Touted as the second coming of Michael Jordan as early as his junior year of high school, LeBron James has shouldered the burden of outlandish expectations his entire life. But four MVP awards and two championships into his storied career, he still has more than his fair share of haters. Most of this ill will springs from the public relations gaffe where LeBron rebuffed his hometown fans on national television and announced his intentions to take his talents to South Beach alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. After back-to-back championships some of that hostility has abated, and NBA 2K14 serves as another step in the rehabilitation of his reputation.
In the LeBron: Path to Greatness mode, players assume control of King James to try and best Michael Jordan's six NBA championships, which is the benchmark many NBA fans expect the Miami Heat forward to reach if he wants to supplant Jordan as the best player of all time. You can take two tracks to achieve this goal - either stand tough in Miami or join LeBron on a "fantastic journey" where he takes his talents to New York and eventually returns home to bring a championship to Cleveland.
Visual Concepts gives Path to Greatness as much attention to detail as the stellar Jordan Challenge from NBA 2K11, creating running storylines and providing contextual commentary throughout the experience. The craftsmanship of these what-if scenarios is impressive, but it comes off as a public relations stunt built to communicate that LeBron's successes should be celebrated by all NBA fans - including the shunned masses in Cleveland.
If you're not a LeBron James fan, NBA 2K14 doesn't bring much else to the table in terms of game modes. The Association mode is showing its age with curious GM AI behavior that offers mystifying trades and does a poor job with team construction. One rebuilding team offered me the center it just drafted number two overall in exchange for a package centered around my backup small forward. The popular My Career mode, which is still a destination mode, is largely untouched, and relegating the restored five-on-five Crews mode to pickup blacktop games is a missed opportunity. MyTeam, which is the 2K Sports version of EA's Ultimate Team, adds another tier of players, tournaments, and the ability to match up your team with a friend's.
On the court, NBA 2K14 continues to improve its game. This year's primary change comes in the form of a reconfigured right analog stick, which now handles all dribbling and shooting moves without the need for a trigger modifier. This system works well once you learn the subtleties of switching between dribbling (where moves are activated by tapping the stick quickly in any direction) and shooting (holding the stick in any direction).
Freeing up the trigger allowed Visual Concepts to surface freestyle passing. Pulling off highlight reel no-look passes is as simple as holding the trigger and pushing the right analog stick in the direction of the intended player, though your success rate is largely dependent on the skills of the passing player. On the other side of the ball, blocking shots is easier, and players defend off the ball move with more urgency than in past iterations.
Elsewhere, the on-court action needs refinement. Players clip through one another too frequently when battling under the basket, balls warp strangely into players hands during some transition animations, and defenses tend to sink too far into the paint, leaving perimeter shooters way too much room to operate.
Like the superstar who graces its cover, NBA 2K14 features an undeniable sense of greatness. Its presentation is the best the sports genre has to offer, and the gameplay refinements improve an already stellar game. It's a shame Visual Concepts didn't put the same level of effort into improving the popular My Career or Association mode.