The last four entries in the NBA 2K series have had server problems, but last year's were especially bad. NBA 2K14’s dismal online didn’t just try the patience of players, it cost some game progress and real-world money when patches that were supposed to fix things erased player data instead. Needless to say, it was a disaster for 2K, and after months of frustration, dozens took to the internet to swear off the franchise for good.

This year’s iteration didn’t get off to a great start either, with server problems keeping many offline and annoyed. Fortunately, 2K had the foresight to move one of the game’s modes offline, patches have improved the situation markedly since launch day, and the online experience I had has been largely hassle-free over the past week.

And when it’s running as intended, NBA 2K15 is a thing of beauty, and a strong contender for best sports simulation – it really is that good. Its strengths are many, but foremost is the way it includes many of the complicated nuances found in basketball but somehow never overwhelms the player.

NBA 2K15 review
NBA 2K15 review

The first thing most will notice is the TV broadcast-style presentation, though, because at a glance it looks just like the real thing. This style of presentation is hardly new to sports games, but it’s never been pulled off with the level of polish and attention to detail here. The commentary in particular is a highlight, full of insight and impressive breakdowns of the on-court action.

The halftime interviews and coach chats are eminently skippable, but it’s still amazing they have so many specific soundbites recorded by so many big names. Even the pre-game loading screen is good, with Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal trading surprisingly amusing jabs.

NBA 2K15 is a thing of beauty, and a strong contender for best sports simulation – it really is that good

The crowds are also lovingly rendered, but of course the real effort has been put into the players. Faces in particular are incredibly detailed on the bigger-name players, and the extraordinary animation really sells it all perfectly, capturing players’ idiosyncrasies and behaviours. Movement is natural, with slide-running and long unbreakable animations completely absent, and the ball physics are practically flawless. Even the crowd – usually an afterthought – looks and sounds great. That it’s all running at a solid 60 frames per second at 1080p helps I’m sure.

Of course, none of this would count for anything if NBA 2K15 played like a dog. It does not. Offense is the most fun of course, but not just because attempting is more satisfying than defending. A new shot meter around the ball-handler’s feet conveys at a glance how proficient that player is from that exact spot on the floor, and it takes into account his real-world stats, fatigue, and rating for that particular shot type.

NBA 2K15 review
NBA 2K15 review

The player’s timing of the shot remains the main factor in determining whether they sink a shot, but sometimes the notch that must be hit on the meter is all but impossible to time due to the influence of the background stats. The reverse is true as well – poorly-timed shots can go in if taken from a preferred spot without too much defensive pressure on the shooter.

The dribbling moves – where players make gestures with the right stick in order to attempt to shake off defenders – work equally well, and are a neat way to get in signature crossovers, spins, and more into the game.

Defence doesn’t work quite as well, if only because the movement sensitivity and bigger blocks of animation make it feel floaty. It’s too easy to get out of position and give your opponent a clear lane to the basket. This can be mostly remedied with practice, but it could still use some work. Even so, it’s amazingly fun playing hard cover defence.

The AI is great at both ends of the floor too, generally picking up your player if you’ve been left behind, and rotating defensive assignments quickly if you do. The only time some might struggle is if they aren’t familiar with basic basketball spacing, pick and rolls, and help defence, but very few sports games bother explaining the basics to players – interest and general knowledge is assumed.

MyCareer is a surprisingly addicting tale even the second time through, with social interactions and decisions made between games affecting on-court performance in fun ways

Modes-wise, NBA 2K15 is comprehensive. The expected singleplayer and local multiplayer quick game modes are present, but this year an expanded MyGM mode is available offline, and MyCareer has been fleshed out. The latter – where you attempt to take an undrafted raw talent from obscurity to stardom – is extraordinarily addicting.

It allows players to be built from scratch, and then level several categories of stats RPG-style through the accumulation and spending of Virtual Currency (VC), which is earned across all game modes and pooled under a user profile for all their players to access. In a smart change, groups of skills are levelled together to prevent players simply maxing out one attribute and dominating because of it.

Of course, there are microtransactions, with real-world cash able to be exchanged for VC packs. These provide handy boosts but are hardly necessary – anyone sampling the modes and playing a few seasons will wind up with a superstar without feeling like they are grinding. However, the VC component means that a career started offline simply uses “Points” as currency instead, and this cannot be moved online, where VC can also be exchanged for cosmetic items and even special animations.

NBA 2K15 review
NBA 2K15 review

The amusing plot points of MyCareer I won’t spoil here, but it’s a surprisingly addicting tale even the second time through, with social interactions and decisions made between games affecting on-court performance in fun ways. One example: if you are a dick, your team morale will suffer, but you will also get into the heads of your opponents more easily, which is reflected in their defensive capabilities.

There is so much more to be said about the mode – knowing your position within the team, the way the camera is fixed behind you rather than to the side of the court, the rush of being given a big-name defensive assignment and shutting them down – but there is much else to discuss. Needless to say, MyCareer is engrossing.

MyPark is the opposite. An online mode where you take your player to watch and play pickup games with between three and nine others, it has a nicely-contrasting streetball vibe, but all of the ball-hogging you’d expect. That makes it easy for an unselfish team to dominate, but the mode remains too laggy to be enjoyable, even now the servers are fine. That you must pick a certain city to play in permanently only limits the appeal.

NBA 2K15 review
NBA 2K15 review

Elsewhere, MyTeam is 2K’s version of FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode – an online or offline collectible card game that distinguishes itself with a plethora of interesting Challenges and a cool new Auction House system. You can pay for booster packs but again it’s not necessary if you are beating the Challenges.

There’s also MyLeague, an insanely customisable mode where you control every aspect of your own specially-tailored league. You can be a micromanager and adjust the food prices in each stadium, negotiate all contracts, preside over all free agents, and play as many games as you like, or you can just sit back and watch the whole thing run.

Finally, NBA 2KTV is a weekly live action show that streams directly to the game’s main menu, and features all manner of behind-the-scenes content. It’s a nice idea, but having it autoplay at full volume every time you visit that menu quickly grows tiresome.

Like almost every gripe with 2K15, this is a minor one. The fact of the matter is that Visual Concepts has created a near-masterpiece here. NBA 2K15 is a sprawling, glistening wonder that simply cannot be done justice in even a 1300 word review. It’s so good, even those seriously burned by last year’s dramas should give it a look.