The NBA 2K series is perennial success in Australia and New Zealand. With little fanfare, the game is released here each year, and each year, the game accumulates more sales in these two countries at the bottom of the world than it does in any of the other, much larger territories outside of the US.
We love basketball, and for many years 2K and Visual Concepts have produced the preeminent videogame licensed by the NBA. That is itself another remarkable feat when one considers that EA Sports is the publisher and developer of record for nearly every major sporting code in the world.
2K won’t cede an inch when the next generation of consoles are released this month. NBA 2K14 next-gen is no glorified texture pack pushed out to placate to the early adopter set. It is a new game entirely, built on a new engine, using new physics, newly captured motions and new facial animations from nearly all NBA players.
NBA 2K14 next-gen is built on a new engine called Eco Motion. In the next generation, one of the greatest opportunities for developers to deliver more realistic environments is to display more imperfections.
We’ve all navigated games that are somehow too clean, too neat and too symmetrical. In NBA 2K14, hundreds of minor blemishes, from scuff on the backboards to dirt on the lenses, are all carefully applied.
The dozens of component materials that go into creating professional in-ground hoops are all separately modelled, and each material also has its own light refraction index rating. There’s a slavish, almost pedantic attention to detail here.
Zoom in close enough on the press desk and it’s almost possible to discern the word ‘Sharpie’ on pens. On players, it’s possible to distinguish hundreds of individual hairs in beards, beads of sweat on forearms, acne scars, and even the mesh on singlets.
Almost all the players in the NBA have undergone facial motion capture for NBA 2K14. It wasn’t always to be so. At first, only a handful of stars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were selected, says Visual Concepts, but when their animations were put in-game and shown side-by-side with impressions, the generational shift became clear, and it became an all-or-nothing proposition. It must’ve been a monumental undertaking, but the game is unquestionably better for it.
Each stadium also has a different lighting profile that Visual Concepts has carefully reproduced by modelling the volume of light produced by the lightbulbs used. Even the LED lights that adorn the centre-court scoreboard are all individually modelled, as they’re an important source of light.
On court things also take a firmer step towards realism. In previous games, players have slid through some defensive animations in order to be correctly positioned relative to the attacking player. The next generation of consoles provides Visual Concepts’ Eco Motion engine with the bandwidth to correctly plant, step and cut correctly.
Ball handling and ball physics are also drastically improved. In the past, the ball would often not spin, and would sometimes not fully complete a more technical bounce animation. No more. Now the ball spins in the palm of the player’s hand, and again as he releases and flicks it with his fingertips.
But perhaps the most significant gameplay change is a new animation system that combines different animations together based on the context of the shot. In the past, a canned animation would run when required. For example, a player might shoot a three-pointer, splay his feet upon landing and keep his arm extended as he watches the ball travel towards the hoop. Another animation might see the player throw his arms wide after release, and take a small bouncing step back to balance himself. With the new animation synthesis made possible with Eco Motion, a real-time mix of two or three different animations is now possible, based on the context of the shot.
2K14 is underpinned by many of the same features that have propelled the NBA 2K series to its position of total dominance over basketball videogaming.
Of particular note is NBA Today, a partnership with NBA.com that delivers news and highlights, and updates player stats in-game daily in order to keep the game current.
NBA 2K14 looks set to come together as a complete package. It is easily one of the best launch titles for both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and so far, and the only must-have sports game on next-gen.