Building a championship team is one of the most befuddling jobs in professional sports. You can get everything aligned – a collection of star players in their prime surrounded by hardworking secondary players and a motivating head coach – only to watch the season unravel when a critical player goes down to injury, an off-field matter becomes a distraction, or players don't perform up to expectations. NBA 2K15 is like one of these on-the-cusp clubs. It has nearly everything you could ask for from a sports game, but one chronic deficiency it claimed to have overcome – server woes – once again keeps the series from reaching its potential.
If NBA 2K15 were firing on all cylinders, it would push FIFA as the best sports game on the market thanks to its best-in-class presentation, forward-looking franchise experience, and innovative MyCareer mode. But the decision to tie several game modes – some of which are experienced entirely offline, like MyCareer – to unstable servers that continue to have intermittent outages overshadows the great strides the game makes in other areas.
After last year's continual connectivity issues, we hoped Visual Concepts would take a new approach to its servers. Instead, we're facing many of the same issues, like inconsistent performance in online matches and inability to access MyCareer for stretches. NBA 2K15 also brings new problems to the table, like losing face scans that take several tries with the PlayStation Camera and Kinect to create decent results in the first place. Why that data had to be saved to a server instead of the console is beyond me. Visual Concepts claims this issue is resolved, and as the last week progressed I had better luck connecting to MyCareer, but I still encountered intermittent outages.
However, the revamped online versus experience, dubbed MyPark, is crippled by its problematic structure and laggy performance. In theory, the idea of having a virtual space where players commune to join pick-up games sounds great, but it's downright maddening in practice. I would rather join a 2v2, 3v3, or 5v5 match by simply selecting my preference in a menu and loading directly into a game rather than wandering around a basketball park waiting for others to jump into a queue the same time as me. When you do finally get enough people to play a game, the delays, drops, laggy performance, and lost progress in the ranking system mar the experience. In its current form, MyPark isn't just hindered by minor annoyances; it's downright inhospitable. The other online offerings, such as a barebones versus league and the competitive collectable MyTeam mode, do little to serve players who prefer real competition over games against the CPU, effectively making NBA 2K15 a nonstarter.
On the hardwood, NBA 2K15's outlook brightens. The gameplay is largely improved thanks to a refined A.I. system. Players move with purpose across the court, setting up off-ball screens, spacing to open up isolation plays, and effectively defending pick and rolls. To help newcomers better understand the shooting styles of the various NBA players, Visual Concepts added a new shot meter that visualizes the right time to release the ball. While some may find this helpful, I found it distracting and eventually turned it off because my eyes were locking on the meter instead of watching the court.
Defense may prove the biggest obstacle for newcomers. When tracking a player around the court, it's easy to get drawn into unintended animations, giving the attacker just the opening he needs to make a play. I also saw a player clip entirely though a defender's torso while going up for a shot, an immersion-shattering occurrence I thought this series had left in the rearview mirror long ago. Despite these annoyances, the moment-to-moment action is enjoyable whether you are controlling a full team or your MyPlayer.
The star mode of NBA 2K, MyCareer, once again puts you in the shoes of an up-and-coming player trying to make his mark on the Association. Instead of playing your way into being a lottery pick, this year you have a giant chip on your shoulder as an undrafted free agent. To crack an NBA roster, you need to perform well in a scrimmage for a team of your choosing and earn a 10-day contract. From there, your fate is in your hands.
Unlike last year, which focused on a rivalry between you and a fictional player named Jackson Ellis, NBA 2K15 tries to give you a glimpse at the life of a real NBA player by increasing your interactions with coaches and players. The assistant coach teaches you the Xs and Os of hoops during halftime breaks and film sessions. If you're not executing properly, he lets you know. No matter which team you play for, another player takes you under his wing and show you the ropes. The idea of interacting with a real player on a regular basis is thrilling, but the experience can be interesting or horrible depending on the performance. Some players, like Al Horford, sound convincing. But others, like DeMarcus Cousins and Markieff Morris, sound like they were just going through the motions during the voiceover sessions. Their monotone, stunted performances are bad to the point of being comical, sometimes pausing mid-sentence before resuming the reading of their lines.
Off the court, you experience the highs and lows of an NBA player. Visual Concepts added more endorsement deals to the mix, included some interactions with celebrities, and amped up the locker room drama around your ability to enter free agency after your first year. You can create the image of a villain or a hero along the way based on how you respond during press conferences and post-game interviews. You can even call out or try to recruit players via social media.
MyCareer is much deeper this year, but it still has room for improvement. The new upgrade system, which has you upgrade sets of skills rather than tweaking individual skill ratings, is blind to the type of player you want to become. This is especially irksome early in the progression, when you see points get allocated to post defense and blocks when you're a point guard who would be better served with skills used during defending the perimeter. I also wish you had more control over your character's reactions. Even when you choose the humble option, the voice actor delivers his lines with an off-putting tone. The season-long performance tracking is also broken; despite leading all rookies in points per game and assists by a wide margin, my player was apparently not considered for the rookie of the year award or all-rookie teams. The most noticeable shortcoming of all is the long load times in between games, cutscenes, and crossing over to MyPark.
If you prefer to run a team rather than control an individual player, MyGM is your best bet. This mode puts you in the shoes of a new executive responsible for overseeing everything from finance plans and scouting to training regiments and coaching strategy. Correcting one of the main complaints from last year, you have control over every aspect of the team from the get-go, and you receive experience for every action you take (including winning a simmed game). Gaining experience allows you to upgrade various skills that improve your scouting, player morale, training facilities, or ability to manipulate rival GMs. Unlike many franchise modes, you can't just sim full seasons at a time and expect good results; MyGM demands constant involvement from the user. You must manage personalities, tweak training regiments, keep promises you make to staff members and players, and try to avoid angering the press to the point where they start asking loaded questions.
The systems Visual Concepts has in place for MyGM make for a compelling experience, but some of the disparate elements needs to coalesce before this becomes a destination mode. Too much of your time is spent dealing with players demanding different training regiments, and the mode isn't good at keeping track of what actions you've taken. In one instance I offered a contract extension to a player before I had a conversation about it with him, and was subsequently punished for breaking a promise even though he had the two-year deal in hand. You also have no tools for improving your relationship with the press without throwing someone in your organization under the bus.
The other option for franchise fans is MyLeague, which strips the role-playing elements from the mode experience in favor of giving players total control of the settings. With fantasy drafts, the ability to control as many teams as you'd like, and tweakable sliders for everything from player morale to trade difficulty, MyLeague is a great option for control freaks. It's a shame this mode doesn't include the option to play with friends online.
When it works, NBA 2K15 offers a triple double worth of compelling content, from its accessible but deep gameplay to the deep MyGM and dramatic MyCareer modes. Unfortunately, the connectivity issues continue to box out players from its engaging experiences. Not every mode is affected, but tying the predominantly offline MyCareer to the servers was a poor decision, as was the choice to once again take the court with an underperforming online suite. What enjoyment you get out of the game will likely be tied to how much importance you place on connected experiences.
Server woes once again weigh down an otherwise well rounded and inviting sports sim.