Review: NBA 2K16 Admirably Tries To Change The Game But Only Partially Succeeds
NBA 2K16 takes the drama of sport to a new level by inserting an honest to goodness Spike Lee film into the mix. Does it work? That's debatable but the bigger question is whether the rest of the game is any good. The short answer? Yes. The long version? Scroll down, friend.
- Worth The Time?(almost) every frantic second of game time.
- Things LovedThe game looks gorgeous as you see sweat drip off players; a mechanical overhaul brings the latest NBA closer than ever to the real thing; the studio shows attached to each game are incredibly well-done; MyCareer, MyGM and MyLeague are extremely well fleshed-out experiences with plenty of depth.
- Things HatedSpike Lee's Joint feels like an on-rails wasted opportunity; the game is extremely unfriendly to new players or those who don't understand the nuances of basketball; teammate AI can be extremely counterproductive.
- RecommendationNBA 2K16 is a really great game and a fantastic experience. A lot of effort has gone into improving what was already great and then polishing it all up with spectacle and presentation. It has paid off in a big way. Despite Spike Lee's contribution falling quite flat, everything else about the offers an incredibly deep and dynamic experience regardless of what mode you've chosen. It looks great to boot. NBA 2K16 is fast, intense, fun and ultimately quite excellent in almost every aspect.
- Name: NBA 2K16
- Genre: Not FIFA
- Players: 1-10
- Multiplayer: Local, Online, Asynchronous
- Platforms: PS4, PS3, PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360
- Developer: Visual Concepts
- Publisher: 2K Sports
- Price: $60/ R655 (PS3, Xbox 360), R845 (PS4, Xbox One)
- Reviewed On: PS4
In most reviews I’d start out by setting the scene with the game’s setup, its premise, its story. NBA 2K16 is the first sports game where I’ve had to do this. We’ll get to everything else in a bit but let’stalk about this year’s biggest marketing tool – the fact that Visual Concepts and 2K roped in Spike Lee to produce an actual film which features in the first few hours of MyCareer.
You start with the usual motions of creating a player but then you’re thrown into Spike Lee’s documentary style Joint – Livin’ da Dream. You start out in high school as a promising star who gets his pick of colleges, then gets drafted to the NBA after just one year of tertiary education. After your rookie season you go free agent and can choose three teams to approach.
At this point Spike Lee leaves the building and normal service resumes.
It’s a quaint experiment to change up the usual way this mode plays out in every sports game and serves to humanise this player you’ve created. The trouble is that Livin’ da Dream is the typical rags to riches story you’ve seen a thousand times with nothing of its own to speak of. Despite solid acting and mo-cap performances the story is just too dull to hold one’s interest. It also creates a huge dissonance between what’s happening on the court and in the cutscenes. You’re made out to be some kind of phenom regardless of the fact that you feel like a weight dragging your team down.
There are also numerous occasions where your player is tasked with making a decision but it’s all predetermined and on-rails so you’re just watching instead of participating in this story. To emphasise – the player has zero input on how this story plays out. That lack of agency is its biggest failing. Also, despite whatever name or race you’ve given your player their name in the film is always the utterly awful Frequency Vibrations (Freq) and his family is always African American.
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As soon as you’re done Livin’ Spike Lee’s nightmare you have full control over what your player does including what to do on off-days. It’s a tricky balancing act of forming connections with other players and teammates, training or doing shameless things for sponsors. It all earns you xp points as, does game time, but the effect is quite different. Connecting with players allows you to earn a wider reach ie more fans, while connecting with your team through training and other social activities bolsters team chemistry and so on. It all works rather well and makes up for the lack of control over earlier parts of MyCareer. You feel truly in control of this player as you not only build a career but also a personal brand.
The biggest lasting problem with MyCareer is how dimwitted your teammates can be. On the attack they’re great but in defence they’re a little hopeless, often requiring you to do most of the work and more often than not just barely managing. It’s tiring work given the frantic pace of basketball.
By contrast MyGM feels far less experimental and decidedly more refined. As manager you have total control over many aspects of the team from staff to the team’s exact training regimen (down to each player’s specific training focus if you choose to go that far) to merchandising and revenue streams to the tiniest of details such as unique sounds that play at specific points in a game.There is a lot to do here, almost an overwhelming amount but it’s up to you how deep you go. It feels like a proper management sim. Hell, you can even fully rebrand and relocate your team.
Another excellent mode is MyLeague where you can create and shape your own league with up to 29 players. As with MyGM it’s an incredibly deep experience if you want it to be or are brave enough to let it be. It’s got much the same features as MyGM but in a streamlined manner so as to keep things running smoothly. It also had the potential to be great fun over a period of time when played with friends. Elsewhere online Play Now introduces relegation and promotion in tiered leagues with each win, loss or draw in head-to-head matches. Something that has surprisingly been missing till now.
A constant throughout any mode is some absolutely fantastic pregame, halftime and postgame talk between Shaq, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson. It feels so organic and excellently done that you might feel bad for skipping it. Genuine effort has been put in here and the chemistry between the three presenters could teach real-life sports shows a thing or two. On the court, commentary is decently good and contextually relevant despite being highly repetitive. Of course, you could always do what I do in FIFA and change the language for a few laughs.
While the menu design is slick and appears streamlined, trying to do anything in it can feel a little clunky with controls and options not always being shown or made clear. It often requires users to dig around for things in a system that ends up being labyrinthine as a result of all the options available to players. It’s a symptom of any game that gives players this much freedom and choice but that makes it no less problematic.
Despite this a lot of effort has gone into building a true to life experience around game time and it’s here that NBA 2K16 most notably excels. It has excellent presentation and a real sense of spectacle. Between the studio shows, generated hype around draft picks, press conferences, interviews with potential players or staff and the accurate atmosphere of training; a lot of effort has gone into making NBA 2K16 make players feel like they’re in the NBA and my word does it pay off. Regardless of which mode you’re in, that sense of atmosphere and spectacle is always almost tangible.
You’ll notice we haven’t mentioned the actual on-court gameplay yet aside from precious few fleeting references. Let’s address that.
It’s insanely good but also a little too chaotic at times. As mentioned before, playing as a single player is a tiring affair as you have to single-handedly protect the basket while the rest of your team merely screen and leave sizeable gaps for the opposition. The basic controls are easy enough to get a handle on but knowing how and when to use them is often a challenge given just how fast the game moves. Your best bet is to control possession as much as possible or else else you’ll need to defend like hell and attack with a blazing counter on the turnover.
It’s an intense experience with a startling level of detail if you stop to notice it all. Aside from improved character models over last year’s already impressive ones, each of better-known players has true-to-life animations and behaviour in the way they dribble, dunk, shoot, feint and generally move. Understanding the nuances of basketball is the only way to get a handle on the game. Establishing plays, running with them and building any dynamism off of those is essential or else you’ll be chasing your tail and the opposition’s shadows much of the time. This is especially true given the adaptive opposition AI which will start countering your tactics and finding ways around it. Of course, this only works to a degree so it doesn’t become oppressive. The point is that it works.
Another issue is that the ball sometimes gets lost in among the players when you’ve got ten sweaty men bundled into a knot over a very small surface area. This quickly gets frustrating with the only counter-measure being to avoid such situations. A hit and miss approach in practice. On the fly controls such as substitutions, tactical changes or advanced defending such as double-teaming feel clunky and unintuitive, making them extremely difficult to use in the heat of the game. They’re also at odds with how flowing and intuitive regular gameplay is. It would need to be in order to match the pace of a real basketball game.
An interesting set of changes are those made to the game’s physics. Players move and interact with the ball in a very organic manner with the ball just just being a work of art, technically speaking. Furthermore, unpredictability comes courtesy of not only the adaptive opponent AI but also a margin of error. Stephen Curry may have excellent shooting accuracy but that doesn’t mean everything he aims basketward will go in. Even if you’ve timed it perfectly. It makes three-pointers a little harder to nail and means that in order to avoid wasting a play you’ll need to get in close for a guaranteed two points.
Overall, NBA 2K16 tries some interesting new things but the real excellence, its real strengths lie away from its most advertised aspect. This is an impressively well-polished game that builds around a very solid core with all the spectacle of basketball. NBA 2K16 is a truly special experience. Even for a non-fan such as yours truly. It’s something anyone who appreciates quality can enjoy.