For the past few years, the "NBA 2K" series has been the only game in town. It has owned the basketball simulation genre since the EA Sports' "NBA Live" franchise suffered a catastrophic meltdown. An attempt to revamp that game derailed the series and led to numerous reworkings and cancellations. The franchise is finally getting back on track in November with "NBA Live 14."
In the meantime, the 2K Sports Visual Concepts team hasn't rested on their laurels. They've consistently released good NBA games that improve details, add new modes and tweak features to give players more nuanced control over the NBA stars. The latest iteration, "NBA 2K14," is another solid entry.
This edition revolves around cover athlete and MVP LeBron James. The developer plays a game of what if and lets players choose between two futures for King James. The first keeps him on the Miami Heat as he tries to win not one, not two but a number of rings to cap his career and lay claim to the title of greatest player ever. That sounds fine if you're a Miami fan, but the more intriguing route is a fantastic journey that takes him to several teams, including the Knicks and Cavaliers (the franchise at which he started and then abandoned for Miami).
In these speculative histories, Visual Concepts imagines scenarios that are both likely and far-fetched. Thankfully, going through "Lebron: Path to Greatness" is easier than "Jordan Challenge" in "NBA 2K11," which was mind-numbingly difficult. The Lebron mode requires players to win the game to advance the plotline.
On the gameplay side, Visual Concepts further refines controls with the Pro Stick scheme. Shooting and advanced dribbling are mapped to the right analog stick, making gestures simpler. Players shoot by tilting the analog stick (the direction determines the type of shot). When it comes to dribbling, players can break out a crossover by flicking the stick.
The array of moves is overwhelming, and it will intimidate players who just want to shoot hoops. For them, "NBA 2K14" offers a simpler scheme, but they won't get the granularity of the advanced controls. It's deep and satisfying especially if you can pull off a Euro step layup or a spin move on purpose.
Players will need these moves because the defense in "NBA 2K14" is better. The AI will block your path or double-team players. In a way, the game now resembles past releases of "NBA Live." The gameplay is no longer fast and free-flowing. It's realistic and methodical. Players can no longer run into a lane at will for a dunk. They have to set picks, pass the ball around, set screens.
That's quickly evident in the meat of the game -- the My Career/My Player mode. It lets players create an NBA player and move him up the ranks from his time as a rookie to -- hopefully -- an NBA Hall of Famer. There's a role-playing game element as players buy skills through in-game points earned by playing the season.
It's compelling and the best part of the experience. "NBA 2K14" gives players a taste of NBA life complete with postgame news conferences and a Twitter-like feed that offers feedback on their latest performances.
All of this works well, but the game does have its share of bugs. Some are minor glitches in the user interface, but others can be frustrating, especially when stats needed for certain goals don't register.
Perhaps, when "NBA Live" returns, the upcoming competition can motivate both rivals to improve the basketball offerings next year.
* * ½
PLATFORM: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3