Sports games have operated on a similar structure for decades now-relying on yearly installments to bring fans back. While this method tends to homogenize the games to a degree 2K and EA are always willing to experiment with new elements while still maintaining the look and feel of their series. NBA 2K16 is a balance between similar but refined gameplay and novel implementations with the Spike Lee directed and written “Livin’ da Dream” career mode. While heavily advertising this cinematic overhaul, the weight of the game still lies in the other modes, both on and offline.
The new MyCareer mode is a step toward a more coherent story surrounding your rookie prospect dubbed “Frequency Vibrations” from his high school years, through college, and the first season of professional play. The cinematics that envelop the story are well made and the dialogue is most definitely from Spike Lee, for better or worse at times. Themes like inner city turmoil and chances at success are covered and at its high points offer some great commentary on the opportunity the NBA has for a young man such as Freq; at its lowest it can seem like a lampoon of these stories, relying on stockish characters and stereotypes. The biggest problem with “Livin’ Da Dream” is the major disconnect between the narrative and player performance.
Even when under-performing, which with the low stats you begin with stacked against actual NBA stars is quite often, Freq is seen and sold as a phenomenon the likes of which are akin to Lebron James on his debut. Further showing inflexibility in this narrative is the lack of choices short of college choice; after the first season your character is able to hold post game interviews where choices are made, and these could have enhanced the original season. In fact the second season is where the real career begins-it introduces new off day activities such as training and player connections (think Social Links) that can improve your character stats and popularity. It feels as if the time spent with Spike’s story had to be paired down in order to zone in, but this myopic focus makes the threadbare nature of the narrative even more apparent.
Having produced for the new console generation previously, 2K has made some of the best character models and animations to date. Motion capture and audio recordings from star players including Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis (both cover models for this year) are used well both in game and during broadcast presentation and interviews. The televised presentation for this game is reaching an uncanny valley as they approach a better and more realistic broadcast from commentary to graphics and cutaways. This series earns its simulation title on every front. However, the occasional odd glitch will mar this experience and even stop the flow of game; most egregious is when the game is hung up on an opponent highlight screen meant to brief the player on their matchup. Multiple times throughout a career game, the interface on this matchup screen freezes, forcing a quit out. As well, character models can be locked up on other players or even the occasionally rude floor sweep.
In game AI has been beefed up, forcing smart ball movement and using plays to get in position for a well timed shot. Learning this on higher difficulties may feel frustrating to unfamiliar players, but the reward is a satisfaction with each shot made, each game won. While flush with in game interface and tutorials, there is no dedicated training mode that can hand hold players through each and every system. This could have helped beginners understand just how many ways there are to move the ball, shoot, or defend and feels like a crucial piece to welcoming new players.
The Career mode in the end does very little to entice either new players or reward returning fans. The core game is still fantastic to play, and there are more than enough modes online and off that will keep things fresh. If you are interested in jumping in to this series, this is a fine outing and the most polished experience on this generation. Lace up, warm up, and throw down.