The NBA 2K series has undeniably been king of the video game hardwood for several years now, so it only seemed right that 2k Sports requested the company of another king in Lebron James. With the best basketball player on the planet gracing the cover of NBA 2K14 we have another year of watching the throne as Visual Concepts delivers an excellent round-ball simulation.

NBA 2K14's controls have been tweaked yet again. Building on the foundation laid in NBA 2K13, the Control Stick has evolved into the Pro Stick, and it's been simplified this year. As the ball handler, you flick the right stick in circular motions to produce an array of dribble moves like going behind the back, jab steps, in and outs, and crossovers. When you want to shoot, you simply hold it in any direction to begin a shot with no required press of a modifier button. You can also shoot jumpers the old-school way by pressing X if that is something you’re more comfortable doing. Other improvements Visual Concepts made under the hood include the improved passing mechanic and the added ability of throwing some sick highlight reel passes. Holding L2 and hitting X delivers a bounce pass, and using the right stick throws what the developers call “flashy” passes. An example of this would be throwing a no-look pass or zipping one behind the back to a cutting teammate. Be warned though, only the truly gifted passers like Rajon Rondo or Chris Paul will be able to fully take advantage of it; trying a fancy pass with somebody like Tyson Chandler (which I did a few times by accident) will result in an admonishing glare from the head coach as the ball either gets stolen or sails out of bounds. Overall, the developers seem to have eliminated the sluggish passes that have plagued the title in the past, and it’s become possible to efficiently whip the ball around the perimeter.

In 2K13, your best defense was more offense as getting stops was a bit of a chore. Thankfully in 2K14, defense has gotten a long-overdue overhaul. Defenders now stay in front of the ball handlers better, and the defense is much more physical resulting in more contact animations. Even on the occasions you let your man get by you, your CPU teammates react better with their help defense. Too much dribbling can open up opportunities for the player to either lose the ball, or sometimes you’ll be able to reach around him and poke it away. Rounding out the list of defensive improvements is the new blocking mechanic. Blocking from behind is a real possibility now, with chase downs and weak-side defense coming into play. This has helped make post defense a more viable option with big men like Chandler and Roy Hibbert and running down guys from behind with active wings like LeBron. The best thing about it is it’s not overdone; going ham on the steal or block the button will result in more than a few moments where the offensive player will embarrass you. You’ll notice it when you bite on a pump fake and collide with your adversary, which will result in a foul call as you both tumble to the floor, or when you reach and the man you’re guarding blows by you. The balance VC was able to achieve this year on both offense and defense makes games more of a chess match than ever before. About the only issue I had with the game play is the offensive rebounding remains somewhat inconsistent. Against the CPU they dominated the boards and seemed to pull down offensive rebounds at will even if I had three men standing under the basket. At times it looked like my men just didn’t react to the ball and watched as the CPU players aggressively went after it. I had more even if it was somewhat limited success when I controlled the man and went up for the ball myself.

"LeBron: Path To Greatness" is 2K14's marquee mode. At the outset, it provides players with two options, “Heat Dynasty” or “Fantastic Journey”: Will LeBron stay with the Heat to continue building a dynasty, or will he stage a virtual version of The Decision and move on to another team? The latter choice is the more interesting of the two as it sees King James moving on to the New York Knicks, where he plays alongside Dwight Howard, and eventually he'll even return to Cleveland, to suit up again for the Cavaliers. There are a few other scenarios that occur, which I won’t spoil in this review, but in actuality the mode is pretty linear as you only get to play out the scripts that are already written into the game.

In news that will be met with much dismay by diehard Association fans, that mode has returned unchanged from 2K13. That means terrible CPU roster management and the exact same Association menu design and options carry over this year. 2K did throw Online Association users a bone as the commissioner tools have been expanded this year. League owners now have the ability to pause or change the clock timer speed on the fly, and advance their leagues by one week. Outside of that, be prepared to see the same Association mode we’ve seen the past few iterations. Thankfully, it still is one of the more functional franchise modes you’ll see in a sports simulation, but it would’ve been nice if it was finally upgraded in similar fashion to how Madden breathed new life into their franchise. The trading card mode My Team did receive a bit of a small upgrade though. It is expanded to now offer tournaments, online play and greater customization options for your virtual group—much of which wasn't available to test at the time of this review.

XXL Endgame

With a next-gen version on the immediate horizon 2K Sports could’ve easily called a timeout and mailed in NBA 2K14 on the current consoles, and probably still sold plenty of units. Luckily for us they didn’t and instead delivered a game that improved on its successor in almost every way, keeping its reputation as one of the best sport games intact. One can only imagine how great this game is going to be when it hits the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in November.—DJRhude (@DJRhude)

XXL Rating: XL

This review was based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of NBA 2K14, provided by 2K Sports.