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Hands-on and thumbs up with ‘NBA 2K14’ and its new “pro stick” controls

Developer Visual Concepts is on the same annual release cycle that every other pro/college sports sim developer sticks to, but there’s a layer of polish in its yearly NBA games that stands out. They are also very accessible games, offering fun times to the wider audience of gamers that doesn’t necessarily keep up with basketball. The engine driving the core of the NBA 2K series has proven itself to be both powerful and flexible, delivering a gold-standard presentation wrapped around gameplay that evolves year after year into something better than it was before.

NBA2K14_FOB_FINAL_AgnosticWe’ll find out on October 1, 2013 if NBA 2K14 continues that trend, but the odds favor success. We recently had an opportunity to spend some time flinging a basketball around the game’s CG-rendered courts, and it seems like the latest entry’s enhancements on the play side are once again an improvement. This was just a hands-on session, an exhibition game – Nets vs. Hawks – focused on showing off how this latest NBA 2K plays, so we didn’t get to answer the most obvious question about this year’s edition – what does LeBron James bring to it – but we should be hearing more about that in the coming months. 

Story/Concept

Be the baller. The only story in an NBA 2K game is the narrative that you craft for yourself. The My Player and My Career modes weren’t the focus of our hands-on session, but they return in NBA 2K14 with an assortment of refinements and updates. The big one is the return of 2K11‘s Crew Mode, a 5v5 online multiplayer match type in which both teams are completely filled out by created players. There are other new features to the off-court game in NBA 2K14, but again, this particular demo focused purely on the play.

This particular edition of the NBA 2K franchise is in an unusual spot as a transitional game. NBA 2K14 is a launch day title for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but we’ve seen nothing so far of either next-gen version, and there’s nothing at this point to suggest that the focus of the game is changing. Diehard sports fans want their yearly rosters and feature update, and NBA 2K – like Madden, FIFA, and any other hardcore sim you can think of – exists to service that demand.

As for the concept, 2K has continued to find a new hook each year since NBA 2K11 featured Michael Jordan. 2K12 offered a handful of “Greatest games” featuring NBA legends, and last year’s offering was produced by Jay Z. For this edition, 2K brought in LeBron James, who will feature prominently throughout the game in ways we haven’t seen yet. 

Gameplay

NBA 2K14 LeBron

Sticking it to the pros. Visual Concepts introduces the “Pro Stick” in NBA 2K14, turning your gamepad’s right analog stick into a more nuanced control option for both dribbling and shooting. It’s really a revision of how the 2K13 version of this feature worked, with a modifier button no longer required to switch from a dribbling stick to a shooting stick.

The simple explanation for how it works: tap lightly in any direction on the right stick to pull off an assortment of fancy dribbles, or hold it in place to send the ball sailing toward the basket. The dribbling mechanism is seamless and feels similar to how you might deke in a hockey game. Shooting with the Pro Stick feels less intuitive if you’re more of a casual fan, but a quick peek at the control menu reveals a move list that wouldn’t be out of place in a fighting game.

For a basic jump shot, you simply push the right stick in any direction and hold it there, releasing when the shooting player reaches the height of his jump. You can get fancier than that though. Spin Shots, a variety of layups, dunks, and more. Much of this is contextual, based on where you are and how you’re moving, but it’s meant to feel intuitive for those who know the sport well – like the joystick is an extension of the ball player’s dribbling hand.

The same is true for the dribbling controls; flicking the stick around at random gets the job done for more casual fans, but the tools are there for those that would prefer to, say, use a stutter step instead of a crossover. Tricky to pull off, yes, but its the sort of flexibility that serious virtual ballers can appreciate.

Making the smart play. Another new on-court enhancement is the 2K Smart Play feature. Where the Pro Stick is meant to give serious players more flexibility, 2K Smart Play is aimed instead at the basketball illiterate. There’s always an overriding team strategy dictating how AI-controlled teammates and opposing players move around the court. With Smart Play, you’re able to call up an on-screen overlay that guides you through the move and passing routes for the play in question.

It’s fairly simple: once you cross the half court line, you press the L1 button (on a PlayStation 3 controller) to activate Smart Play. A circle appears on the court, highlighting where the player you’re in control of is supposed to be. Once you get there, an additional prompt pops up over another player’s head, this one a proper button icon, indicating what you should press to pass to that player. Keep following these guide markers and you’re eventually prompted to shoot.

Smart Play isn’t auto-pilot. There’s definitely skill involved in moving the players into place and making sure each pass or shot connects with its target. Think of it as more of a guide, an on-screen overlay that gives you a visual indicator of what your AI teammates expect you to be doing with yourself and the ball.

Presentation

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Pretty lights. NBA 2K14 is a sharp-looking game. Players faces have yet to build a bridge across the Uncanny Valley, but everything from the pre-game presentations to the reflections visible on the shiny court surface gleams with an impressive level of polish. It’s something of a calling card for Visual Concepts; year after year, NBA 2K is far and away the best-looking sports game out there. 2K14 certainly seems to be carrying that distinction forward. We’ll have to wait and see how this game looks on the upcoming consoles, as Visual Concepts isn’t quite ready to show the next-gen editions off yet.

Lebron’s playlist. After 2K13‘s successful run with Jay Z in an executive producer role, 2K Sports turned to 2K14 cover athlete Lebron James for some extra behind the scenes help. He’s not the EP that Jay Z was, but 2K had him select the game’s music – and hey, whaddya know… Lebron has good taste. The music disappears once you’re on the court, of course, but browsing through the menus is a pleasant experience thanks to a diverse lineup that includes everyone from Kanye West to Macklemore to Phil Collins. You can check out the full track listings on Spotify. 

Takeaway

NBA 2K14 appears to be on track as another capable entry in Visual Concepts’ annual series. Serious fans ought to appreciate on-court enhancements like the Pro Stick and the amped up focus on technique that it offers. The rest of us, those that don’t keep up with rosters or crunch through daily stats, will continue to find a perfectly competent basketball game that is easy enough to pick up and play among friends.

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