NBA 2K16's ambitious attempt last year to get Spike Lee to run its centrepiece MyCareer mode (basically a giant singleplayer sports RPG) was a bit of a disaster. This year, it’s back to the drawing board.
Note: As we’ve done the last few years, this is only a review of 2K17's MyCareer mode, not the entire game. I think its presence as the premiere singleplayer sports RPG, coupled with the focus 2K places on it in terms of creating and selling their game, make it interesting enough to warrant this focus.
Gone are the flamboyant opening credits, the excessively personal cutscenes, the need for every story development to have some kind of drama. MyCareer became popular because of it’s low-key look into the life of an NBA superstar, and it’s to those roots that it returns in 2K17.
After all the Spike Lee fanfare in 2015, which went so far as putting the Academy Award-nominated director’s name in the title, 2K have toned things down this year, making very little fuss over the people behind the game’s showpiece mode. Which is weird, because at this point in time a lot of folks would argue that the talent onboard for 2K17 is, well, more talented.
I said last year that, despite the shortcoming’s of Spike Lee’s efforts, I hoped 2K would stick with the idea of letting big-time movie folks lend their creative talents to this series, and that through trial-and-error we’d eventually end up with a MyCareer mode that’d be as fun to watch as it was to play.
That’s...sort of what’s happened. Maybe not with another big name, but definitely in terms of using promising Hollywood talent.
Aaron Covington, who co-wrote Creed, both penned and directed this year’s MyCareer mode, while that film’s star, Michael B Jordan, also appears in the game as your character’s friend and teammate. Their names may not be as flashy as Lee’s, but they certainly contribute to a story mode that feels breezier and more grounded than the garbage we played through last year.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still corny as hell. It’s a tale of a boy come good and his supporting cast, so don’t go expecting any major twists or explosive developments. Too many major sponsors are signed up to this game for that. There’s enough warmth and genuine humour along the way, though, to make you genuinely anticipate and enjoy the cutscenes, with both the writing and voice acting doing a fantastic job.
By grounding the game and filling the story with innocent little jokes and quirks—there are entire cutscenes devoted to nothing more than two guys giving each other shit playing video games, or coming up with secret handshakes—you start feeling like your star player is an actual character in a story, and not just an avatar propping up some between-game fluff.
The overall structure of MyCareer hasn’t changed too much since last year. You create a custom player, play through a few college games then end up drafted and in the NBA. Once there, through a combination of practice and playing in games, you improve your stats on the way to becoming one of the best in the league.
That’s all managed via a calendar, which divides your time between workouts, games, personal events (you can meet friends, some of whom are NBA players) and sponsors engagements. Some of these can be skipped or simulated, others can’t, and generally the game wants you to do as many things as it’s offering you.
The only big change to how this all works in 2K17 is that you now get repeated clashes in your schedule; an invite to a comic convention from an NBA superstar, for example, might clash with a team practice. You’ve got to choose which event’s benefits (maybe extra fans or cash) outweigh the negative results (an angry coach and less playing time) of skipping the other.
This is all handled very neatly through a combination of a giant calendar that ticks along at the top of the screen and a mobile phone mechanic that stores all your conversations (and which calls up the calendar when appointments need to be booked). If this all sounds stressful, it’s not, the story includes giving you an agent who takes care of most of this for you.
The problem with it, though, is that while I can see what it’s trying to do—show you all aspects of an NBA player’s life, not just the on-court action—it’s really dull. In a game where even playing actual NBA games gets tedious after a while (you’ll be simulating meaningless games before your rookie season is even done so you can skip to the more important match-ups), asking players to repeatedly click through a phone screen and watch some idling animations repeat themselves (you rarely get to actually see what happens at an off-court event) just to tick the calendar along is a waste of everyone’s time.
On the court, there’s some good stuff here. While the visuals and feel of the game are barely-changed from 2K16—not that this is bad thing, since no other sports game is as good at nailing the physical contact and interactions between athletes—there’s a new feature where the off-court friendship between your character and Justice Young (Michael B Jordan’s guy) evolves into an on-court bonus mode.
Play well together and you’ll unlock ORANGE JUICE mode (yes, that’s its name, it’s what the two main characters call their partnership), a temporary boost where you get to control both characters instead of one, swapping between them at the push of a button like a very expensive recreation of NBA Jam.
It feels weird at first, but once you get the hang of it there are advantages to using it. Mostly because it lets you get more of the ball while in possession; my character Douglas Chan is a small forward and Justice is a guard, so I could control Justice while bringing the ball up then pass inside (or alley oop, which is super easy in this mode) to Chan for the score.
I used to love MyCareer because after years of longing I found it was the only sports game to really get serious about the whole singleplayer RPG thing. Now that FIFA has come along with The Journey, though, which doesn’t just emulate MyCareer but in many ways improves on it, 2K17 is starting to feel a little passive.
It’s great how The Journey directly intervenes in games, injuring players, sending you to other teams against your will and making forced substitutions to help move its story along. Its dialogue options are also (relatively) more consequential than 2K17's. MyCareer, for all the advances it’s made in writing and presentation over the years, still feels like mere padding to a standard career grind, not something that genuinely intersects with it. If 2K really wants to start bridging the gap between sports games and RPGs, like its been threatening to do for years, it could do worse things than let the story drive the game for once.
I like what 2K have done with this year’s MyCareer. They’ve recognised that Spike Lee’s joint was maybe too big a reach (or just the wrong man for the job), and in getting hold of talent that’s more at home with the tone and grind required for something like this, have crafted a career story that might not revolutionise the little sub-genre they’ve carved out for themselves, but is a definite improvement on 2K16's misfire.