Movement and Precision Smooth Out 2K18

A couple hours of downloading has given me a chance to gather my thoughts before I officially pick up the sticks for NBA 2K18. As praise and criticism poured in from pre-order purchasers, I was playing some incredibly fun match-ups of 2000-2010 teams in a playoff bracket I had set up in 2K17. I was running with the T-Mac Rockets and the original LeBron Cavs that are available by default, but I also got to reincarnate the Dragic-coroner version of D Rose (I’m not sure he ever got the memo), play against Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson on the Nets, and the AI-Melo duo in Denver (praise to Dee4Three). With last year being an exception, I experience a familiar feeling this time of year.

The feeling is the apprehension of moving on from a fully-modded, sliders and all, copy of last year’s 2K, to the glitz and glamour of a new game, which is usually highly similar to the last game. The transition from 2K16 to 2K17 didn’t present the same second-guessing because, as I understand it, the process of deciphering the file structure of ‘16 was a new and complicated process; in turn, the fever of modding didn’t catch on like it normally does, which left for a relatively plain version of the game. Then, when ‘17 was released, it was determined that the same file-swapping tool would work with the new copy, and a wide variety of mods were quickly available. As 2K17 neared the one-year anniversary of it’s release, there was a vast archive of some high-level conversions, including the classic teams roster I mentioned earlier.

This feeling of apprehension, fueled by the investment of customizing a copy of the game, is funny to me because it unavoidably distorts my capacity to compare and contrast the annual versions of 2K. I know this because I dropped ‘16 like it was nothing (even though, it was the volume I played most), and am holding onto ‘17 like it was special. The truth of matter is that, under no personal contest, 2K16 was a better game.

Let’s be clear: I don’t play myPark, myCareer, or myTeam. I don’t care about VC. The only relevancy of animations to me, is whether they fit the real-life player they are designed to depict. Sim-style gameplay with photo-realistic graphics is what I’m after. If season modes, complete with correct contract information and believable transactions, fall in line, all the better. Visual Concepts consistently makes great basketball video games, and any of my criticism comes from the expectations that each new copy cultivates. I like playing basketball video games so much that I would probably still play 2K12 quite a bit, if that was all I had. With all that in mind, let’s get into what 2K18’s gameplay has to offer (and maybe later on, I’ll review myLeague/myGM after I get a chance to play them in-depth).

 

Movement and Collisions

The new system of triggering movement animations, with or without the ball, stands out as my favorite aspect of the updated gameplay. There was talk of animations being much more adaptive and responsive leading up to the release; this concept is certainly tangible. The refinement helps establish a far better feel of being on the court. Accelerating, decelerating, changing directions, and momentum are groomed for a smoother experience all around. Offensively speaking, this also means the nuances of dribbling and triple-threat dynamics are better captured by gameplay. I found it much easier to both execute preconceived moves, as well as react to unexpected scenarios. While I’m still getting acquainted to the animation archive at this point, the best feeling I have about the movement system is that I’m drawing from a larger collections of animations that can be timed with greater precision than ever before.

The collisions of movement also displays major improvement. In the last two seasons of slider development, my highest priority has been to remove the “brick wall” on-ball defense bumping. ‘18 immediately presents what I’m looking for: narrowing the range of a player’s body that prompts the player colliding with him to be redirected or stopped. When that is accomplished, it allows for more frequent situations of funneling movement, which is essential to basketball. When the frequency of funneling had been increased with sliders in prior years, the offensive player never had an awareness of shielding the ball to keep his man on his hip like we see all the time in pick-and-rolls. Now, when you get an advantage on a drive, your player will show an understanding of where his defender is and seal off the ball. The bumping had also generated significant problems during post-play. Facing-up and working jab-steps to blow-by a defender is a lot of fun this year. There are no longer major problems with unbelievable travelling, and the branched animations extend to some great pivoting post shots after picking up your dribble. Back-to-basket situations also built on the improvement from last year by further establishing the strength disparity between players.

 

Lay-Ups

I couldn’t tell you how often I would get into the lane and not be able to execute the type of finish I had in mind, last year. The controls for lay-ups relied heavily on your player having momentum towards the basket. This made slashing back across the lane and using the rim to shield off a shot-blocker overly difficult. I also really disliked those strange fading euro-step floater things that were too easy to trigger. I love 2K18’s lay-up controls. I find myself being able to use the type of finish I had planned with greater ease, and the finishes themselves to look more realistic. Euro-steps that finish with momentum towards the rim are more common, the new protect lay-up is nice, and there are also some exciting Kyriesque swooping, hand-changing finishes.

 

Sets

Da Czar wrote at length about the improvements made to off-ball offensive A.I. in his pre-release blog entry. A lot of the plays and freelance offenses were a disaster last year. You could spend the whole shot clock waiting for your players to stop running into a scrum, and get around the screen being set up for him. I mostly got past this issue with my sliders by jacking up offensive awareness, but that also had some unintended consequences of players making unreal decisions. Similar to the animations, you can sense a greater connection of decision points that players have at their disposal.

 

Tendencies

Czar also mentioned the process of specifying tendencies so players would react more accordingly to the moment. Simply making players stop shooting unnecessary step-back 3’s would’ve gone a long way, but this tendency revamp adds another dimension to the player’s decision-making to better replicate their real-life examples. The aspect not only shines in the half-court, but I quickly admired how much better transition sequences felt as well. Players will actually cut all the way to the baseline or set up for spot-ups in ways they never could in 2K17.

 

Graphics

Many early reactions to the demo consisted of stating that the graphics, among other things, had been polished. The new look wasn’t a groundbreaking overhaul, but more a subtle improvement. I was then surprised to see negative reactions after the game released; some even went as far to say that ‘18 was a downgrade from ‘17. 2K18 isn’t a revitalization of the 2K15 look many of us wanted, but I’m hard-pressed to find examples of how the graphics got worse. Substantially better? Not at all, but there are fewer inaccurate faces and bodies than I recall from the stock version of 2K17. In no particular order, some valid criticisms I can see: court textures and jersey textures remain low-resolution, the PC version is still poorly optimized, body types and muscle definition aren’t distinct enough, arena atmosphere is lacking, various faces (Larry Bird oh my god)… Bottom line: I’m happier with how ‘18 looks, than I was with ‘17.

 

On-Ball Defense

In a lot of ways, on-ball defense doesn’t feel significantly different from a control standpoint, but now players have more detailed ratings to determine their isolation defense capabilities. This component adds a lot to the match-ups dynamic by allowing you to really pick on inferior defenders, and avoid strong defenders. I am also a fan of the “Defensive Chatter” addition. Having a visual cue to understand what your teammates expect you to do before you’re upset with how they messed up is a nice touch of much needed defensive communication. The shot-contest system feels slightly better as well. Previously, I had tried to direct contest effectiveness towards the release, and lower of the impact of general proximity with the sliders. The new system, complete with additional attributes, better re-creates player’s abilities to shoot over defenders.

 

Off-Ball Defense

As I’ve resisted knee-jerk reactions to start messing with the sliders as I grow familiar with the subtleties of the game, one thing that has bothered me, is off-ball and help defense awareness/effectiveness. There have been some cool defensive breakdowns, yielding a wide-open shot, that need to happen from a consistency standpoint. But, there have been too many egregious mistakes for my liking. For instance, I was playing a game as Toronto and used the coach defensive settings to set-up my designated ball-screen defense. While not lauded for his basketball IQ, Bebe Nogueria messed up the coverage every time, prompting me to triple-check that I had correctly assigned everything. The rim contests have been really solid in not allowing clunky bigs to pogo-stick like they have in previous games, but the recognition to help has been lacking. I believe this tied to another effort of capturing the full spectrum of defensive talent, but I want defense to have a little bit more support to it, as of now.

 

Unchanged

Many details of the game don’t feel all that different from last year. Plenty of things didn’t need fixing. Passing and spot-up shooting stood out as the most similar components to the gameplay (I’m not a shot-meter or feedback guy if I’m not analyzing sliders). Per usual, I’m looking to add a little more inconsistency to the game, but have been pleased with field-goal percentages. Shot success based on range is one gripe I will claim, however. My experience so far has led me to believe that the closer your player when shooting, the easier the shot is. Shooting charts consistently indicate that there is a minimal difference between long mid-range and short mid-range success (hovering right around the 40% range). Pull-up jump shots from inside the free throw lane are also very uncommon, yet the computer typically has this affinity for pulling-up and making these attempts, instead of attacking the rim or shooting a floater/runner. I also include that mid-range success, in totality, feels a bit high and not quite specialized enough from what I’ve played; too many players are step-back wizards. I need more time with the game to fully commit to this criticism.

 

Summary

There’s been plenty of times I have been let down by the release of the new game. Again, being let down comes from the built-up expectations from year to year (and that you’re dropping good money on the thing), but I’ve never been repulsed by a new version to the point I’m not going to play it. That being said, I’m trying to remember the last time I was floored by the new release. I was blown away by the next-generation graphics, but it still is usually a matter of incremental progress. I’m not floored by 2K18, but definitely want to keep playing it. At this point next year, thinking 2K17 might’ve been relatively better doesn’t seem like a possibility. I don’t have an arbitrary rating to throw out, corresponding to a scale I don’t have established, but will simply say 2K18 is worth the retail price.

 

I would also like to point out that we will be developing sliders for ‘18 for the duration of the season. It will take a couple weeks to get a good enough feel of the things that need to be addressed. Once we get rolling on tweaking them, there will be beta copies available to test out on the Steam Network (search DIME THEORY TOMMY or DIME THEORY MICHAEL), and I will announce that on Twitter. As for console users, once we get to the stage of fine-tuning a beta version to the point of release, you’ll be able to find them on my YouTube channel (Dime Theory Tommy) to enter them into your game, like last year. As always, we encourage any and every feedback to hopefully make the best sliders available; reach out on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, Google+, shoot us an email, and join the Steam group (DIME THEORY HOOPS).


Tommy Driscoll

@drizmasterflash

tommy@dimetheoryhoops.com