Two parts slam dunk, one part air ball.
The NBA 2K series continues to reign supreme in the virtual basketball world, and the lack of stiff competition does little to stop developer Visual Concepts from delivering quality releases on a yearly basis. NBA 2K15 reinforces that dominance with familiarly stellar mechanics and an ambitious career mode, but an uncharacteristic lack of polish creates dissonance. Strange technical issues mar the experience and get in the way of quality video game basketball. As a fan of the genre and sports in general, I appreciate NBA 2K15's attention to detail, but at the end of the day it leaves a bittersweet finish.
MyPlayer mode remains the marquee attraction in NBA 2K15, and the game drives the point home with the appearance of the player-creation process before any kind of main menu. The game even allows players to scan their own faces into the game, though the feature spawned some horrific creations in its first week. When it works, it works well, but when it doesn't, we see monsters like this. Despite the face scan issues, it shows ambition that extends to the rest of the mode. The game attempts to present an intricate story in which a player doesn't get drafted but works with his agent and scores a few 10-day contracts before getting a more substantial offer from a team. Along the way he gets advice from NBA stars who lend their voices to the game and add a bit of flavor to the overall story.
The addition of a more structured narrative builds drama and results in some amusing scenes. I also appreciate the game's attempt to present the complete journey from undrafted free agent to NBA superstar. But MyPlayer mode also reeks of terrible voice acting and cringe-worthy dialogue, and numerous binary choices that allow players to be either a nice guy or a jerk, with no real in between. It's a case of style over substance, ambition over execution. More so than anything else, it feels oddly out of place. It's as if the NBA has become a WWE program.
Everything else about MyPlayer mode leaves little room for criticism, though. Controlling a single player and seeing their growth over the course of the season remains one of my favorite NBA 2K-related activities. But there are plenty of things to do in NBA 2K15, with the inclusion of MyLeague and MyGM modes. The latter in particular will be a dream come true for NBA and simulation fans, as it allows players to completely control a team and reshape them. That means they'll meet with the owner, reshape the lineup after injuries, allocate funds, the list goes on and on. Much of this revolves around day-to-day conversations with other individuals, where the player gets some freedom in how to respond to specific scenarios.
The most prominent online mode comes in the form of MyPark, where players can take their MyPlayer character and compete in friendly (or not-so-friendly) pick-up games of street ball. Players can join one of three factions for attribute boosts and engage in rivalry games on set days. All of this sounds great on paper, but standing around for games can be tiresome, and let's just say some MyPlayer characters don't like to play team ball. Again, NBA 2K15 has the vision, but doesn't quite execute on it fully.
Fortunately, NBA 2K15 remains best on the court, and jumping into a regular game is as fun as ever. Player animations match their real-life counterparts wonderfully, and there's a level of weight to the controls that no other NBA series has been able to match. Also, it seems the game asks more of the player on defense in this entry. Superstars like LeBron James and Chris Paul will easily fly past players if they don't pay careful attention to court spacing and pick-and-roll attempts. The stronger emphasis on defense adds a welcome layer of challenge so that "guaranteed" wins aren't necessarily guaranteed anymore.
Though NBA 2K15 does contain some structural issues, they are small compared to the far more glaring technical ones. My personal favorite miscue is interviewer Doris Burke's propensity for sliding to the center of the court and interviewing an invisible player. This happens every one or two games I've played. Then there will be times when the referee holds on to the ball for a good 15-20 seconds while I just wait and wait (and wait). Long load times don't help at all, and there are plenty of them as you navigate through menus. It's not as if the NBA 2K series has never had technical mishaps, but the sheer volume this time around stands out.
In addition, the visuals don't have the same wow factor like past entries in the series. It still looks quite good and Visual Concept's ability to capture the likeness of NBA superstars is unparalleled, but there are spots where the quality dips. The awful hair in particular stands out—the first time I saw Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, I audibly expressed surprise at how bad his hair looks (with no one else in the room). At least the face looks just like him. Talk about a strange juxtaposition.
I go back and forth on NBA 2K15. As a fan of the series, it still caters to many of my needs. I'm the kind of guy who likes to just pick up the controller up and play a game of basketball. NBA 2K15 nails this. I enjoy seeing my created player perform and improve over time. No problem. But then I see the needlessly boisterous MyPlayer narrative and a bevy of technical issues and wonder why the series has taken a step back. NBA 2K15 retains the title of best basketball video game, but it's a far less impressive title this year.