NBA 2K14 Review: Your best—and sadly, only—choice for a premium basketball game
NBA 2K14 might be the only major basketball game available this year, but 2K Sports hasn't dropped the ball in the absence of competition. They have gotten complacent, though; NBA2K14's graphical improvements and upgraded defensive AI will satisfy fans content with 2K's strategy of releasing yearly sports games with incremental improvements and roster updates, but those looking for 2K to make radical changes to their basketball game should probably look elsewhere.
Presentation is the name of the game in NBA 2K14. The game doesn't surpass the graphical limitations of the aging Xbox 360, but it does sell the feeling of a participating in a professional basketball game exceptionally well.
The game has been reworked from the beginning to provide for that ultimate experience, opening with a pre-game show and graphics that are personalized to the game at hand. This emphasis on statistics carries over into the gameplay as well, as the announcers provide real-time stats and specific commentary on the state of the game at hand. It's a solid improvement, as color commentary is something that the series has struggled with; announcers in previous games often spouted general basketball nonsense instead of something specific to the situation.
This time around, if you do something really cool—like drive down the middle lane before throwing down a massive dunk—the game will call you out and make you feel good about it. The announcers will talk up the play while a black and white replay starts, with only the player in color. As he jumps, a graph will appear that highlights his vertical achievement. The whole thing is an unnecessary but welcome addition that really helps to sell the feeling of being part of a professional basketball game.
Best of all, there's old superstars scattered throughout that you can choose to lace up as against your friends. I found myself rocking the current-day Miami Heat as the 1995-1996 Seattle Supersonics and was shocked to find that, not only were the players perfectly recreated, but there were custom lines of dialogue written just for specific matchups.
If you played NBA 2K13, you know just how frustrating the defensive AI could be. Your teammates often played so foolishly that it was difficult to feel like you weren't alone on the court trying to defend against the opposing team.
Thankfully, developer Visual Concepts has significantly improved the player AI this time around. Players on the defensive will follow other players and interpret when an opponent is attempting a screen pass. They'll even jump to intercept passes or block shots at the right time, rather than a half-second later.
While I'd like to thing that Visual Concepts beefed up the defensive players just because it was the right thing to do, I think it probably has something to do with the new Assist Pass feature. Instead of just hammering the A button to pass to a player, holding Left Trigger (on Xbox 360) and pushing the stick in a direction will throw an assist pass their way, which is either a no-look pass or something one-handed. It looks extremely cool and can lead to some off-the-wall plays when it actually works; unfortunately, it ends in spectacular failure more often than not.
Even so, the addition of the assist pass and beefed-up defensive AI creates opportunities for high-level play that just didn't exist in previous 2K NBA games.
Inconsistent AI abounds
Unfortunately, the AI isn't always that dreamy. In fact, most of the time it's still astoundingly stupid; I lost count how many times the ball was turned over because of errors made by the AI-controlled players that had nothing to do with me.
It isn't just small stuff either; players are constantly running out of bounds with the ball, missing offensive rebounds simply because they don't move toward the hoop when the ball is shot, and incorrectly following plays called directly by the player.
It's inexcusable that your AI opponents can sink nearly every shot they take, yet friendly AI-controlled players can't help but get called for goaltending on the rare occasion that they happen to miss. Visual Concepts has done a decent job of adequately modeling the behavior of real human beings on a ball court, but these frustrating behavioral errors are proof that there's work to be done on improving the player AI to be believable and consistent.
LeBron: Path to Greatness
One of NBA 2K14's most advertised features is the new LeBron: Path to Greatness mode, which replaces last year's focus on Michael Jordan and his historic career in the NBA. Instead of focusing on the past, Path to Greatness is all about playing through LeBron's hypothetical future.
You're given two options: stick with the Heat for a dynasty or move on to try your luck on other teams through the league. It's a really unique take on the player-specific modes that have become popular additions to sports games in recent years. Best of all, it comes off feeling a bit like some version of fantasy basketball as you control LeBron's career, making moves game after game.
Since it's all hypothetical future match-ups, you're never reliving some prime-time moment; you have to create those moments for yourself as you play through LeBron's games. It can be difficult, too, as these are undoubtedly some of the most challenging games I found in 2K14. These match-ups are often brutal, and they really highlight where the AI inconsistencies lie.
If you're a fan of 2K's past games and don't want to wait for next-gen options, picking up NBA 2K14 is a foregone conclusion. You simply don't have any alternatives, and the game itself feels authentic and well-crafted, even in the absence of many readily-visible graphical enhancements. If you aren't in a rush for another NBA game, it might be worth waiting to see what EA has in store for next-generation basketball and how that affects NBA 2K14 on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.