NBA 2K15 Review
The heart of the NBA feels alive in 2K15, despite shortcomings
Few team-based sports highlight the individual like basketball does, and even fewer allow the control of a game to pass through a single teammate. Basketball is a flashy sport, a sexy sport; filled with shoe-endorsements, slam-dunk contests, and courtside celebrities. While so many sports video games focus on the mechanics of the game as a whole, few do a great job of making the players on the field/rink/pitch/what-have-you feel as real as the players we watch on TV. While most games focus on the meat and potatoes of mechanics, NBA 2K15 is at work making the drama of sports feel alive.
That’s not to say the mechanics of the game aren’t important as well. NBA 2K15 is a bit of a mixed bag, but overall it plays well. There are solid improvements over last year’s edition. Running plays in previous iterations of NBA2K were kind of a nightmare. First you had to try and get the play called - god forbid to try using Kinect to do this - but even when it worked, it was difficult to run the play itself. NBA 2K15 tries to help you out here. Plays are easier to set up and their execution is a little easier to follow. That being said, the AI still doesn’t execute all that well; numerous times I had players stuck behind screens and passes that would get picked off. The “X”s and “O”s of basketball are still difficult to pick up in NBA 2K15, but the game takes a step in the right direction. Just don’t expect to get Oladipo open on those pick plays every time.
It’s bummer because when the computer is running these plays against you, they look impressive. Teams that thrive on teamwork and passing really highlight how players can get burned on the back door or in the pick-and-roll. The computer’s AI is flashy and skilled, showing you how the play-calling and intuitive passing should work, but doesn’t when the player has control.
The good news is that the defense AI in NBA 2K15 is much improved. First, you won’t see nearly as many ridiculous alley-oop slams against you this year. Second, when you’re screened the defense does a much better job of helping out. It can still be tricky to figure out if you’re supposed to be switching to the guy you’re defending - and on a fast break it’s anyone’s guess who you’re actually supposed to be guarding - but, again, NBA 2K15 has taken a step in the right direction with these controls.
This year’s title, like many of the iterations before it, plays best when you’re playing flashy, show-off basketball. Using the turbo button and the pro stick, you can leave opponents stuck in the mud and drive to the hoop; or create a little separation and nail the jumper. The game does reward you for passing the ball around - literally, just throw it around the perimeter a couple times and watch your shooting percentage improve - but it’s rare that the passing is as precise as you need it to be. The best strategy NBA 2K15 offers is to get the ball to your best players and let them go to work.
This strategy is actually good for myCAREER mode, which returns with a brand new story. Last year’s NBA2K had players play in a game to show off their skills before the draft, making your starting position in the NBA a little more varied. NBA 2K15 starts everyone in the same position. It’s draft day and your name didn’t get called. You wait around and are forced to go through a workout to get on a team. Initially, you’re signed to a 10-day contract, but you can play your way to a year-long gig. During your first 10-day contract - or, possibly, multiple 10-day contracts - the progression is really good. Your player will definitely earn the currency they need to improve their skills and work their way to a solid bench contributor. Unfortunately, that solid progression doesn’t continue.
After the first contract is up, your player will be a free agent and get courted by numerous teams. This section of the game is actually engaging and semi-authentic. Your character is awed by NBA stars walking into their apartment, asking him to come contribute to a championship run. In the end, money and your own preferences determine where your character will end up. Are you going to be loyal to the team that gave you your first shot or are you going to head for the money and rings promised by the NBA elite?
At this point my character was at an overall of 73. He wasn’t superstar material, but he was a decent bench contributor and I was happy in my role. But after I signed with the Chicago Bulls, Doc Rivers showed up and injected me into the starting line-up over my mentor, Jimmy Butler, whose rating was much higher than my own. Suddenly, I went from matching up again guys suited to my skills, to going 1-on-1 with Kevin Durant - which, let me tell you, did not go well.
It’s nice that NBA 2K15 wants to get you in the spotlight, but I was so hopelessly outmatched, I couldn’t do much to help my team win. My mentor would tell me how bad I was, the press would ask why I took responsibility for the loss - the whole time I lacked the option to say, “Yeah, well I never thought I would be bumping Jimmy Butler to the bench.”
The whole time I flounder in the starting role, NBA2K reminds me that - for another $15 - I could bump up the skills of my player so he’s a respectable starter. NBA 2K15 isn’t as aggressive about its microtransactions as last year’s game was, but it still feels pretty gross at times. Everything from dunk animations to clothing costs in-game currency and is locked behind paywalls.
You can also take your player to myPARK where you can compete against other players like yourself, betting in-game currency on your matches and competing to show who has the better NBA star. You choose one of three street teams to join up with, then represent them on the court with 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 games against other human players. You can also visit the Rec Hall where you can play more traditional multiplayer. Having NBA2K nation take their stars to the online arena is an interesting way to build experience and interact with other players, but it doesn’t have matchmaking, so if you don’t have a roster of friends to play with, you might find it hard to get a good game together. In fact, if there is a game going, you have to sit on the sidelines till it’s done before hopping in. Even once you do get in, server issues can make for a laggy experience.
As opposed to last year, one mode remains relatively untouched by the in-game currency. myGM mode allows players to fill the shoes of a general manager and put together a roster to win an NBA championship. While last year players had to earn in-game currency to make the decision of lowering the price of hot dogs, this year you simply have to level your GM up. Unlike myCAREER, you don’t have to buy skills for yourself, as they will naturally unlock as you accomplish things as a GM. If you win 10 games you can become a better negotiator; make the playoffs and you can set the roster, and so forth.
While myCAREER highlights your individual’s NBA lifestyle, myGM makes you manage a team of NBA stars and staff. First and foremost, you’ll have to earn the trust of your owner. NBA2K14 made this nearly impossible as the owner would tell you who to draft, who to play, how to win and if you went against the grain too much you’d be out of a job, regardless of how you improve the team. 2K15 is much more comfortable with you disagreeing with the owner as long as you get results. You can run the team any way you want as long as you keep winning.
You don’t just have to deal with owner, of course. You have staff which includes an Assistant GM, Head of Scouting, a trainer, a Coach, and an Assistant Coach. You also have press conferences where you answer questions to determine how much reporters like you. Possibly most important, you have to keep your players happy.
With all of these personalities to please, you’re going to develop your own story around your GM. You can play your cards close to the chest and be stand-offish with the press and let them roast your for it. You can call out players and have them resent you. You can appease the coach and keep him happy. You can coddle young stars and push away aging whiners. The meetings, press conferences, personalities that happen off of the court matter almost as much as the games themselves.
Each team has various monetary restrictions depending on the owner and the city. You can put together a team of NBA all-stars, but that doesn’t automatically translate into success. Some stars will complain because they feel they should be starting - and if that means starting on a different team, so be it. Others will get irksome if they get passed over for the all-star game or if you haven’t started negotiating their contract extension. All of these issues are important, but winning cures everything. Your players will still complain, the press will still lack faith in your answers, but almost none of it matters if you bring home an NBA title.
There are still some problems with myGM mode. You’re still pestered about blockbuster trades too often and you still have to sit through the entirety of the NBA draft each season, which goes on for far too long. But on the whole, myGM mode is some of the most fun I have had with a sports game in a long while.
Like many sports games these days, NBA 2K15 features a build-your-team mode called myTEAM. You pick a pack of cards to start out with and play a number of different game modes to earn more cards. There’s not much to discuss in myTEAM. Shaquille O'Neal does a nice voice-over introduction, but it’s the meat-and-potatoes card collecting game you can find in many sports titles these days. If you’re ready to sink dozens of hours into it and really build your team up from scratch, you can participate in auctions to purchase cards, earn cards through challenges, and build your dream roster. But it does nothing to set itself apart from modes exactly like this in other sports franchises.
Lastly, NBA 2K15 features a myLEAGUE mode where you can set up the NBA season/franchise experience as you want it. You can limit the frequency of blockbuster trades, import Euroleague teams, and customize the schedule. Aside from the ability to make the league you want, myLEAGUE plays much like myGM mode, without all of the business and personality management.
Technically, NBA 2K15 does a lot of things right. The animation in the gameplay looks great. Occasionally, the ball will kind of pinball around on a rebound, but for the most part the movements seem natural and each player feels like they have their own style and variation.
The atmosphere of the arenas is also well done. Certain sound effects are hometown specific (like the Timberwolves howl when a player is shooting free throws) and in the playoffs fans all wear the same color to participate in whiteouts, blackouts - whatever team-color-appropriate-outs. Continuing to add flavor to the game, two members of the TNT NBA studio team - Shaq and Ernest Johnson Jr. - do a pre-game presentation with their usual playful banter, adding some authenticity to the experience. To top it off, Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg, and Steve Kerr return with some solid commentary.
While the aforementioned aspects of NBA 2K15 might make you pretty excited, there are some issues with the game. The biggest is the long loading times, so bring a TV show to watch or book to read, because you’re going to get some serious down time. NBA 2K15 almost always needs to communicate with the 2K servers to manage your saves and communicate your successes in myPLAYER. If there is server trouble, the game is almost unplayable. Aside from the first night, the servers have been strong, but consider yourself warned. There are some glitches - sometimes the sideline reporter will have an interview with an invisible player - most of them are harmless, but not all of them. The biggest issue I ran into was when a player was hurt in myGM mode and the game wouldn’t register my roster changes and refused to let me play, claiming a player in my top 8 was injured. This meant I had to sim until the player was no longer hurt - which meant simming the playoffs. Not great.
I really, really like NBA 2K15. It’s one of the first sports games I’ve played where the players felt like they had life and personality which mattered more than their overall ratings. NBA 2K15 has personalities built into it, it has heart where most sports games are little more than numbers. The game is definitely rough around the edges in spots; myCAREER can be a struggle without paying money or spending time in myPARK, and the game definitely has technical issues. But the heart of the NBA feels alive in 2K15. Playing in NBA championships felt exciting, building a powerhouse was rewarding. NBA 2K15 understands that sports are about storylines and the characters who partake in them; especially in a game as personal and intimate as basketball. The game goes out of its way to try and bring those qualities to the forefront of the experience and while it doesn’t always succeed, it certainly puts in an impressive effort.