The NBA 2K series has had a stranglehold on the video game basketball market for years, delivering a level of quality that noone has rivaled in nearly two decades — NBA 2K releases year-in and year-out as the only viable option for hardcore hoops fans. It’s not hard to see why in the end product. Few corners are cut, the game delivers impressive visuals and presentation, best-in-class gameplay, and there are plenty of modes to sink your teeth into as well. NBA 2K17 delivers another impressive sports package for the basketball enthusiast. In fact, little has changed from last year’s game and last year’s game was a very good one baring a throwaway mode in Spike Lee’s ‘Livin Da Dream’ single player story.
We’re kind of in a sweet spot with a lot of sports games at this point in the console generation. The games are incredibly polished at this point, but very little is changing from year to year. NBA 2K17, much like Madden 17 when released earlier this year, is a refinement to last year’s product with only a handful of things you can look at as big changes for the series. A new focus on defense is the biggest gameplay change you can put your finger on. Player animations have been steadily improving over the last few years, and the level of nuance that distinguishes them has never been more noticeable than in this year’s game. On the court NBA 2K17 is best in class. If you’re just looking for straight-up hoops action, you can look no further. It’s when you start to look at everything that surrounds this game, the many modes that focus on microtransactions and virtual currency, is when you start to see business decisions that are starting to take away from the fun of the game.
For fans of the series, NBA 2K17 builds on the robust base of last year’s game. New gameplay additions are indeed numerous. Timing mechanisms have been included for all shots in the game. This includes jump shots, lay-ups, post moves, and more. The goal here is that there is some sort of skill required for any shot that you take, and as players get better, or more familiar with each player in the game, their skill set can improve. Learning the nuance of each and every player in the game certainly offers a level of depth that no other sports game offers. While casual players can still play the game using the standard button inputs, the “pro stick” has been altered to make shooting feel more skillful. For higher level players, accurate use of the shot stick will result in more made shots. It gives players who master the pro stick shot mechanic a little edge over those who don’t. Visual Concepts walks a fine line here, using the shot stick is difficult to master and requires plenty of practice. That practice results in more accurate shots, especially on the higher difficulty settings. There’s a risk reward there for those that really dig into the meat of the game.
Defense has also been re-tooled for this year’s game. The steal system relies on many different factors, and it’s much easier to strip the ball from weak ball handlers, or players that aren’t protecting the ball. It’s impact has been divisive, but the bottom line is that steals are easier than ever before. Again, Visual Concepts walks a fine line in this department as well. Offering up more steals, but it doesn’t quite feel overpowered, especially against seasoned players or upper level AI. On either side of the ball, it’s hard to point at a year for the series where the on the court gameplay has felt or played better than in 2K17.
NBA 2K17 offers a wide variety of ways to play the game. Single player modes allow you to simply play against the computer AI on numerous difficulty settings. You can takle My Career mode, which has you creating a player and taking them from the high school level, through college, all the way to the NBA Hall of Fame. My Career has been notoriously laden with cheesy dialog over the years, with last year’s game being the jewel in the cheese crown. This year, this mode seems a little more palatable than others. One of NBA 2K17’s deepest modes, the My Career mode allows for deep customization of your player. You can custom tailor your abilities, skill-set, clothing, accessories, animations, and many more customization features. Even the facial scanning method that 2K uses in this year’s game works well, moving away from the system camera and pushing players to the NBA 2K app for better results.
My Team, Visual Concept’s answer to EA’s “Ultimate Team” game mode has been around for a couple of years and returns in NBA 2K17. This mode has single and multiplayer modes offering players challenges to earn card packs to build a team. Players must manage team contracts to keep their squads stacked with talent. Playing the mode has players earning My Team currency which can be used to purchase card packs with random players, abilities, and other items. There’s also an Auction House where team owners can go to pick up players/items if they don’t want to gamble on packs. We’ll talk about it more later, but both the My Team and My Career mode are driven by “Virtual Currency.” It’s been a point of contention for fans of the series over the last few years.
After many features were cut at the turn of the new console generation, My League, or 2K’s version of the Franchise Mode is continuing to get back to its robust self. Playable in single player or against others, this mode has players managing an NBA franchise. My League keeps track of all the goings-on of your league, including fake social media commentary to bolster the authenticity. While it might be nice to see things re-introduced like salary caps, the ability to make trades and manage your team over multiple years is certainly a continued step in the right direction for fans of this mode. Visual Concepts’ answer to this is in My GM — This mode has you controlling even more than My League. Player personnel, staff, team finances, are all under the control of the player, but this is a single player mode only.
If none of these modes tickle your fancy and you’re more of a pick-up and play sort of person, there’s also a lot to do in the “Play Now” modes of the game. You can create any match-up in Play Now, which includes modern day teams with current rosters, All-Star teams, International Teams, a huge roster of classic teams, as well as two Team USA teams (’92 Dream Team & ’16 Olympic Team). Play Now also allows you to challenge a random opponent online for a quick game, or team-up with others for an “All-Star Team-Up” mode that has 5v5 online play. If the hardwoord isn’t your thing, you can also take to the Blacktop for street hoops in games that range from 1v1 to 5v5. There’s undoubtedly a wealth of ways to play NBA 2K, even if it feels like most of the work has been put into things like My Career and My Team when it comes to depth.
Which brings me to a point of contention with NBA 2K17, something that sits at odds with the game’s incredible gameplay and presentation. Virtual Curency, NBA 2K17’s main source of progression for it’s standout modes is feeling as pervasive as ever. My Career and My Team are tied to virtual currencies, currencies that are conveniently available for purchase in-game. Microtransactions aren’t anything new for the series, in fact, just about every sports game has them at this point. With 2K17 it’s hard to shake the feeling that these modes are designed with that in mind, and at times they feel incredibly grind intensive. I get that many people want a game that they can really sink their teeth into and some time with, but the progression of your player and team in the aforementioned modes feels like it was made deliberately slow and tedious to usher you into buying virtual currency. Doing the math on it, it would cost you either hundreds of dollars or hundreds of hours to fully level a character in My Career given the options available to you.
It takes a lot of fun out of these game modes, especially My Career. 2K does offer many ways to earn currency, like using the NBA 2K app, or completing challenges in the game, but that doesn’t help much at all. The economies of the system are priced in a way that you can’t avoid these modes feeling like a free-to-play grind. It doesn’t help that they start you out at the very bottom of the ladder in NBA 2K17. Your created character isn’t much fun to play with at the very beginning of the mode and you don’t have all that much to work with in terms of currency needed to improve them. Add to that some ridiculous design decisions that has you having to wait through multiple loading screens for practice sessions and advancement of your character, and it’s almost feels like they deliberately structured these modes in a way that has you questioning whether virtual currency would be a better use of your time. I mean, they’re selling virtual gatorade at this point that will temporarily boost your character’s stats. We’ve come a long way in terms of virtual currency and its use in games, and NBA 2K17 might have the most egregious use of microtransactions than any game on the market today. My Team, while also using Virtual Currency as a back door for a progression fast track, doesn’t feel quite as bad as My Career. The Auction House helps make this feel a little better, instead of having to rely on the RNG from the card packs to earn the players you want. Selling cards you don’t want or have duplicates of, can also have you earning currency to build your team how you wish. Plus there’s more to do, you can play challenge modes to earn My Team currency or play against others online on both the blacktop or hardwood.
One problem that NBA 2K has had over the years is in their online connectivity. There haven’t been many smooth launches for this series. If it’s not one mode having issues, it’s been another. Last year was the first in recent memory that didn’t have some sort of online issue at launch. It appears that 2K has righted the ship in that regard, at least during the “Early Tip-Off.” Having played extensive through the many online modes of the game, I didn’t encounter any connection issues across any of the modes. This included All-Star Team-up, My League online franchises, My Team, or general online play. Of course these things can change, and my experience with the game on Xbox One might not be representative of all players on Xbox One or any other platform for that matter. We’ll update this review if anything changes on that front, but for now we’ll give 2K a thumbs up for a smooth online launch for the second year in a row.
Hands-down NBA 2K17 offers the most authentic, best looking, best playing hoops game on the market today. This year’s game doesn’t disappoint on that front, not one bit. Its multitude of modes and gameplay refinements make it worth picking up for basketball fans. Digging into its deeper modes, however, like My Team and My Career can be frustrating due to design decisions that have obviously been used to push players into spending more money once they’ve stepped through the front door. The good news is, you don’t have to play these modes to enjoy NBA 2K17. There’s plenty to do, both online and off, that allow you to avoid the VC grind.