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Review: High-flying ‘NBA 2K17’ has a career year

‘NBA 2K17’ is a return to form.

The 2015-2016 season was a treat for NBA fans. In the final weeks alone, we marveled at the Warriors breaking the all-time regular season win record, held our breath through countless playoff nail-biters, and lost our minds when LeBron “King” James reminded us why he got his particular nickname. I’ve been watching the NBA for several decades and can’t remember a more thrilling (and, as a Bay Area guy, saddening) end to a season.

But it wasn’t an especially good year for the best basketball video game series on the planet. While “NBA 2K16” still ranked head and shoulders above the competition, the franchise had a rare misfire thanks to a dud of a Career mode and some uncharacteristic technical woes. What would it do in the offseason to improve?

What any superstar would do, naturally: practice, practice, practice. And that’s exactly what you’ll be doing in the gorgeous, grinding “NBA 2K17.”  Righting several mistakes from last year’s game, this is a stunning, robust basketball sim that smooths out rough spots, is replete with modes, and delivers a painstakingly authentic experience from start to finish.

Career counseling

It’s immediately clear that developer Visual Concepts listened to complaints about last year’s insipid, Spike Lee-directed MyCareer debacle, because the game’s flagship mode now features a much tamer story.

Written by Aaron Covington, the man behind the movie “Creed,” the new MyCareer in “NBA 2K17” lets you guide the annoyingly nicknamed scrub “Pres” (short for, I swear, “The President”) from college to the pros, leveling up skills and negotiating the usual assortment of distractions along the way, including agents, endorsements and enough unskippable cut-scenes to drive a game reviewer crazy. It’s solidly done, though I feel a little weird about the fact that my player was deemed good enough to be taken #17 in the draft, essentially erasing the very existence of Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin IV. Sorry Wade.

But there’s another cool wrinkle in this rags-to-riches tale: a partner. You’re joined in your baskeball journey by fellow rookie Justice Young (played by Michael B. Jordan). Rather than serve as an obvious foil, Young becomes the Klay Thompson to your Steph Curry. Over time, the two of you develop an off-court rapport that has a tangible on-court effect. Eventually you’ll control both players at once as a nearly unstoppable pick and roll nightmare. It’s great fun and reinvigorates the mode.

Kyrie drops the three.

MyCareer needs that boost of energy, too, because while it hits the right notes, it feels like more of a grind than ever before. You earn the game’s virtual currency (called, no joke, Virtual Currency) at a glacial pace, and the experience between games is surprisingly mundane.).

You’ll occasionally text acquaintances and work out shoes deal, but mostly, you’re encouraged to hit the gym. There are rewards for this – you can earn a meager batch of VC by shooting around and eventually gain skill points directly through copious practice mini-games – but as in the real-world, it takes serious focus to deal with the repetition of drills.  If the goal was to emulate the grind of a new player struggling to adapt to the NBA, mission accomplished. I’m just not sure that particular goal needed achieving.

And technically, you don’t need to struggle. You can buy your way to the Hall of Fame through VC micro-transactions, a pretty lousy (if widely accepted) move for a $60 game. I’m not a fan, though I suppose enough of you are that 2K sees value in the pay-to-improve formula.

Smooth moves

By and large, though, MyCareer is a step in the right direction, partly because the core gameplay is better than ever.  Right-stick moves have been freed up from the lengthy animations that used to make it hard to really string together jukes. It’s more organic now; in the right hands, a player with tight handles like Damian Lillard becomes an ankle-breaking force of nature.

They’ve also improved on-ball defense, however, so staying in front of a dangerous player is a little easier than it was. The AI in general is smarter now, particularly in guarding the pick and roll. Defenders do a better job switching; gone are the days when you could call a screen and get either an open look or an easy dime 75% of the time.

Even the shot meter, which gets tweaked seemingly every year, has settled into a comfy groove. Analog stick shooting is still an option, though I prefer the simple button press as it’s easier to time the handy little meter under your player. The shots seem to make more sense, too. It’s appropriately lenient if you have a wide open look but mess up the timing a bit, and appropriately tight if you’re hoisting up an 18-foot fadeaway with a hand in your face. Don’t do that, by the way.

Depth charts

NBA 2K17 doesn’t just earn its marks on the court, but in the sheer number of ways you can play.

MyCareer is, for most players, the starting point, but once you grow weary of the grind, you can take control of a full team in Exhibition, Season or multi-season Franchise modes. The MyGM mode, essentially a team owning role-playing game, now lets you add your own expansion teams, so Seattleites still weeping over the loss of the Sonics can virtually bring back their long lost squad. They’ve even included the 2016 offseason as part of the experience. Want to re-scout last year’s college stars and try your hand at the draft? Go for it.

The original Dream Team.

Fantasy fans can do the card game thing with MyTeam, though like MyCareer, it’s quite a grind to earn enough currency to buy new packs. 2K really could have stepped up the speed a bit. There are a few online options as well, including Pro-Am 5v5 games and the more casual MyPark pick-up games. The servers have thus far been pretty stable (this has been an issue in the past); fingers crossed they stay that way.

Taken together, it’s as comprehensive a suite of modes as you’ll find in any sports game. There is really no shortage of ways to play “NBA 2K17.”

Getting good looks

No matter the mode, “NBA 2K17” keeps its crown as the best-looking sports video game franchise in the world. The coaches, players, arenas, jaw-droppingly accurate animations – heck, even the halftime shows look like the real deal. They also fixed the game’s comically bad facial scanning tech (last year’s facial scan made me look like Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes) by shifting away from the PlayStation and Kinect cameras in favor of your trusty smartphone and a free app. I could nitpick about the load times or the fact that Kevin Durant’s arms are just way too skinny, but I’m just taking shots at it. Visually, “NBA 2K17” has pretty much no competition.

The commentary is also superb. Led by Kevin Harlan, the in-game crew does a fine job calling the action and delivering a near-endless amount of facts about each player. Ernie, Kenny and Shaq reprise their pre-game Inside the NBA antics, though without Charles there to say insane things, it’s a little too tame.

But “NBA 2K17” most certainly isn’t. It’s hard to come up with nice new things to say about this series every year, so I’ll just say that yes, they’ve done it again, and yes, it’s worth a buy. Just be ready to put in the time if you want to turn pro.

4 and half stars

What’s Hot: They fixed MyCareer; a million other modes; tighter controls; improved D; still looks and sounds amazing

What’s Not: MyCareer and MyTeam grinding is too severe; still hate the micro-transaction model; long load times

Platform reviewed: PS4

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.