There’s a story rumbling around the gaming circuit today about the difficulty currently stumping the developers of 2K Sport’s annual basketball series. You see, the real life version of Warriors point guard Stephen Curry is currently better than his in-game counterpart, by a lot. Something about 50 points in several games and lots of three-pointers. I don’t know, honestly. I don’t sport. I do, however, play the fuck out of some NBA 2K, because it’s solid strategy with decently varied gameplay.
So, when I — being just a gleefully non-athletic video game dweeb — hear Mike Wang, gameplay director of NBA 2K, agonize over the finer points of taking threes off the dribble, it makes me feel like throwing my controller against a wall. It’s nice that the developers are keeping their eyes on the finer points, but the 2K series has a long history of flat-out sucking to fix, before they worry about making sure Steph Curry isn’t too explosive from beyond the arc.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here
First and foremost, the game is brutally unforgiving for newcomers. There are a few videos you can hunt up in the back alleys of the series’ nebulous menus; your other option is to study the control layout before ever picking up the sticks. Neither of these options is fun, and that’s not even getting into more complicated moves like setting a pick or properly defending an opponent. This reality makes the NBA 2K series hard to recommend to people who don’t already know basketball inside and out. For those willing to overlook this foible, the learning curve is steep as shit.
That’s OK, though, you can spend lots of time poring over game tutorials on the internet while you’re waiting for any entry in the NBA 2K series to actually load. Gamers can end up waiting a minute or more waiting for the game to load between menus. When you only have to render the same stadium with different paint jobs, 40 or so people (on the outside), and a crowd of shitty-looking extras that’s unacceptable.
Maybe that worked in 2001, but this is a gaming industry where I can walk from one end of the Commonwealth to the other without a frame rate hitch. You hear that, 2K? Even Bethesda put out a game with decent load times and I still have to wait more than a minute so James Harden can effortlessly make me look like an asshole.
Can a Guy Get a Decent Narrative?
Not that he needs the help. Those gamers who venture into NBA 2K’s annual MyCareer mode had better not hope for actual quality in the storytelling. The writing for the entire series’ Career Mode is garbage and the player’s avatar is inevitably a cocky prick whether you choose to be nice or mean. “Nice” and “Mean,” by the way, represent the entirety of your decision-making ability in the game, so don’t expect a very immersive experience off the court, either.
Spike Lee himself couldn’t save the series’ story mode this year. Most people would forgive the fact that the story Lee wrote and directed was God-awful. The MyCareer story and writing are always terrible and Spike Lee has long since passed the days when he could be reliably held to some standard of quality. The real travesty is that Spike Lee’s feature film-style take on the mode — which doesn’t allow for any player input — makes the first six hours of a gamer’s career feel like way more of a grind than usual.
Where in games past, players were forced in between games to listen to some super shallow dialogue about being a good teammate or getting over a loss before subsequently making an equally shallow decision about whether to be a benevolent shit heel or an arrogant shit heel, Spike Lee’s 2K joint doubles down on the cliches without providing the relief of being allowed to behave like an insolent child in response (because being a jerk in video games is fun).
The Same, Just Shinier
Even more disappointing, the series’ typically stellar gameplay and overall presentation are starting to stagnate. While this year’s inclusion of some nifty commentary extras was cool, the character models that anchor these scenes are still living happily in the uncanny valley. Maybe it’s the stiff movements, maybe it’s the glassy eyes or the mumbly mouths. Whatever it is, it’s unsettling.
It seems like the burden of a yearly release is allowing less and less room for the developers at 2K Sports to refine what’s already there, a problem similar to the one Ubisoft buckled under earlier this month. Such a tight production and release schedule doesn’t allow for a lot of innovation. While the on-court gameplay requires the least amount of tuning (it’s just everything else that sucks), it could still use a yearly polish or the occasional modification. Of course, you’d need a proper tutorial to introduce a gameplay modification, so it’s kind a catch-22.
TL;DR: I love me some NBA 2K, but if you think it’s designed well enough that the developers can really spend their time pretending to care about one character’s skills, then you’re either deluded or you work for 2K Sports. The on-court gameplay is second-to-none (maybe because the series has virtually no competition), but pretty much everything else about the title is a flaming disaster.