Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five lists five ways that the CPU will mess with us in basketball video games.
As we all know, multiplayer gaming has its ups and downs. Whether it’s the pain of getting less than ideal teammates online, the frustration of encountering cheesers who spam exploits, or dealing with that one friend who takes things too far messing with you while you’re sitting on the same couch, there are times when you’d prefer to be enjoying single player gameplay. Of course, the single player/offline experience isn’t immune to such chicanery, as games will pull some dirty tricks in order to prevent you from beating them. CPU opponents in basketball games are no different.
To some extent, this is a necessary evil. As far as basketball games have come, they still have limitations. Gameplay is now more realistic with CPU opponents that are bolstered by AI that is smarter, but it still can’t match the creativity and cleverness of a human brain. Tilting a few aspects of the game in the CPU’s favour and including comeback mechanics allows it to be competitive and challenging, though can feel like artificial difficulty. There are also moments that are more benign and don’t necessarily stand in the way of winning, but nevertheless feel like the CPU is messing with us. Here are five examples of the CPU thumbing its nose at us on the virtual hardwood.
1. Different Rules & Physics for the CPU
When I was playing in my local basketball league as a teenager all those years ago, there were a couple of referees that didn’t like my team. It was usually the younger referees who didn’t like that my coach politely asked for explanations after baffling calls, and resolved that all the whistles would be going against us from there on out. The CPU in basketball video games often benefits from a similar approach. It’s not uncommon to absorb a lot of contact at one end and not earn the free throws that should be coming your way, only to get whistled for making even less contact at the other end. Bailing itself out with calls is a long-time staple of the CPU’s strategy.
My coach used to tell us that if we wanted to win games, we couldn’t rely on the refs always getting the call right and enforcing the rules as they should. It was a bitter pill to swallow as a teenager, but looking back, he was completely right. On the plus side, we all had to follow the same laws of physics, which isn’t always the way with virtual hoops. The CPU has a tendency to be able to clip through your defenders in ways that would result in a body steal for them, and will the ball back into their hands using The Force. Never underestimate the CPU’s ability to warp reality and defy physics to stay on its man, keep control of its dribble, and generally tip the game in its favour.
2. Animation Selection
Games like NBA 2K and NBA Live are quite animation heavy. It’s one of the reasons that the reception to the NBA 2K League hasn’t been quite as favourable compared to other eSports leagues: success and failure will often come down to the animation that the game selects, rather than the skill and input of the gamer. That’s not to say that we don’t have any control over the animations in modern basketball games, as expanded controls at both ends of the floor have given us more influence over the action. There is still an element of RNG when it comes to triggering certain animations though, and that’s where the CPU has a prime opportunity to mess with us.
Say that you want to go up for a right-handed dunk to elude a CPU defender in NBA 2K19. That’s as easy as holding sprint and right on the Pro Stick (assuming you have shooting controls enabled on the right stick, as they are by default). However, while it may be the correct decision and input, the specific animation that is selected can be one that’s easy to block. Other times, a layup may be triggered despite holding sprint. Even with the more sophisticated controls we have at our disposal, the game can end up selecting an animation that isn’t ideal given the circumstances. It doesn’t always benefit the CPU, but it may. If nothing else, it can lead to an awkward-looking play.
3. Stealing Your Rebounds (And Other Stats)
Ever chase stats in a basketball game, particularly in the career mode? Of course you have! On top of the satisfaction of rising to the challenge, it’s the most efficient way of earning the in-game currency that is used to build up your attributes. Both The One and MyCAREER have performance-based incentives that encourage you to strive for statistical goals, on top of any self-imposed challenges you may have set for yourself. The CPU obviously has other ideas, but in this case, it isn’t just your opponents that are standing in your way. Sure, they’ll try to make it difficult to achieve the numbers you’re shooting for, but sometimes your teammates aren’t much help, either.
Need those last couple of rebounds to achieve a triple-double? You can bet that one of your teammates will snatch the board out of your hands. What about that assist record that you’re getting close to? Well, you probably would’ve reached it about five or six plays ago, except for your CPU teammates missing those easy shots, taking too long to shoot and negating the assist, or passing up a good look to get the assist themselves. Maybe it’s just psychological, but it really feels like the CPU does it on purpose when you’re closing in on the mark you’re aiming for. Admittedly it happens even if you’re not padding your stats, but man, does it ever feel intentional when you are!
4. Canned Moments
I’m somewhat hesitant to use the word “canned” when it comes to criticising aspects of the gameplay in NBA Live and NBA 2K. It’s a term that’s thrown around all too easily in situations where the user is at fault. With that being said, there are moments that do feel forced and contrived, and it’s fair to call them canned. Now, some of them are inevitable and indeed necessary, either due to technical limitations or the need to balance gameplay. However, if they’re too contrived or not properly tuned, they can be problematic. Generally speaking, it’s the user that they end up causing the most problems for, and once again, both CPU opponents and teammates are involved here.
Common examples include: CPU teammates running behind defenders resulting in an interception, as well as bungling easy passes directly into an opponent’s hands; steals and blocks that feel automatic (and indeed, psychic) rather than organic; fouls that don’t match the input on defense (such as aggressive reach-ins and grabs on a single press of the steal button); and contrived fumbling and stumbling animations when catching passes. While some of them are thrown in to ensure that neither team can play a perfect game of basketball and that unforced errors are realistically depicted, they’re a key part of the CPU’s playbook when it comes to comeback logic.
5. Substitution Patterns in Career Modes
This one comes in two flavours, one being more benign than the other. Let’s take a look at the more malicious version first. This is when you get subbed out in one of the career modes after guiding your team to a big lead, only for it to evaporate completely by the time you re-enter the game. This does happen in real life of course, though a competent coach would probably sub their star back in when the situation begins to look dire (insert joke about your least favourite coach here). It suggests that your CPU teammates are useless without you, though I suppose that underscores the RPG aspect of the career experience: at the end of the day, it’s all up to the player character!
Even if your time on the bench doesn’t put a win in jeopardy, it can annoyingly mess with your stats. This all ties back into the earlier point about the CPU standing in the way of statistical accomplishments. More than a couple of times, I’ve been yanked from the game when I’m on a roll and filling up the stat sheet, only to sit for the rest of the contest or come back in with far too little time left to shoot for whatever mark I was aiming for. There was one instance when I was brought in with less than a minute left and was able to get one last rebound for a triple-double, but more often than not, I’ve been left grumbling about virtual Fred Hoiberg’s substitution patterns.
What are some other ways that the CPU has messed with you in basketball games? Have your say in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.