NBA 2K14 review: Swear fealty to King James

For the last few years, the NBA 2K series has taken great care to show reverence and respect for the sport's past, highlighting the greatest accomplishments and players to set foot on the hardwood. It began with NBA 2K11, which brought Michael Jordan to the forefront. Then NBA 2K12 gave us legendary match-ups to play, replete with historical presentation cues and visual fidelity. Then NBA 2K13 gave us ... Jay-Z.

This year, NBA 2K14 tries something a little different. By attaching LeBron James, NBA 2K14 attempts to look forward and provide fans with an outlet to predict the future of today's greatest basketball player.
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NBA 2K14

"LeBron: Path to Greatness" is NBA 2K14's marquee mode. At the outset, it provides players with a choice: Will LeBron sign a new contract with the Heat or move on to greener pastures? The latter choice sees King James moving on to the New York Knicks, where he plays alongside Dwight Howard, and eventually he'll even return to Cleveland, where he started his career, to once again play with the Cavaliers.

The mode itself is a great antithesis to NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge mode, where players virtually relived Jumpman 23's greatest conquests. "LeBron: Path to Greatness" also presents other interesting scenarios, such as Kobe struggling to avoid retirement as long as he possibly can, and a crop of young talented upstarts – imagined by developer Visual Concepts – who want to take a run at King James. Playing an imagined timeline of LeBron's future is way more entertaining than simply daydreaming about the Hall of Famer's career, and Visual Concepts presents an equal number of believable and embellished situations I won't bother spoiling. The only downside is that if you're not really a fan of LeBron, or if you're indifferent to his career, this mode will hardly entice.

NBA 2K14 review Swear fealty to King James
Thankfully, there are a glut of other returning time-sinks available in NBA 2K14. The Association is as competent a dynasty mode as it has been for the last few years, allowing you to live out your dream as a team owner and guide your custom squad to success (online or off). My Career, a mode where you can create your own rookie and make a go at having an NBA career, returns yet again. You still start out in the rookie game, get picked up by a team and work to establish a role within the context of your team and the league overall. Save for the benefits of the improved controls (more on that in a bit), this mode – which was the big draw in NBA 2K13 – feels only incrementally improved. While it's still fun to usher your virtual baller on to success, the awkwardly-voiced pre-draft interviews and other presentational flubs that have been glaring the last few years are all there, unchanged. So if you did all that in NBA 2K13, you may be soured on the idea of doing it all again.

The trading card mode My Team, the NBA 2K series' answer to EA's popular Ultimate Team variants, is expanded to now offer tournaments, online play and greater customization options for your virtual group – much of which wasn't available to test, as 2K's servers still aren't available. While last year's inaugural attempt was commendable, I'm anxious to see how this has evolved come launch day on October 1.

Crews – essentially online clans you can form with friends – also make a return to the series in NBA 2K14. Finally, Euroleagues – a collection of 14 European teams – makes its debut this year, letting you pit NBA superstars against the top talent abroad.

NBA 2K14's controls have also been tweaked yet again. Building on the foundation laid in NBA 2K13, the multi-purpose pro stick acts as both a movement modifier and as a shot stick, though it's been simplified in NBA 2K14. Rather than holding a modifier button to initiate complex moves with the pro stick, now you can simply do the moves without the modifier; holding the stick in one direction will initiate the shot animation. It feels much more organic and less cumbersome in NBA 2K14. You can pull off a surprising number of flashy moves with simple quarter-circle movements on the right analog stick.

That modifier button now lets you quickly pass by flicking the pro stick in the direction of a teammate. This simple addition creates some exciting no-look plays and the like, but depending on the skill of the player who's doing the passing and how thick the defense is, it's easy for a noble intention to quickly turn into an embarrassing turnover or bumbling out-of-bounds dish. Ultimately, I found the risk well worth the reward and my most memorable moments with NBA 2K14 came from capitalizing on this new pass function.

It's these improvements that make NBA 2K14 so much more rewarding over last year's game. By simplifying the pro stick, Visual Concepts has created a more responsive experience that feels smooth. The awkward animations and start-and-stop nature of past games is non-existent here, replaced by a more thoroughly engrossing representation of the sport. And, at times, NBA 2K14 looks so good that it's easy to mistake it for the real thing.

NBA 2K14 will never make me a better athlete, but it sure makes me feel like a superstar. It's the finest simulation of basketball out there and this year's entry in the series is bolstered by smart and simple additions. The controls are more refined and intuitive, and "LeBron: Path to Greatness" presents an interesting series of "What if?" scenarios that will undoubtedly provide fans even more fuel for discourse.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of NBA 2K14, provided by 2K Games.

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