The last few years of NBA 2K releases have seen a vast improvement in the storytelling feature of the game. On top of those developments, the graphics and the various packages and modes you can unlock off the court have combined to turn the yearly release into the most popular and immersive basketball video game of all time. It’s all anyone is talking about a couple months before the real season tips off, except this year’s release was a little different.
Rather than focus more energy on the peripheral nuance that goes into providing context and realistic narratives around the game, the 2K developers spent more time on how it feels to play a game of basketball with a standard XBOX or PlayStation controller. Lucky for us, we got a chance to try out NBA 2K17 during a demonstration of the game in New York last week with senior developer Rob Jones.
The emphasis on gameplay this year is not to say previous iterations of NBA 2K didn’t already feature impressive achievements on the court, especially last year’s introductions of “freelance offense” for certain big-name teams who play a certain style: high picks involving Steph Curry and Draymond Green, low-post isolations for LeBron James, “Hammer” sets with the Spurs, etc. all included the various off-the-ball movements of a player’s teammates during those plays. The realism was real, but while these on-court improvements have given basketball junkies one more thing to nerd out about when they’re playing the game, there’s always room for improvement. For NBA 2K17, those ad hoc movements now borrow plays and actions from every NBA team, not just the most popular ones. There’s a lot more than that in the new release, too.
Steph Curry’s streak to begin the 2015-16 season — when the Warriors started 24-0 and Steph had locked up his second consecutive MVP in February — had been a problem. The simple version of what happened: his scorching shooting broke the game. Multiple times throughout our demo, when both Rob and myself were playing with the Knicks, the computer would have Steph pull up from 30-plus feet after a high screen and rip twine. Sure, there were a couple of misses, but with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant drawing attention, you couldn’t do anything about it. This was a video game that felt like a video game, but mirrored real life. That might sound like a metaphysical head-scratcher, but that’s what happens when you’re attempting verisimilitude in the epoch of Steph.
This year, the on-court development isn’t limited to updated player ratings or Steph’s aforementioned outrageous range — that’s, ironically, a more realistic look at his shooting ability. No, NBA 2K17 is more about how well you can manipulate your player with the joystick. You’re not just moving your player into the general vicinity of the basket, but you’re actually controlling how they finish a play.
“One of the things that we started talking about was giving control back and really putting the measure of your success under your control,” Rob told us before we started to play. “Like, literally under your stick skill decisions that you’re actually making.”
Let’s get a little more granular as a way to explain. Back in NBA 2K7, they introduced signature jump shots. After that, every player got a signature attribute that was specific to their play. Only certain guys could do certain moves. I joked that they had to preprogrammed the 100 jab steps Carmelo Anthony does at the elbow before pulling up for his mid-range jumper.
But as Jones explained, once those signature moves “became the standard, we started elevating it to how the AI (artificial intelligence) processes that particular player’s decisions.”
It opened up a whole new set of what Rob called “mini animations.” You know what those are; it’s when you’ve steered a player into a position, hit one button and they launch into their pre-made move. But you, the user, don’t have the ability to circumvent that animation to change the move, either, or add to it, or just totally flip it. That’s the biggest thing changing in 2K17.
“Let’s say you start this little cool move and you want to break out at that moment in time,” Jones says. “The animation had launched and there were specific branch points where you could get out, but as a user, you wanna get out when you want to get out. This year, we took all of that — what we felt like — canned stuff and was (sic) like look: ‘as a user, you can still recreate it.’ The animations that make up that guy’s dribble package, are signature. But if you wanna create that situation that he specifically does, it’s on your stick skills.”
That emphasis on a user’s “stick skills,” specifically how they’re able to move their player in a fashion similar to how they would in real life, is now augmented. You are controlling all of the player’s movements instead of just most of them. There’s no jumping off point where you’re left the manipulations of what they’ve already programmed for that player at that time in the game.
“Going to the basket, we never had full control over ‘hey, I wanna finish going around you to the left, or I wanna finish going around you to the right. Or I want to go right through you. Or I want to finish with my left hand even though I’m on the right side.’” Rob said. “A lot of this control is what we’re giving you this year.”
That’s not all. Shooting has also become something a user has more control over.
“We’re making it where your release time is sensitive,” said Rob.
Most games only do release stuff on jump shots. Jones compared it to pulling a bow and arrow: you pull it back to the right tension and then release it. That release timing has always been there for NBA 2K jump shots, but now they’ve added aim, so “you can actually aim left-right on the shots.”
This is all very smooth, though. Throughout Rob’s entire explanation, I kept mentioning how complicated this all sounded. Just playing basketball in real life, players are inundated with a multitude of variables they have to take into account before making their next decision with the ball or where they want to stand, even. But, even for a relative (at least to our readers) plebe at 2K, this increased player agency all fit into the flow of the game. You’re not second-guessing your on-court decisions as much as you might think. Even those who are new to the game.
For example, I was able to throw a pocket pass to Joakim Noah at one point after a screen on the right side, and his shot fake and pivot into a left-handed layup on the opposite side of the basket looked and felt instinctual. Before, it probably would have gone into a pre-made animation. This happened within scope of the game, even though I couldn’t tell you exactly what I did with the sticks. Anyone who has ever played 2K will be able to differentiate the improved game play right from the tip.
The best part about basketball is the flow. At its pinnacle — like the regular season ’15-’16 Warriors, or the Spurs in the 2014 Finals — the offensive flow in basketball is like a carefully orchestrated symphony concerto crescendoing into a made basket. Now 2K has made that flow even more pronounced. You’re not getting stuck in seemingly anachronistic synthetic animations that can take away from the back-and-forth battles the best 2K matchups produce.
As Rob summed it up, “Now every player has full control over what he (she) sees.”