Basketball is a sport that could have been designed to be played on games consoles. Those of us who inexplicably failed to grow to a height of 7 feet can forget about a career in the sport, but at least we can live out our fantasies via a tightly-clutched joypad. And these days, the prime means of doing that is via 2K Sports’ NBA 2K franchise, which has forged ahead of its only real rival, EA Sport’s NBA Live.
Last year’s NBA 2K16, in particular, caused a real splash, since MyCareer, its main mode, was written by Hollywood auteur, provocateur and basketball nut Spike Lee, coughing up a typically gritty rags-to-riches story. This time around, Creed screenwriter Aaron Covington takes up Lee’s mantle, and his story features Creed star Michael B. Jordan as your team-mate Justice Young. Like you, Young is a highly-rated high-school basketball player, seeking to develop a reputation in college basketball, before becoming a leading light in the NBA and the USA national team.
There’s good news for those who felt that Spike Lee’s story for NBA 2K16 rendered proceedings rather too linear: the story in NBA 2K17 feels more free-form and concentrates more on plunging you into the action – albeit backed up with plenty of cut-scenes in which the dialogue is pleasantly snappy. Before you do anything, you must create your player and as far as his appearance is concerned, you’re given some of the most advanced tools ever seen in a game; you can even scan your face and strip it onto his body. You also have fine control over his height, weight and aspects like shoulder-width. Covington’s script gives you the nickname President (generally shortened to Pres), which becomes a recurring motif.
At the beginning, you also have to pick your position, as well as your “archetype” within that position – for example, playing as a centre, we had to choose between options like 'Post Scorer' or 'Glass Cleaner'. Which illustrates one major proviso as far as NBA 2K17 is concerned, which particularly applies to British gamers: the game makes absolutely no concessions to those who don’t live, breathe and know pretty much everything about basketball. There’s no hand-holding tutorial which teaches you the control system (which isn’t enormously complex, but includes subtleties that let you pull off a huge array of shots with the right joystick).
You can practice your skills in the MyPark section of the game, albeit online, against carefully matched human opponents. But if you’re a basketball-game rookie, you’ll find NBA 2K17 very intimidating indeed and, at the very least, will have to trawl YouTube for instructional videos.
The game’s main competitive online mode is called Pro-Am, and 2K Games is pushing it heavily as an e-sport – so it, too, isn’t for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. Pro-Am has received something of a kicking in recent years in the US, due to dodgy server connections. Happily, that doesn’t seem to be as big a problem in the UK: we experienced no such problems at all. Presumably because over here, it’s very much a niche game, whereas in the US, it is insanely popular.
For those who are wont to automatically buy the new NBA 2K game each year, 2K17 is very much an incremental upgrade: beyond MyCareer’s new story, very little has changed since last year. Small tweaks to animations and graphics render it slicker than ever before, and it was already one of the finest-looking and sounding sports games ever. There’s a new mechanism akin to chained special moves, which lets you pull off even flashier techniques in certain situations, such as instantly palming off rebounds you have won to colleagues. But there’s no radical new thing which marks it down as must-buy for seasoned fans.
NBA 2K17, in line with its reputation, is one of the finest sports games money can buy. It looks and feels thrillingly true-to-life and incredibly slick, and offers an enormously evocative means of fulfilling your NBA-related fantasies. But it also refuses to compromise by catering for those whose lives don’t revolve around basketball. If that isn’t a problem for you, it won’t fail to impress.