I like basketball; I might even love it. But I can’t play it, and I don’t pretend that I can. I can’t shoot, layup, jump or dunk; so, in that regard, the 2K NBA series has been my conciliation. So I’ve played a bit of 2K NBA over the years – maybe more than is healthy. But every time a new instalment releases, I realise that there are parts of the old game that I still haven’t played, and there are parts of the new one that I feel like I already have.

My issue with these sports games is that they’re humongous. And they’re churned out with such vicious frequency that it can become hard to notice changes between games – rather it just seems that the series evolves with its own sort of natural selection. 2K’s take on NBA was excellent even two years ago. And it’s excellent now. The question is: is it excellent enough to warrant buying again?

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The only major change that 2K17 brings to the table is its career mode. In the past these modes have fallen into two distinct categories: self-centred pseudo stories that exist just to allow players to virtually achieve their power fantasies, or unbelievably fortuitous projects stories that confine your basketball dreams to a cliché-ridden road. Despite my criticisms, MyCareer mode has always been ok, though nothing more. The first model lets us do the one thing that we buy these games for: to play a game we can’t. The second model was rare enough that it seemed just as much like a welcome change as it did a poor replacement.

2K17’s takes the best features from these models, to create the series’ first truly great MyCareer mode. You play as ‘Prez’ – whose actual name, like everything else, is yours to customize – a naturally talented high-school prodigy. You enter the story after Prez’s graduation, and get to make his college choice. You get a short string of college games – the results of which affect your draft standing. As much as I liked this period of games, I’m glad it was brief because the majority of the audience are here for the NBA. It’s excellent that 2K acknowledged this yet still worked to diversify the formula.

Once you’re drafted, things get really interesting. The main reason for this is Michael B. Jordan and his character, Justice Young. Essentially, Justice embodies hard work and determination. He’s there to remind audiences that, for most people, stuff like this doesn’t happen. You’ll develop a relationship with Justice as your career progresses: either positive or negative depending on your choices. Of course, the depth of this relationship depends on the persona you create. And that persona, like the look of your character, can be almost whatever you like. You can downplay the ‘Prez’ nickname if it’s not your thing. But, if you want to play up the arrogance and work the showbiz side of things, the avenues are open.

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MyCareer is punishingly difficult, at least at first. The grading system can be downright humiliating at times. You’ll be punished for your teammates’ mistakes – whether they miss your pass, or ignore an easy play. The grading system would be excellent if it worked properly. Except it doesn’t: your grade can be reduced from almost anything from unpredictable turns of events to your teammates not doing what they’re supposed to. Sometimes your rating will be decreased for no reason whatsoever. And if you’re having a bad game it’s only painful enough that the game is constantly reminding you of your shortcomings, and worse again when you’re being punished for nothing at all.

Similarly you’ll be left perplexed by the shot distribution. You’ll miss what you think are sure-thing baskets and you’ll get others that seem like total long shots. As thrilling as that is, it would be better to have a degree of certainty when taking these shots, considering how missing can have an impact on your results. I also couldn’t help but notice that, in career mode, your teammate AI goes from almost humanly smart to inhumanly dumb in the blink of an eye.

Still, you can live out any sort of crazy basketball theme in this career. And while that’s not really new, the relationship you can build with Justice is, and it’s special. After three assists between your player and Justice, the ‘orange juice’ mode becomes available whereby you can control and switch between the two. Not only does this feature spice up games, it directs your attention and affection to another players. Suddenly – and for the first time in a MyCareer mode – you’re caring about someone other than yourself.

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I never extensively played the MyGM mode before – I prefer playing basketball to playing God. So I was fairly overwhelmed when I started experimenting here. MyGM opens up a world of possibilities, even beyond what you can achieve in MyCareer. You can design your own team, or take over managing an existing team. Whatever your choice, the world of trades is entirely open to you, so long as you can competently manage your team. There are new heights to be reached in 2K17, and there are new lows to plummet to. And it’s entirely on you.

As far as the other game types go there haven’t been any dramatic changes. Black top and MyPark are as good as they’ve ever been. Online interactivity is actually better than before, the latency and lag issues (at least from my experience) have seriously diminished, though they still rear their ugly heads from time to time. Customisation options are almost endless. And they’re diverse enough to keep even the most creative fans occupied.

On the graphics frontier, the game is fine. I’m not going to say it’s fantastic because it’s not. The players still look at you with those emotionless, dead eyes. So, even when they’re celebrating, it seems like they don’t actually care. It’s disconcerting, and if zombie stares bother you, then it’ll probably give you the heebie-jeebies. But – and I really hate dismissing flaws on the basis of game size – you can’t really expect total realism from these games because there is just so much content. There are responsive crowds, real time commentary and crazy physics. We’ve evolved past the stage where players are just recognisable to a point where they are unmistakably themselves: Kevin Durant moves like Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook displays his signature ferocity. While you’re never going to think it’s the real Paul George that you’re playing against, his essence is there – to almost simulation level accuracy. And to me, that’s what counts.

I wanted to hate this game because I thought – and still do think – that the top 10 player rankings are ridiculous. I understand that these games need to reflect the league (though, whether these rankings do is debatable). But 2K are also making a video game. So they have to create fun. And having a stupidly overpowered team (i.e. the Warriors) is a caveat to that fun. It’s a bug that people can and will, exploit.

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Honestly, I could go on forever about how skewed the player rankings are. But that’s my opinion and it’s a controversial one at that. And as overrated as I think Steph Curry is, his stats don’t really affect the game. Neither do Lebron’s or Harden’s or Kyrie’s. You can take the AI church playing as the Warriors but if you’re versing a better player, you’ll get schooled no matter which team you choose.

See, 2K have introduced different shot ratings and they’ve paid more attention to the effects of defence. While this make take a bit of getting used to, it increases the longevity of the game. And because of these changes, 2K17 is immensely enjoyable as a social game. It’s about how you play – more so than its predecessors – and that is why it’s so excellent.

2K really upped the ante in this latest release. MyCareer mode is an all-time high for the franchise. And the sheer volume of content in this game will keep players busy up to, if not past, the release of the series’ next title. However, at heart NBA video games are inherently social. And with the player rankings, 2K17 threatened to sacrifice that element. However, the addition of new gameplay mechanics and new rating systems means that the outcome is dependent on the player’s skill rather than their team selection. Once again, 2K have created a massive game with the potential to vicariously and virtually fulfil some of your wildest sporting fantasies. 2K17 is a step up from its predecessors and another step closer to being the perfect sports game.

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