specific games, still) that might inadvertently simulate the tedium and seeming endlessness of an actual season. Path to Greatness draws you into the narrative undercurrents of the NBA in defiance of our growing understanding of the game as granular, as built on subtle adjustments and shades of understanding rather than grand storylines. There’s plenty to sink your teeth into here, almost an overabundance.

Perhaps this is what makes LeBron the perfect cover athlete for this swansong: never as monomaniacally driven (some would say sociopathic) as Kobe Bryant, James has always been a cerebral player, seeking to improve his game from all angles, searching for a comprehensive toolset that incorporates court vision, deft post play, an understanding of shot efficiency and intelligent defense into his own preternatual athleticism. His version of dominance is not based on destruction so much as consumption, on devouring and repurposing every element of the game he can get his hands on.

Like LeBron, NBA 2K14 is a victim of its own success. At some point, it got so far ahead of the pack that it’s been the only serious choice for video game basketball for the last three years. In spite of being the only kid on the playground, NBA 2K has continued to build, to work on itself. And many will still say it’s not enough.

LeBron’s right: Basketball isn’t easy, and neither is simulating it. Whatever the next generation of consoles brings -- from greater graphical fidelity to staggeringly deep stat-tracking and ratings updates to genuinely revolutionary ways to understand the game -- NBA 2K14 for the current generation stands as an achievement of depth and breadth, the culmination of years of tinkering and the most comprehensive virtual basketball experience yet.