Review: NBA 2k16

NBA 2K16's core of robust, sharp mechanics, true-to-life presentation, and thoughtful game modes is, unfortunately, let down by technical issues and questionable micro-transaction implementations. While many of 2K16’s online modes are enjoyable, a substandard matchmaking system frequently results in wait times comparable to the games themselves. Players who are lucky enough to connect to an online match may find themselves facing a serious disadvantage if they haven’t put hundreds of hours or tens of dollars toward the game’s Virtual Currency. These issues get compounded by long loading times and a considerable performance hold-up compared to last year’s iteration. Despite its satisfying gameplay, these inconveniences make NBA 2K16 difficult to fully recommend.
Review: NBA 2k16
Date published: Oct 18, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: This review was submitted with the following advisory regarding a potential influence on the review: "I follow NBA 2K developer Eleftherios "Leftos" Aslanoglou on Twitter. I gave him advice on a monitor once. Save for a joke about NBA 2K's notorious soundtrack censorship, this is the extent of our relationship."

NBA 2K16 is Visual Concepts’ latest annual installment in the 2K Sports-published NBA 2K franchise. In addition to adding several new game modes, 2K16 seeks to refine the core gameplay and presentation of last year’s iteration. Given both the wide array of modes and solid gameplay that existed in 2K15, Visual Concepts’ effort this year can definitely be called ambitious. However, while the core of NBA 2K16 is a robust and detail-oriented simulation of NBA basketball, not everything it tries to do is a slam dunk.

Great improvements have been made to the mechanics

Right away, it’s clear that 2K16 has experienced a massive improvement in on-court gameplay when compared to its predecessors. On offense, the off-ball movement by AI-controlled players is superb, with players making shrewd reads to get open and setting smart screens and picks to free up their team-mates for open shots. The revamped shooting mechanic now makes it possible, if improbable, to miss a shot with a perfectly timed release, emphasizing team play and smart shot selection and adding a much-needed deterrent to going the basketball equivalent of Rambo, spamming shots with highly rated players. Unlike previous iterations of the game, smart offensive play-calling is a fairly reliable way to get open looks, although a more easily manageable pick and roll (a common two-person basketball play) system and the aforementioned AI improvements make it equally possible for players to get good shots without running set plays, provided they make smart decisions and are willing to pass the ball.

On the defensive side, 2K16 strongly benefits from an improved shot-blocking system, in which user timing and positioning is the difference between an opposing team member’s dunk attempt putting players on a (virtual) poster or players swatting the ball into the sixth row. This is a stark contrast from years prior, in which getting “stuck” in animations made blocked shots feel more like dice rolls than heads-up defensive plays. Be warned, however: players who jump to block shots at inopportune times are more likely than ever to rack up fouls.

Defensive coaching has also gotten an overhaul, with knowledgeable players now being able to instruct their team’s AI to employ a wide assortment of defensive coverages toward various players and in different scenarios. For hoop-heads who can tell the difference between ICE-ing and hedging a pick and roll or 3/4ths ball denial and fronting in the post, this level of control gives players the opportunity to fine-tune their team to play the way they want to play. For everyone else, this added level of variety makes opposing teams defend more like their real-life counterparts.

Theme presentation is strong,
however the graphical fidelity is not

In addition to playing like a robust basketball sim, NBA 2K16 presents itself for the part. Color commentary is provided by NBA on TNT commentator Kevin Harlan and CBS Sports NCAA men’s basketball commentators Greg Anthony and Clark Kellogg, with sideline reporting being handled by ESPN’s Doris Burke. Although the dialogue may grow stale after hundreds of hours of playtime, the sheer breadth and depth of lines recorded is spot-on. To illustrate, in a game I played with the Dallas Mavericks, the entire commentary team went into a minute-and-a-half long conversation about the toughness of centre Zaza Pachulia, backing up their points with advanced statistics like his defensive rebound rate. Pachulia is a career journeyman who has never won an award from the NBA for his performance and averaged well under a third of the points per game as cover athlete James Harden did last season (8.3 vs 27.4). 2K16’s pre-game, half-time, and post-game shows voiced by NBA on TNT’s Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal (yes, that Shaquille O’Neal), and Kenny “The Jet” Smith continue the theme of high attention to detail, as do Burke’s post-game and half-time interviews, which get their audio from real-life interviews with NBA players and coaches. With an enthusiastic focus on mimicking how televised NBA games are staged, 2K16’s presentation demonstrates that doing all of the little things right can have a big impact.

Unfortunately, this polish isn't quite as pronounced visually, where 2K16 is too much of a mixed bag to justify its reduced framerate compared to last year’s game. On my PC, NBA 2K15 was able to maintain a constant 60fps at 2560x1440, whereas this year’s game frequently drops to around 40 fps. Many of the player models are exceptionally close to their real-world counterparts, with facial modelling often inducing double-takes during close-up shots and in cutscenes. However, the game’s crowds belong in the Myspace era, including in the first few rows, where general ugliness is easily visible during close-ups. 2K16 also has an obnoxiously shallow depth of field effect during on-court cutscenes and replays, making things look blurry when compared to the wider depth of field typically seen during NBA broadcasts. While these issues aren't enough to kill immersion, the shoddy collision detection system that frequently results in player models clipping through each other sends a stern reminder that this is, in fact, a video game.

MyCAREER mode is hampered by being disconnected from the game

NBA 2K16 spreads these core gameplay mechanics through a wide gamut of single-player and online modes, including the much hyped and revamped MyCAREER mode. In MyCAREER, players utilize a robust character editing system and play through a full NBA career, going through free agency, nabbing endorsement deals, handling press conference interviews, and earning Virtual Currency (VC) for their on-court play to purchase in-game attribute upgrades and apparel (VC can also be purchased as a micro-transaction; more on that later.) New to this year’s iteration is the Spike Lee-directed and written “Livin’ Da Dream”, a roughly five-hour narrative with roughly two hours of cutscenes that are described in the mode’s credits by Lee as a “feature film”. These cutscenes are well-acted and Lee shows off his chops, penning a thoughtful, if melodramatic, narrative that showcases the struggle in balancing family, romance, and business that comes with sudden wealth, stardom, and pressure.

Unfortunately, this narrative is entirely disconnected from the chunks of gameplay that it engulfs. For a game mode that was promoted with the tagline “Be the story.”, “Livin’ Da Dream” places a very narrow definition on who does and does not belong as its star. Player characters will be branded as basketball phenoms and sure-fire NBA stars in cutscenes and in-game commentary, despite starting their rookie seasons with a worst-in-the-league-by-far 55 overall rating and regardless of how well players actually play. Irrespective of the names they select for their characters, they will be referred to as “Frequency Vibrations” – a cringe-inducing nickname with an even more cringe-inducing plot justification. Despite these gripes, the lack of player agency in shaping the narrative comes as the mode’s biggest disappointment, as there are moments in the story where the created protagonist is tasked with tough, nuanced choices and the most that players can do is twiddle their thumbs during the cutscenes that resolve these issues.

After this introductory campaign, the second season of MyCAREER begins, largely ignoring Lee’s narrative outside of occasional nods to its characters and events coming up during in-game commentary and press conferences. With this in mind, there was no reason for this narrative to not be optional or separate from MyCAREER. A large part of the appeal of character creation is the ability to role-play or insert one’s self into a universe with agency, and the remainder of MyCAREER does well with this, enabling players to choose what endorsement deals they take, how they respond to press questions, where they wind up playing, and which other NBA figures they associate with. While Lee’s story is well-told, its mere existence limits the ability of players to, funnily enough, “be the story.”
Players can also take their custom characters online in MyPARK, a mode in which players play two-on-two, three-on-three, and five-on-five street basketball against each other on the courts of one of three virtual parks, and 2K Pro-Am, in which ten players play five on five basketball against each other, with the ability to form teams with custom jerseys, logos, and arenas. Unlike 2K15, finding a match in MyPARK on the PC version rarely took more than a handful of minutes and the courts were reasonably full. When people were willing to share the ball and make plays for their team-mates, both modes were enjoyable, having the same rock solid mechanics as the core game. When people tried to go the aforementioned basketball Rambo, things got more frustrating than fun. On the technical side, I noticed occasional input lag in both modes, but not enough to be game breaking.

Other game modes are fairly stronger

Created characters also star in MyGM, a mode in which players take on the general manager position for their choice of NBA franchise and must keep the team’s owner, players, coaches, beat writers, staff, and fans happy, while simultaneously trying to win games. In this mode, players are responsible for scouting and drafting rookies, making trades and free agent signings, extending player contracts, handling coaching and training decisions, hiring and firing staff, and responding to concerns from various members of the organization about these choices. New to 2K16, every staff member has his own preferences for the way he wants the team to develop and play. The new “Team Style” is the combination of these preferences between all of a team’s staff members. This means that teams will now value players differently based on how well they fit into their organization, vastly improving the realism of the mode’s trade logic. Also new to 2K16’s MyGM is the ability to re-brand and relocate an NBA franchise, giving players the same ability to make custom jerseys, logos, team names, and courts as the 2K Pro-Am mode.

2K16’s MyLEAGUE mode eschews the narrative elements of MyGM, instead behaving more like a sandbox mode by allowing players to control of up to all 30 teams, play as the game’s Euroleauge or historic NBA teams, and tweak a host of settings that affect injuries, free agency, trade logic, and finances. Players can even begin the game with a fantasy draft that forces every team to start from scratch to build their roster. The same improved trade logic and franchise relocation found in MyGM appears here, as do the same solid core management mechanics that 2K has come to be known for over the past decade. Special care has been put into the mode’s staff hiring system, with players now being able to recruit coaches, scouts, CFOs, trainers, and assistant GMs from other teams, as well as have their own staff members be poached.

A different approach to team-building is taken in the game’s MyTEAM mode, in which players build a card deck of current and former NBA players and compete in various game types. Card packs can be purchased using VC or MT, a separate in-game currency specific to MyTEAM (MT also allows players to purchase individual cards in the mode’s auction house.) Domination mode pits players against AI-controlled NBA teams. Depending on how well players perform, their team is rewarded with jerseys, logos, and players from the team they defeated. Unfortunately, its ranking system is heavily-dependent on box-score statistics like points, rebounds, and assists, giving players who prefer a more methodical pace a disadvantage in the rewards department. In Road to the Playoffs, players take their teams online with the goal of winning a certain amount of games to advance to the next rank (and get the MT bonuses and rare cards that comes with moving up). Lastly, the new online Gauntlet mode pits two players against each other in a three-on-three street-ball match, each choosing one card from their deck and being assigned two other NBA players at random, with the winner being rewarded with a chance to make a blind pick from a board of dozens of cards. Given that most of the cards are lesser-valued (like logos, temporary slight attribute boosts, or small amounts of MT), Gauntlet is disproportionately weak in how it rewards players compared to the other modes. Having said that, the solid on-court mechanics combined with the charm that comes from being able to score one’s favorite players made all of the MyTEAM modes an enjoyable experience.

Microtransactions sully the experience

Less enjoyable is the game’s micro-transaction model. As previously mentioned, in addition to being earned by playing 2K16 (or through the NBA 2K16 mobile app) VC can be purchased in-game. To test how this worked, I purchased a total of 50,000 VC for $3.74 during two 75% off promotions that 2K hosted during the game’s first week. Almost all of it went into improving the attributes for my formerly-worst-in-the-NBA custom character, improving his overall rating from 62 to 85. This would have taken approximately 50 hours to earn in MyCAREER mode at my typical rate of about 650 VC per game. Despite making this purchase, I was still typically the one of the lowest rated players in the MyPARK and 2K Pro-Am games that I played, with about half of the players I ran into maxing out the game’s levelling at 99. I was slower, jumped less high, and could sprint for shorter distances than the players I was up against. Currently, players have the choice of playing hundreds of hours or paying for VC to be able to not have a large competitive disadvantage in multi-player.

And this is far from the most egregious example of 2K16’s cash-grabbery. VC can be used to speed along player development, reduce the negative morale of players and coaches, and become owner of your franchise in MyGM. In MyCAREER, there’s enough cosmetic DLC to make The Sims blush, with jewellery, tattoos, sneakers, furniture for the home gym players can shoot around in before their games, and separate categories of apparel for MyPARK, NBA games (accessories like head and armbands), and MyGM. In a particularly depressing case of art imitating life, players can buy their created character a particular pair of Jordan sneakers for 15,000 VC, coming out to five real-world US dollars (notwithstanding sales) or approximately 15 hours of playtime. Jump-shooting, dunking, layup, and free throw animations are also available for purchase. It gets worse – in the game’s Play Now Online mode, where players compete using real NBA teams with the goal of getting enough wins to move to the next rank, 2K sells the wins necessary to do so. Not metaphorically, either: the menu option literally says “Buy Wins”.

The matchmaking makes finding online games a pain

Almost as disappointing is the game’s matchmaking system. While playing online was generally pleasurable, the logistics of getting there in any mode but MyPARK were a root canal and a half. Testing out the game’s Pro-AM mode involved spending over a half hour in the lobby, finding no players, trying again the next day, waiting another half hour, finding one player (the game requires ten), and finally coming back the next day, waiting fifteen minutes, and, at last, finding enough people to play the roughly 30-minute game. Trying Play Now Online involved getting into a match, getting halfway through it, the game dropping out due to my opponent’s connectivity problems, then getting the same opponent in the next game to the same result. In MyTEAM Road to the Playoffs, I was firmly in the lead when the game dropped out, yet after being sent to arbitration, I was given a loss. I still have no idea what All-Star Team-Up mode is supposed to be, because after a fistful of failed attempts at getting into the game, I wasn't able to find a match (If this changes, expect an update to this review.) And when it wasn't broken, it was slow, with Gauntlet matches frequently requiring five or more minutes of waiting, on top of the typical minute or so wait that comes from trying to initialize any of 2K16’s modes, online or offline.

Astute, responsive on-court mechanics and true-to-form presentation give NBA 2K16 an ideal framework to build a phenomenal basketball game around, and the wide variety of compelling game modes would ideally serve as a platform to allow the game’s solid fundamental core to shine through. Unfortunately, as-is, a shoddy matchmaking system, long loading times, reduced technical performance, and an abrasive micro-transaction model weaken a great core game to a tolerable overall experience. There are moments to be had here – being able to play as the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, the team that made me a basketball junkie, and have it look, sound, and feel alarmingly close to the real thing was one of the best experiences I have had in a game in a long time. With a high degree of attention to detail and wide variety of teams, players, and game modes, most basketball fans should be able to find a similar experience.

Regrettably, this high level of enjoyment is matched by NBA 2K16’s equally high level of frustration.

NBA 2K16's core of robust, sharp mechanics, true-to-life presentation, and thoughtful game modes is, unfortunately, let down by technical issues and questionable micro-transaction implementations. While many of 2K16’s online modes are enjoyable, a substandard matchmaking system frequently results in wait times comparable to the games themselves. Players who are lucky enough to connect to an online match may find themselves facing a serious disadvantage if they haven’t put hundreds of hours or tens of dollars toward the game’s Virtual Currency. These issues get compounded by long loading times and a considerable performance hold-up compared to last year’s iteration. Despite its satisfying gameplay, these inconveniences make NBA 2K16 difficult to fully recommend.