NBA 2K15 review: technical foul

Insufficient online reliability leaves a stain on NBA 2K15

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher 2K Sports
Developer Visual Concepts
Release Date Oct 7, 2014

Many fans of sports video games invent their own backstories and outside-the-lines intrigue for their teams and players. NBA 2K15 will do all of that for you, gloriously.

A trade proposal unfolds as an actual conversation with another team executive. An opposing coach, standing outside his locker room after the game, calls you over and compliments your 30-point night — in his own voice. After taking down a division rival, you can talk smack on Twitter to the player who couldn't stop you.

When it comes alive, NBA 2K15 is the new frontier of sports video gaming, developing role-playing elements and an online competitive/co-operative mode in ways no other licensed sports title does today. Yet that also exposes the game's greatest weakness: The intoxicating depth of gameplay NBA 2K15 offers makes it positively infuriating when some online problem denies you access to it.

NBA 2K15's online problems are infuriating

The NBA 2K series has always had strong, appealing career modes, but this is the year when playing as a single superstar overtakes the bread-and-butter franchise mode for accessibility and appeal. Straight-up novices can, after about five warm-up games, play NBA 2K15's MyCareer on Pro difficulty (the basic level) and have a blast without feeling babied by the AI. For players who don't know basketball, there's an option to initiate plays for your team automatically and overlay their diagrams on the floor, telling you where to go and what to do.

Likewise, the story that MyCareer tells — an undrafted phenomenon getting his Wonka-ticket shot with a tryout and a 10-day contract — allows the player to join his favorite club in a couple of narratively authentic ways. For example, if you're a pure shooter and your favorite team is the Golden State Warriors, you can try out for them. Just realize you'll need to throw down in that tryout to get an offer. If they do sign you, you'll need to be nearly perfect in live competition, with gunners like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry well ahead of you on the depth chart, if you're going to stick around.

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Or, you could take a tryout with a team with lesser expectations, and better prospects at cracking the starting lineup, shoot the daylights out of the ball, and after proving yourself try to sign with your preferred team in the off-season.

The gameplay itself is greatly helped by a new shooting meter, which is a semicircle underneath the player's feet. It fairly synthesizes the three components of a successful shot in video game basketball: the player's attribute rating, his fatigue, and then the human player's skill at timing the shot. In NBA 2K15, you're given a notch to hit on the meter that widens and narrows with the player's range to the basket.

Hitting spot-up jump shots with it is fairly simple at any difficulty level. But shots that come after a lot of motion or shooting against a defender will have a greater variable of success or failure even if you time it perfectly. In sum, shooting feels honest — you can't hit everything just because you have perfect timing, and getting your player open first will make even poorly timed shots go in.

On the other side of the ball, NBA 2K15 still offers little assistance to those trying to play defense. Effective pressure defense involves moving the right stick (which spreads a defender's arms) while laying on the left trigger/L2 (which activates close defense) but even then, your man is likely to spin and scrape you off on a teammate. The floaty movement of players in NBA 2K15 also makes it hard to finitely pinpoint your defender where you want him, and when your mark is hauling ass to the basket and you jam the R2/trigger for turbo, you frequently overrun the play.

This defensive confusion is particularly a problem in MyPark, the online streetball mode, where players with high speed and ballhandling ratings can easily fake out lower-rated ballers that are just trying to shadow their man.

MyPark is an intriguing competition space but its appeal seems limited to diehards. Players are asked to pick one of three cities to call home (permanently, I should add) with specific bonuses granted based on the style of play there. There's a convoluted structure of rivalries with the other parks that plays into how one accrues experience in the Park.

Of all online modes, MyPark was most bothered by server disconnections and other issues

This is even if you can get MyPark to function. Of all online modes, MyPark was the one most bothered by server disconnections and inexplicable bootings through its first week, particularly when you're trying to play with someone from your friends list. Yet even when it does run smoothly, only players who have an active command of specialty ballhandling moves on the gamepad should venture into MyPark, where the competition can be brutal to newcomers.

The games are either 2-on-2 or 3-on-3, placing a premium on one-on-one play over passing, setting picks or shot creation. You can upgrade your player's moves with "dunk packages," but they cost VC or "virtual currency." As the player you bring to MyPark is the same guy you're balling with in MyCareer, it's more likely you're spending whatever VC you freely earn on basic attributes as you make your name in the NBA, not flashy moves that by themselves offer no performance boost.

There's also social pressure to buy distinct clothes for your player, another way NBA 2K15 makes its (real-world) money. You can bring an otherwise awesome player in MyCareer into MyPark and feel completely underpowered and even under-dressed next to others who have clearly spent money on their avatar. For most users, the Lord-of-the-Flies competition and balky online support make MyPark a disappointment so far, despite the promise it holds.

That's not to say that MyCareer is the same kind of vehicle making money off of a player's sense of exceptionalism. It is very, very rare when a sports video game makes you play wholeheartedly for an AI teammate, much less make a career decision for one. Yet the ferment of gameplay and narrative in NBA 2K15's MyCareer really does bring that out.

Just like Jeremy Lin for the New York Knicks two years ago, my created star burst out of anonymity and into the league, playing his way into the Phoenix Suns' starting lineup from just a 10-day contract. As Phoenix steamed toward an unlikely playoff berth, my sleazebag agent started scheming about how we'd approach free agency in the offseason, and the big payday that would mean for us both. I egged him on with my replies.

Markieff Morris, the Suns' 6-10 forward, found text-message evidence of this treachery when my player left his mobile phone unlocked in the locker room before a critical game against Oklahoma City. Morris and co-captain Goran Dragic confronted him in the tunnel. The press got wind of the showdown and everything blew up into a huge scandal on Twitter.

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Fast forward to the end of the season, after losing in the opening round of the playoffs to Golden State. I'm sitting here, with my PS4 gamepad in hand, and I have a contract offer from the Charlotte Hornets — that team is my only true professional sports love. Yet I'm remembering how, after Morris and Dragic called me out in the tunnel, we went out and wiped the floor with Oklahoma City to clinch our playoff berth. I'm remembering how I blocked cover superstar Kevin Durant in transition, then fed Morris on the fast break for a dunk as the crowd went nuts and he did a rain dance backward.

I'm not embroidering any of this; it all took place in the video game. NBA 2K was already a polished and and engrossing sports series. With NBA 2K15, it's the biggest soap opera on your console.

That's for better and for worse.

MyCareer is one of three major gameplay modes that depend on an online connection, for how they're required to store data in the cloud. (Fortunately, MyGM — in which you control an entire team and make franchise management decisions — has been uncoupled from this online obligation, which practically caused a scandal in NBA 2K14.) Thus, when NBA 2K15's servers are overwhelmed or offline, the real-world drama begins. 2K Sports has created an online status page to give some transparency to this, but it doesn't change the fact that one of the game's principal career modes, if not its best one overall, requires an online connection even when every game in it is played offline against the computer.

2K Sports has been apologizing for its online instability going back to 2011. Every year 2K Sports promises improvement in online support, and every year it seems this game faces the same woes for weeks after release. A patch has been submitted that will supposedly address some of the problems in MyPark, in which players are booted completely out of the game back to their console's dashboard. MyCareer corrected an earlier problem in which a player's face (even scanned) and other biographical data would be lost upon returning from a server outage, but there still are reports of lost data — including Virtual Currency balances. Whether and whenever this stabilizes, the simple fact remains that huge chunks of the game's experience are at the mercy of something beyond the user's control.

MyCareer, the lifestyle/superstar mode that distinguishes NBA 2K from all other sports series, is the most accessible it's ever been, to players of all skill levels. MyPark, for those patient and talented enough, is an ambitious attempt to indulge the gunfighter fantasy of being the baddest man on the blacktop. And the game is wrapped in the most intelligent and responsive broadcast presentation you will see in any sports title, down to the halftime interviews real-life players recorded themselves.

Wrap Up:

NBA 2K15 is the year's best sports game — when it's accessible

If the guts of the game are available, NBA 2K15 is the best sports title of the year, by a New York mile. The design choices at its edges — either needlessly making offline features dependent on online access, or insufficiently supporting the dedicated online modes — stain what is otherwise a role model for all sports video games.

NBA 2K15 was reviewed using a retail copy provided by 2K, and was evaluated in a live environment after its commercial release. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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