Last year’s NBA 2K14 started with a great deal of fanfare. The intro video to that game treated it as the culmination of the developers’ work over 14 years, insinuating that it was finally the perfect game of virtual basketball. Of course, as soon as you actually got into a game, that insinuation was quickly proved false as NBA 2K14 was, on court and off, a low point in an otherwise stellar history of games.
NBA 2K15 does not seem to have such lofty goals as being the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work. It’s a more humble game, looking to please at every chance instead of being restrictive and closed off. But, does that humility come with actual improvement? There’s a lot of ground to cover, so grab a cup of coffee, get comfortable, and let’s dig in to NBA 2K15 and find out.
Because I’ve written so much about what NBA 2K14 got wrong, it almost feels redundant to get into the litany of ways that game failed on the court. To summarize: bad spacing, poor AI on offense and defense, lack of authentic CPU offense, and sketchy animations all worked in concert to torpedo 2K’s efforts.
Thankfully, NBA 2K15 sees a subtle overhaul to almost all of these different aspects of the on-court gameplay, and the result is the most authentic-feeling NBA game I’ve ever played.
It all starts with the spacing. It was something I touted as 2K’s biggest gameplay improvement after watching 2K’s live stream, and time with the retail copy has proved this to be so. In basketball, spacing is everything. There is only so much room for 10 giant humans to operate, and the way players bunched up last year made many offensive options untenable. Things like pick and pops and isolations were just nonstarters, because neither you nor the CPU would have enough room to operate in order to actually run your offense. Instead, the game bogged down to forcing passes to the rim on pick and rolls or trying to get free for a long jumper.
In 2K15, the changes to spacing are dramatic from the first possession. Players smartly space all the way to the corners on pick and rolls, providing outlets and space for the 2-man beauty that is the pick and roll. Isolations feature stacked corner sets where the middle of the court is wide open for speedy ball handlers like Derrick Rose and John Wall. It was far too easy to guard these terrors in past games, because the help never had to travel very far. Now, the CPU can and will put you on an island with an elite NBA ball-handler, and it becomes quickly apparent that the game has modeled their abilities correctly.
This improved spacing also benefits the rest of the playtypes, as well. If you’re running a screen away from the ball, the entire offense will no longer bunch up around that screen, giving the defense numerous options to switch off and shut it down. Instead, the sets place non-essential players in different action away from the play, offering spacing and a distraction from the action designed to get an open shot. Post ups, even uncalled ones, find players clearing out naturally and aborting cuts in order to give the ball-handler room to operate and making it as hard as possible for help to arrive. Doubling is dangerous roulette in NBA 2K15, as patient players can read the double and find the open man and punish you for it, just like real life.
The game helps out the defense by cleaning up a lot of the animation and AI problems that plagued last year’s game. Last year, players would go to make minute adjustments in their positioning, and these small adjustments would result in exaggerated animations that pulled them out of position even more than they already were, leaving guys wide open just by accident and with no effort on the part of the offense. Even better, the AI which decides where help comes from was also addressed, and helpers coming from the closest shooter (“one pass away”) now have rotations happening behind them, giving the defense a fighting chance when helping on a dominant player. The offense has to work to find the open man, and sometimes the shot it results in might come from a middling shooter left alone by the defense. The defense can actually entice long 2s from weaker jumpshooters by using the game’s robust defensive settings (which, unfortunately, aren’t really explained for less-informed players by the game’s weak tutorials, which we’ll cover in a future piece).
These new defensive settings, which give the defense the ability to set distinct coverages for every player on the offense, are required on higher difficulties, because CPU teams run their offenses much more effectively this year. The playbooks feel more authentic, as well. The Suns and Thunder run more isolations than teams like the Heat and Spurs, and the CPU will get its players into advantageous situations against your defense at every turn. As a user, I found the playbook terminology a little overwhelming, especially as I was playing with teams that I’m not accustomed to using, but the 2K smart play feature comes in handy in these situations, especially considering how the new Points of Emphasis adjusts the plays that come up when using smart play. For example, I was using the Kings against the Lakers, and for whatever reason just couldn’t get DeMarcus Cousins going, so I switched my PoE to play through Rudy Gay, and the smart play feature called a lot more Gay-initiated pick and rolls and isolations. The way these systems work in concert make it worthwhile to constantly adjust your points of emphasis after taking stock of the personnel on the floor for both teams. Is a team going small against your lineup of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph? Play through either one of them, or select the “feed the post” option and watch as the smart play feature exploits that matchup over and over. It makes playcalling useful without needing to study the playbook.
It’s not all great, though. Although the Superstar difficulty on Simulation settings was hailed by gameplay designers as the ideal out-of-the-box mode for experienced players, I found Superstar a bit less fair than All-Star, and Simulation settings don’t offer nearly enough fouls or 3 point attempts by the CPU, and a few too many offensive rebounds by the CPU. It’s not as well-balanced as they’d believe, but dropping down to All-Star and pushing fouls and 3 point attempts by the CPU way up helped, even if it’s not quite there yet. It’s probably something that will require a patch to really get where it needs to be, especially for CPU 3 pointers, because there are AI reasons why those don’t happen as much as they should.
Despite those small issues, the on-court gameplay in NBA 2K15 is refined and overhauled in important ways, especially if you play realistic basketball. There were some early reports about being able to run up and down the court and dunk all over the place, but I’ve yet to really see that, online or off. Of course, it’s still relatively early in the game’s lifecycle, so it’s possible that users will find a strategy that exploits the AI like the 1-3-1 (removed in this year’s version) or the “take-charge” command (toned way down), but right now the game feels well-balanced, fair, authentic, and fun. The gameplay finally matches the visuals, making NBA 2K15 a landmark release even if all you did is just play exhibition and online games.