The last time 2K Sports provided console launch titles was with NBA 2K6, an effort that blew away what NBA Live 06 had done on the Xbox 360 and raised the expectations of sports. History looks to repeat itself with NBA 2K14, but some fans may be interested in what the game is able to accomplish on the prior hardware generation. Despite record-selling numbers for the new machines, there are still millions of console owners who haven't made the transition yet. For them, NBA 2K14 remains a great game, even though it's released during the dreaded game transition period.
Visual Concepts has always toyed around with highlighting one new mode every year to renew the franchise focus, and this year, it decided to do a story mode. Path to Greatness revolves around cover athlete LeBron James and how his contract with the Miami Heat will be up by the end of this season. While the main goal is to help him get more championship rings than Michael Jordan by the end of his career, you're given the choice of two different paths. The first is to simply let LeBron resign from the Heat, an easy and straightforward approach.
The other choice is more exciting, as you make him a journeyman of sorts, going from team to team as he reaches for that elusive goal. It is here that the developers decided to let their fantasies go wild. James' decision sparks other teams to aggressively go for their own Big 3 in hopes of championship gold, creating some wild teams. It also gave the developers the chance to create a movie-like story with a new rookie proclaiming himself the new LeBron. The mode ends in a much-anticipated matchup between King James and the contender to the throne.
No matter which path you choose, the game won't force you to play every game for every season of the hypothetical career. Instead, it highlights key games in each season, like first-time meetings with new player combinations, playing through injuries, or big playoff or championship rematches in the regular season. Each game comes with goals, such as pulling off triple doubles by a certain quarter or winning the game with a particular point threshold. Interestingly, failure to accomplish a goal forces you to replay that game to get it right instead of simply letting you go down an alternate path to the final goal.
The mode goes a long way toward making NBA 2K14 exciting for very casual fans of the sport. However, the choice of subject matter is a point of contention for players. Since The Decision, when he made it known that he intended to leave Cleveland for Miami, LeBron has been a divisive figure in the NBA. While few doubt his talent, a number of fans simply hate his guts due to his perceived arrogance. With a mode that glorifies him, even in a fictional state, a number of players may not even try the mode — especially since they can't make him fail the important games and go into retirement.
Aside from Path to Greatness, there isn't anything new as far as modes are concerned. The game might force you to create a player the first time you boot it up, but the process for MyPlayer remains the same, including shoes with NikeID.
The Association returns with offline and online modes, but it's largely the same as before, with no new choices or options. Playoff, Practice and Season modes also return, and Blacktop lets you play pick-up games with any squad size and a relaxed rule set. NBA Today lets you play any game the league is playing for that day, with the most up-to-date rosters possible. MyTeam is 2K's version of EA's Ultimate Team mode, and MyCareer lets you take your created player from draft pick all the way to retirement. Also, everything still revolves around the game's Virtual Currency setup, where you can earn for doing various things like winning games so you'll have "money" to spend on gear for your player.
To that end, players may start to feel like the series has reached a stopping point in the current generation of systems. Throughout the years, new modes were introduced, and most of these modes have received some tweaks along the way. You aren't getting that here, as the modes play out just like they did in last year's version, with both good and bad points intact. They're still solid, but in next year's version, if only one major mode is introduced while everything else remains the same, you'll know the series is running on cruise control as the focus shifts to the new consoles.
As far as gameplay is concerned, the series has seen some tweaks that change the game. Defense has been beefed up significantly to the point where bad passing will be met with costly turnovers. Players stick to their men diligently and rarely create open lanes for others to get an easy dunk. Steal attempts are more forgiving than in the past, but ball handling has been tightened up to the point where skill takes precedence over luck when trying to hack the ball away. On the flipside, increased sensitivity in collision means you'll see more kicked balls than before when two players are within close proximity.
On offense, play-calling is made a little easier by using the left bumper to call up appropriate plays for the moment. It doesn't serve as a replacement for the other on-the-fly play-calling system in the game. Those who are acclimated to that mechanic can still use it, but for those who want a little strategy without going too deep, this is a nice alternative. The other new mechanic is a more nuanced passing system using the right analog stick. Using it in conjunction with the left trigger allows your player to different passes, including no-look passes, just like the big playmakers. While risky, it provides the opportunity for big plays and acts as something of a counterbalance to the beefed-up defense in the game.
The last tweak is in the teams you can select. Last year's USA Dream Teams are long gone, replaced with European League teams. The addition of these teams comes with authentic arenas, audio and players. They feel like a novelty, but they're a welcome addition, especially since they aren't underpowered when compared to the NBA teams. The game also marks the return of the legendary teams from NBA 2K12, giving you another chance to make up fantasy matches between the best ballers of yesteryear and today.
Of all the sports games on the market today, NBA 2K14 probably has the strongest sound component of all. The commentary team has been around for some time, but all of the dialogue feels fresh. The individual pieces flow very smoothly, and the conversation and inside jokes feel more natural than the commentary in other sports titles. This is especially true when it comes to the Path to Greatness mode and commentary for European teams. The crowds react accordingly by going very silent, booing during away team runs and cheering during home team runs. Get into a situation in the final minutes of the fourth quarter with a two-point differential, and you can expect the place to go nuts. During free-throw shots, you can always hear a heckler loud and clear. Like the past few years, the soundtrack remains quite varied in terms of genre. The expected pop hits from Daft Punk and Robin Thicke are here, along with heavily censored stuff from guys like Nas and Drake. Appearances by Phil Collins and Coldplay, while seemingly out of place, end up working just as well.
The only weak parts of the audio involve Adam Silver and LeBron James. For Silver and his first half-year as NBA commissioner, hearing him speak at the trophy presentation is bland but something you hope will improve over time as he grows more comfortable in the role. LeBron might have had experience speaking in interviews and commercials, but his introductions to each stage of Path to Greatness sound lifeless. No matter the match, he exudes a sense of boredom in his monotonous deliveries.
Graphically, it feels like Visual Concepts has hit the metaphorical wall in terms of what it can do on the last-gen hardware. In a few areas, there are more instances of clipping and a floating grip on the ball during close-ups of players during free throws. Also, there are still some issues with big-name players looking a little off or younger than in real life, almost as if the team didn't want to work on player likenesses with new hardware on the horizon. The same can be said for the clothing, where you can easily see jerseys floating above the bodies. Replays for big plays also seem to stutter at times, as if the system is trying to catch up instead of sacrificing something in exchange for smoother playback.
Beyond that, the graphical package remains one of the better ones around. Most of the player likenesses are dead ringers for the real thing, and the same can be said for the more prominent coaches in the league. The rest of their bodies also look good, with tattoos being clear enough in some cases to be legible. Their animation cycles are also excellent, with only a few transition hiccups here and there between sets. The crowds don't consist of as many polygons as the players, so they lack an immense amount of detail, but their animations are very reactive to the action. The added bonus of the crowd being color-coordinated during the playoffs and finals is appreciated. Game presentations are just as flashy as last year's, so expect to see a nice pre-game music video montage for both teams and a decent amount of product placement and ads.
Much like in previous years, NBA 2K14 is a good basketball game. It remains the gold standard in how it treats the sport from a simulation standpoint, and it does a great job of besting other sports titles. It doesn't do anything new, save for a few tweaks in the mechanics, and the Path to Greatness is going to be divisive. NBA 2K14 is easy enough to recommend for basketball fans, despite the signs of stagnation for those who are sticking with last-gen hardware this season.
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