Here is a fact that, regrettably, did not make it into my reviews of NBA 2K14 last year. As good of a basketball simulation as that game was, its online servers were also, for many players, practically unusable for long stretches of time. I did not run into many of those issues when testing the game myself for review, but they became the predominant topic of conversation in the ensuing months. 2K Sports' reputation with online gameplay is a spotty thing, at best. 2K14 was not the first game in this series to suffer from busted servers, and unfortunately, it wasn't the last.
NBA 2K15 is another very good basketball game that nonetheless floats between being mildly afflicted and utterly crippled by server issues. Some of its worst problems have begun to work themselves out in the time following its release, but many issues--including laggy online games, server timeouts in modes that in theory are supposed to be offline, and a clunky, barely enjoyable MyPark mode--still remain. There are likable improvements in this year's offering, but not nearly enough of them to make up for what an unfriendly experience the game often proves to be.
It's a shame, because on the court, NBA 2K15 is just about as good as this series has ever been. Not a lot has been changed in terms of controls, but A.I. has seen a significant overhaul, one that's most noticeable in defense. Shots that I had an easy time exploiting in last year's game are far more difficult to pull off, and defenders play you much tighter than in the past. Offensively, the only big new addition is a shot meter that appears below your player. The idea with this thing is to give you an idea where a player's best shot range tends to be, and when the correct time to release is. It's handy, I suppose, but it can also be distracting if you're not used to looking down at a meter when shooting. Once you do become accustomed to it, the meter does become a useful guide for improving your shot quality, though thankfully, it doesn't make every shot you take automatic, either.
Granted, the gameplay has always been NBA 2K's best feature, so it not seeing any major upgrades isn't a huge deal. That said, there are some strange issues I've seen creep up in modes outside of just offline exhibition matches. When playing games in MyPlayer or MyGM mode, I've often found that shots I would normally make with relative ease would just start missing late in games, seemingly out of nowhere. I'm talking about open looks, clean runs through the paint to make a layup, with only the lightest contact with defenders. The kind of stuff you just shouldn't miss. I've also run into a frequent issue in online match-ups with defenses suddenly just forgetting how to rebound. Over the course of several games, I watched repeatedly as defenders surrounding the basket just stared as the ball banked off the glass or the rim, and bounced right to the ground with no one making a move on it. The online game has its share of lag, but this seemed more like A.I. simply finding itself unable to process what it was supposed to do in that situation. I never saw this happen once in any offline game, but it happened quite a bit when competing online.
This is, of course, assuming you can even get online. Though the problems as of this writing are nowhere near as prevalent as they were the week of launch, I've still found online gameplay and matchmaking to be hit-or-miss. If I'm not just getting booted out of the menu due to a server disconnect, I'm still running into laggy games that negate a lot of the fun of playing basketball against other people.
What's bizarre is that those server issues have managed to plague purportedly offline modes as well. At various points, I've found myself booted out of the MyPlayer mode because the game uses the online servers to keep track of the VC (virtual currency) you earn throughout the mode. There would be moments where I'd be stuck on the player upgrade screen, unable to do anything while the server would endlessly try to calculate how much VC I would need to spend on my next upgrade package. That's insane. I understand that part of how 2K makes money on these games is by selling VC, and this is likely an anti-piracy measure, but if the servers can't handle having to do those checks on a regular basis, that's not very helpful for anyone. Again, those issues have become considerably less frequent in recent days, but I'll still occasionally run into situations where I can't even get into MyPlayer because the servers just won't connect.
It's sad, because the MyPlayer mode is NBA 2K15's best feature. It builds on the story ideas pitched in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of last year's game, letting you create your own rookie and taking him on a journey through the NBA that starts on the very bottom rung of the league. Where last year's game presented you as a draftable potential superstar, this year's instead has you as an undrafted free agent, forced to move from 10-day contract to 10-day contract until finally latching on with a team. On each team you join, one of the star players will frequently speak to and mentor you, and this time around those players actually voice their on-screen characters. It's a nice touch that is undercut a bit by the fact that none of these players have much voice acting experience. It's great to hear DeMarcus Cousins and Al Horford actually speak to you, but their flat delivery doesn't do much for immersing you in the experience.
Voice acting isn't the only immersion breaker. Last year's MyPlayer mode had a ton of cutscene repetition, so much that you'd see characters commenting on the same person's birthday coming up four times in the same season. This year's game is less repetitive, but you'll still see cutscenes repeat a bit too often. In my first season, I got the "players have been traded, coach introduces you to your new teammates" scene three different times. Repetition and continuity issues--say, having Doc Rivers join your team as coach, then having a different coach character model pop up in every mid-game locker room scene--are just a bit too prevalent to ignore. It's also a shame that there's not more room for nuance in how you portray your character. You'll frequently get dialogue prompts during conversations, press conferences, and the like, but those dialogue options never really branch out beyond "saintly team player" and "egotistical jerk." Lacking any room to maneuver in-between those two extremes, these moments of choice end up not feeling like much of a choice at all.
One of the biggest changes to NBA 2K15 is how you go about making your player character. In addition to the usual character editing tools, you now have the ability to use the Kinect or PlayStation 4 camera to scan your own face into the game. Unfortunately, its effectiveness is...well, you've probably already seen for yourself. For my part, I was able to get a face scanned on the PlayStation 4 with relative ease in my well-lit living room. In less naturally-lit rooms, I found myself messing with lighting and positioning for upwards of two hours just to get something that looked halfway human. Worse still, early on in my testing, the game frequently would lose my face scans. Or if not the scan itself, all of the head shaping/hairstyles/facial hair options I had set. I'd have to re-do the scan or re-morph the head to make it look correct again. 2K says it's fixed this issue, and in recent testing, this has not reoccurred. It hasn't made the scanning tech any less finicky, though, and 2K's recent social media ribbing over the quirkiness of the tech doesn't exactly give one the impression that they think the issue is on their end.
Apart from the MyPlayer story mode, you can also bring your created character into the MyPark mode. Here, you'll choose an affiliation with one of three factions, then find yourself wandering around a park full of basketball courts to play some pick-up games. That is, of course, assuming you can get into a pick-up game at all. MyPark is the mode I found to be most beleaguered by connection issues. When it was at its worst, I'd get thrown out to the main menu at random, or get disconnected mid-game, which results in you being forced to watch your now A.I.-controlled character finish the online game before you can move on to another one. When the mode actually does function, it's still not very much fun. To get into games, you have to stand on the blacktop in a "got next" area, and wait for a game to finish before you can get into the next one. I might not have minded this so much if my average wait time for a game wasn't between 10-15 minutes--and much, much longer once I graduated to games played in the other, more advanced venues--which is longer than most of the games you'll actually be playing early on in MyPark.
Other bugs and quirks pop up throughout offline portions of the game, as well. While NBA 2K15 looks and moves just as spectacularly as last year's game, it seems more prone to visual and audio bugs than its predecessor. Halftime and post-game interviews with players and coaches are handled using audio from real game interviews, but sometimes that audio simply doesn't load, or, more hilariously, one of the character models won't load, leaving poor Doris Burke to interview a ghost. In other interviews, a random player or coach would wander into frame and block most of the screen. Other bugs are a bit less over-the-top. You'll run into overly long breaks between inbounds that you can't skip through (which I'll just guess is a mask for in-game load times), and sometimes you'll hear commentary fly off the handle over plays that aren't exactly barn-burners. Few of these bugs are especially game-breaking, though one issue that has driven me up the wall is load times. Games and modes typically take a good long while to load up, though how long they take is wildly inconsistent, ranging from merely kind of long to infuriatingly so.
The MyGM mode is, at least, mostly free of any major issues. MyGM offers up a great deal more interaction with your staff, players, and owner this year, and mercifully, the mode is generous about awarding XP for every action you take. That XP translates into bonuses you can spread across the players on your team, player scouting, contract negotiations, and even your relationship with your team's owner. The dialogue written for this year's mode is also considerably better, and less repetitive than in last year's version. A more simplified MyLeague mode lets you play through a team's season without most of the administrative busywork, and online leagues do return in this year's game, albeit in limited, and only sporadically functional form.
When it works, NBA 2K15 is every bit as good as this series is capable of being. The gameplay is deep and rewarding, and its modes offer a wealth of ways to play. But that great game is frequently smothered by issues with functionality. Its best modes are too often hobbled by reliance on 2K's junky servers, and bugs and design flaws are too prevalent to ignore. NBA 2K15 still offers the most realistic version of the game of basketball you'll find on any platform this year. It's just a shame that players will have to struggle against its shoddy infrastructure in order to get the most out of that experience.