Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC

Every once in a while in this video game reviewing industry, you can get a little disheartened. Sure, the money’s great and the adulations from leagues of adoring fans can be swell, but you play so many games that just get things wrong to you. You start to feel like you’re playing games for other people and not for yourself, y’know? What out there has been made just for you, personally?

And then you pop in NBA 2K16 and see this:

And you realize that, just this once, something was made for you.

NBA 2K16 is probably the greatest sports game ever made. I mean, I’m not a scientist so I feel uncomfortable making such a declarative claim, but I’ve played my fair share of sports video games and NBA 2K16 is better than all of them. It plays better than the NHL series, it has a better MyCareer mode than MLB The Show, it doesn’t have hilariously game-breaking glitches like Madden. It’s the best.

MyCareer

Far and away the biggest change from NBA 2K15 is the revamped MyCareer mode. Last year you were an undrafted prospect that had to work your way onto an NBA team. It was fun (and it made sense since your created player mostly started out pretty terrible) but there wasn’t that much to it. There was more than other games, sure, but telling your coach you want the ball more didn’t do much other than lower your rating with your teammate (which didn’t do much, either).

This year, MyCareer took a different tack; instead of roleplaying as a player, you create your player and then are inserted into a storyline created by Mars Blackmon himself, Spike Lee. The basketball-aficionado-turned-filmmaker has a long history of creating stories about basketball, chief among them He Got Game.

If you’ve seen Lee’s basketball films you’ll recognize many of the story beats (and he even recycles a character from He Got Game, which was cool) Your character, Frequency Vibrations (AKA Freq) undergoes the trials and tribulations that come with being a pro basketball player. The usual stuff: your sister and girlfriend not getting along, an agent pushing you to leave college early, your best friend blackmailing you over the time you murdered a guy and he covered it up… You know. Normal stuff.

The story is full of melodrama, some of it heart-wrenching and some of it hilarious, and it really adds a lot to your gameplaying experience. There were times a game started loading and I had to remember, “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be playing a basketball game.”

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the MyCareer mode was that you start as a budding high school star and work your way through college before getting to the NBA. You play a limited number of games in each level (4 high school, 4 college) but each game is punctuated by a different cutscene that shows another aspect of Freq’s life. It makes you feel like you’ve actually earned it when you get drafted into the NBA.

After you’ve entered the NBA, things really kick into gear. (This is when your friend blackmails you to fund his rap career.) You play only eight games of your rookie season but believe me, it’ll feel like more. Freq’s life takes a few twists and turns and takes on a Shakesperean quality that is in that sweet spot where it’s so ridiculous it’s funny but not so ridiculous that it’s stupid.

And then you enter your second season and MyCareer gets back to where it was last year. You are a free agent after your rookie year (which is nice, since you don’t get tied down to a franchise for four or five years), and this is where MyCareer’s best innovation comes into play: you don’t negotiate for salary, you negotiate for upgrade points. This blew me away when I saw it and I can’t believe no one has thought of this before. Nobody cares about fictional money, they care about playing for either a good team or their favorite team. But would you be willing to play for the Milwaukee Bucks, for example, if they were willing to give you more upgrade points to improve your player? It actually made my choice difficult, like I imagine it is for a real athlete. Amazing.

Now that I’ve gushed about MyCareer for a while, let me bring up one of the shortcomings: it’s not so much a MyCareer mode as it is a HisCareer mode. You create your character’s look but from then on, he’s Freq. Outside of choosing what college you attend, you never make any decisions: you always leave college after one year, you’ll always back up your friend, etc. It’s a static storyline that most likely won’t hold up over repeat playthroughs.

Also, your family always looks the same no matter what you look like. This isn’t a problem, it’s just funny when I scan my face and then there’s a pasty white guy hanging out with his all-black family. I just pretended I was roleplaying as Steve Martin in The Jerk.

But, overall, MyCareer is a home run if only for what it means for sports games as a whole. Every sports nerd’s dream has been a sports game that plays like Grand Theft Auto but with games in between, and that’s where it feels like NBA 2K is going. I’d love to play as a European or South American player next year, or incorporate practices so they feel more melodramatic. There’s so many places that MyCareer could go and that’s ultimately what makes it so exciting.

 

Other Modes

Are there other modes? Oh yeah, I guess so.

Online play worked much better for me than it did last year, though I personally don’t find playing against other humans all that exciting.

MyTeam is one of those baffling card modes that is in every sports game. I don’t know why anyone plays them.

MyGM puts you in the driver’s seat of an NBA team. NBA 2K asks you to do a lot of managing of egos, which is a fun challenge that actively gives you something to work on during the long 82-game season. Sure, you can beat the Nets, but can you beat them while getting Zach LaVine the minutes he thinks he deserves? It was an interesting spin on a sports career mode and I found myself investing more time into it than I thought I would.

Presentation

NBA 2K16 looks great. Players look like players, the announcers sound like they’re announcing your game instead of repeating canned phrases, and the arenas feel like they’re supposed to feel. It’s especially apparent in MyCareer as you work your way up from high school gyms to rockin’ college arenas to NBA citadels that seem to go on forever.

The music is excellent and also incredibly broad. Madden 16 has 30 songs on its soundtrack; NBA 2K16 has 50, ranging from the 70s through today and covering many different genres and artists. NBA 2K hired 3 music producers (DJ Premier, DJ Khaleed and DJ Mustard) to select tracks and it definitely helped; you get the feeling music was selected because it sounds good, not because it was moderately popular at the moment. I played the game extensively and never got sick of any of the songs, which is kind of amazing if you think about it.

Gameplay

Oh right, actually playing. It’s funny that the actual gameplay for NBA 2K16 feels like an afterthought because there are so many other features to get excited about, but the basketball is better than ever. NBA 2K has the best blend of excitement and simulation of any major sports game. The game plays like NBA basketball and requires you to pick ‘n roll, post up, and box out just like any NBA player would.

I feel like the game has a good learning curve, especially once you get a handle on the playcalling system. Arrows on the court allow you to see the play develop and, as you get used to them, they become second nature. This allows you to read the responsive AI as it adjusts to plays you’ve run before so you can drive where before you faded away. It’s a chess match and you’ll feel rewarded each time you accurately read the opposing team’s defense and nail an easy layup.

The only, and I mean only, thing I didn’t like about it was the change they made to how you make substitutions. But, ultimately, that’s fairly small.

Negatives

Let’s see...I guess the game's name is pretty stupid. Like, I imagine the 20-something who named it was seen as a genius back in 1999 when the series first came out, but now that guy’s 40 and on his second wife and his kids won’t talk to him and his back hurts all the time for some reason and NBA 2K is a pretty dumb name. The series is too good for that now.

What else…

The halftime show only has Ernie, Kenny & Shaq. No Barkley, which sucks.

And, uh… that’s it.