Game review: NBA 2K17 – big on graphics but short on gravitas

NBA 2K17 continues to innovate and the gameplay is sublime, but avatars are clumsy looking and the story mode is sadly predictable and fails to build on Spike Lee’s work in NBA 2K16

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 2:04pm

NBA 2K17

2K Sports

3/5 stars

NBA 2K17 is a beautiful, deep game that soars above its nearest competitor. It also illustrates how far sports games have to go before catching up with the rest of the class.

The marquee feature of the latest entry in 2K Sports’ beloved basketball franchise is undoubtedly the storyline attached to the MyCareer mode. Your created player is thrust into an interactive story written and directed by Creed co-writer Aaron Covington. You play the role of Pres, short for the President of Basketball, as you become a superstar – first in college, then at the Olympics and finally in the NBA.

Along the way, Pres teams up with Justice Young, played by Creed star and ironically named Michael B. Jordan. The two budding ballers form this odd rivalry/dynamic duo relationship that is the focal point of Covington’s decent but sadly predictable script.

The career mode builds beautifully on a foundation laid by legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, who directed a much shorter story for NBA 2K16. These aren’t the first sports games to delve into narrative elements, but they have definitely elevated the franchise above everyone else. MLB 16 The Show and Madden 17 are fun ways to mindlessly kill a few hours, but NBA 2K17 (for PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One and 360 and PC) adds a dash of intellectual stimulation to the genre.

NBA 2K 17 developer Visual Concepts has proven it can tell a story. Now, I want it to tell a good story.

Both Covington’s and Lee’s scripts are basic urban fairy tales. Each chronicles a young black athlete rising from poverty to athletic stardom. The players overcome hardships. They slip along the way. They have girlfriends.

I understood that approach in NBA 2K16, as it was the first attempt at this radical new style of gameplay. But I wanted a little something more from NBA 2K17, whose story fizzles out about halfway through Pres’ rookie season.

Why not do something daring? Why not touch on real social issues, such as having Pres be the first openly gay male basketball star, or the first woman in the NBA? Something like that, if done correctly, would add gravitas to the franchise. Something like that would have elevated NBA 2K17 to a game of the year front runner, instead of plugging it into its usual spot in the best sports game race.

Some might think a story mode like that would be too political or wouldn’t fit into the sports genre’s family-friendly atmosphere. But NBA 2K16 already delved into adult themes. A womanising, trouble-making character is killed in that game. Your player gets in trouble for drinking all night in a night club.

I don’t want to beat up on the game too badly. It has a few solid gameplay options, and the actual on-the-court experience is exquisite as always. I enjoyed the 2K Pro-Am, which groups players’ MyCareer stars together for online play. Like similar modes in the EA franchises (Madden, FIFA), you can either drop into a quick game or form a serious team with four friends. You can even compete in tournaments for actual cash prizes.

As always, the graphics are first rate. Unfortunately, I noticed a few oddities – particularly with the face-scanning technology. A mobile app allows players to scan their faces with their phones and use those pictures to create a digital avatar. Sports games have been struggling with this feature for about five years. The NBA 2K17 scans are pretty good, but my poor face was mangled during some of the cinematic cut scenes. I have no idea why, but my eyes started bulging out randomly. It isn’t that bad, but it isn’t great, either.

I also enjoyed the soundtrack quite a bit more. Previous NBA 2K titles featured hip-hop heavy lists curated by Pharrell Williams, LeBron James and various club DJs. This year, 2K handed the rains over to rock group Imagine Dragons, who put together a much more diverse group of songs from a variety of different genres.

NBA 2K17 is a great basketball game, but the franchise has been churning out great basketball games for years. When I saw a young, up-and-coming filmmaker attached to the story mode, I expected something revolutionary. But I was let down.