Competition leads to innovation. Rivalries between tech companies have lead to incredible rates of improvement, competition between vehicle manufactures has lead to some of the most efficient and stylish cars ever seen, and competition between sports teams has lead to some of the most entertaining contests ever (end of the 2011/12 Premier League season, anyone?). However, competition is not always essential for innovation: for years the NBA 2K series has been unchallenged,but has featured some of the most innovative and realistic sports gameplay of the generation. NBA 2K14 is no different.
After last year’s Jay-Z-infused offering, the team at Visual Concepts have taken it back to the court, bringing in LeBron James to grace the cover of the game and generally be the focal point of the experience. The focus on LeBron is so prominent that he has even scored himself a brand new game mode, titled LeBron: Path to Greatness.
The Path to Greatness mode allows you to guide James throughout the remainder of his playing career in two possible “paths”. One sees him stay with Miami Heat and continue the dynasty, whilst the other sees him complete one final season with the Heat, before heading to new teams in an attempt to collect more championship rings than the great Michael Jordan.
Unsurprisingly, the most interesting option is taking King James to pastures new and seeing where he may end up. Staying with the Heat is an entertaining option, but it’s the much shorter path and offers fewer truly memorable scenarios. Fortunately, you are free to play both options without being tied to one.
You control the team for which LeBron is currently playing, through a few games per season. The majority of the scenarios involve playing a full game, with a set objective, but others involve leading a fourth quarter comeback and thus not playing the full game. Scenarios can be failed and games lost, but they are all repayable so failure isn’t really an option, which results in the mode feeling a little easy. Despite this, guiding LeBron through the rest of his career is definitely an interesting idea, although it does feel like a bit of a throwaway mode.
Other game modes such as The Association and its online variant, and My Player, make a welcome return but feature few, if any, notable changes. Crews make a comeback, but will feel familiar to anyone who played in previous years. The modes on offer do provide a decent amount of variety but fail to bring anything new to the table. If you’ve already sunk hundreds of hours into My Player or The Association in previous instalments, you will know exactly what to expect from this year’s offering.
On the court, the gameplay feels as smooth as ever; fast breaks have a real sense of speed and urgency while thought-out plays, which can now be initiated by holding LB, actually feel like they can be used effectively. The defence has significantly smartened up, learning how you play and trying to counter any holes you have picked out as the game progresses. Drive into the paint every possession, and come the 2nd half you will find it difficult to score.
Once you manage to hit the paint the game becomes a lot more physical, and contact between players feels more realistic and has a lot more weight behind it. Players hit the ground with a thud, as you would expect, and can be heard screaming for a foul as they fall. The crowd also feels more alive – realistic chants appear when in certain situations, and as ever they go absolutely mental after a well-executed dunk.
As is the trend with the NBA 2K games, the controls have been reworked once again. Passing, shooting and dribbling are all controlled using the right stick, but holding the left trigger while moving the stick results in a pass and not a shot as it did last year. This leads to a lot of initial confusion for experienced players, and the button controls are not really an option as the stick is the only way of performing side steps, spins and crossovers. Once you get used to the reworked controls they quickly become second nature and feel very intuitive.
Perhaps the biggest change on the court is the addition of assist passes, which when used result in a no-look or one-handed pass. They are by no means overpowered, as a slight error can result in the most excruciating turnovers, but use it correctly and you will be playing some of the prettiest basketball ever seen.
The overall on-court experience is one of the finest and most realistic sporting simulations ever. Individual players are scarily similar to their real life compatriots both in play style and looks, while the subtle inclusions of trademark celebrations reiterate the realistic feel of the game.
Not content with just making him the cover star and giving him his own mode, 2K Sports also decided to let LeBron James choose the game’s soundtrack, and to give the big man credit he did a good job. The soundtrack features many new hits such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, combined with the odd classic such as In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins and Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz.
The TV style presentation is the finest of any current sports game. Graphics and intros could easily be used during any NBA broadcast, while the replays and cut-away shots actually show interesting plays and reactions. The commentary is also marvellous; Kevin Harlan, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr have once again voiced an incredible amount of content that is used at just the right time continually throughout the game. Also impressively, all of the situations in The Path to Greatness mode feature some amount of commentary designed just for that specific match.
VERDICT: Some may accuse NBA 2K14 of not innovating enough this year, but the numerous little tweaks and changes have resulted in one of the finest basketball simulations in existence. On the court there is nothing to complain about, gameplay is a joy and after a few games the new controls feel like the best thing since sliced awesome. The presentation and atmosphere make the game feel like a real TV broadcast, and the great work by the announcement team actually makes commentary sound realistic, which no other game has managed to do.
Sure, the new game mode is a little disappointing, and existing modes could have done with at least a small update, but these are minor complaints in what is easily the finest basketball gameplay seen to date – and arguably one of the greatest sporting simulations of all time.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.