Last year’s installment of NBA 2K18 was the most divided I had been on the series in years. Even though the basketball itself continued to improve–like it usually does–I felt gross at times while playing it. Microtransactions became even more prominent throughout the game than they already were to the point that it felt like 2K Sports had curtailed previous elements from the series to encourage players to consider spending more money on Virtual Currency, or VC.
After I finished reviewing the game, I honestly didn’t go back to it too often over the course of the past year which if you know me, isn’t normal at all. I arguably play NBA 2K more than any other game besides MLB The Show, annually. For me to feel so put off by last year’s iteration said a lot.
Coming into NBA 2K19, the franchise’s twentieth installment, it’s safe to say that I had a lot of complaints that I wanted to see rectified by 2K Sports and Visual Concepts. On the one hand, many of the smaller problems that I had with NBA 2K18 have been fixed, and the gameplay has once again improved. On the other hand, microtransactions are still an overwhelming problem that have become far too central to nearly every aspect of the game, and their inclusion has been handled in the least-subtle of ways.
Before I get too in the weeds with the problems surrounding VC though, let’s talk about what’s good in NBA 2K19: the gameplay. For the past decade or so, the NBA 2K series has tried to create as realistic of a basketball sim as possible. While each installment has more or less had fun basketball gameplay in its own right, the series has always been trying to find a good balance between remaining realistic with player movement and physics while still remembering that it is a video game after all and as such should be somewhat arcadey.
Past installments in the series have leaned more heavily in one direction or another, but it has been clear for years that Visual Concepts has been looking for a good balance of the two. In NBA 2K19, I think they’ve finally found that balance. Players once again have weight to them, and their movement reflects that of a real person. At the same time, things generally feel a bit looser compared to last season. It’s a very subtle difference, but it’s one that I recognize after having played this series for years.
I’ve also noticed that shots are dropping in a much more realistic manner this year. This is something that Visual Concepts have struggled to find a good balance in as well within the past couple installments of NBA 2K. Some games in the series would see you hitting practically every wide-open shot that you ever launched while others would have you throwing up bricks if your player even barely had a hand in his face. NBA 2K19 reflects the real-life product even more by making these situations seem less guaranteed than before.
If Steph Curry is wide open in the corner for a three, he’s likely to hit the shot, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. By the same measure, if you’re driving to the basket as LeBron and have been hounded hard defensively, you aren’t going to automatically miss the layup just because you had a hand in your face. I’ve made more “bad” shots this year than I can remember making from older NBA 2K games and that’s just how the NBA is sometimes. These players are so good at what they do that they can often still get buckets even when they shouldn’t.
Speaking of defense, it continues to be much more challenging to play than in past years, especially when you’re an on-ball defender. This is a change that was made last year that I really appreciated because it used to be far too easy to lockdown nearly any player in a one-on-one situation. To play great D now, you have to exert your player’s stamina more than usual which is how it should be. You have to pick and choose far more in NBA 2K19 when you want to utilize that stamina that you have stored up whether it be in a defensive situation or on a fast break.
I also appreciate that those in the league who are elite defensively–Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Victor Oladipo–have seen drastic improvements when it comes to how they defend others in an on-ball situation. These players have always been better at steals and such in these games, but their ability to essentially shut down others this year stands out to me more than ever before. Having one of these phenomenal defenders on your team seems to be more valuable in NBA 2K19 than any other time in the series.
I honestly can’t say enough good things about the gameplay of NBA 2K19. This is a formula that Visual Concepts finally nailed about a decade ago and has just endlessly been iterating and improving on it slightly each year until they’ve reached this point. I don’t really know what they should do to improve things even further next year–I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts and ideas if I play a couple hundred hours of the game–but right now, this is the most positive I’ve been about the gameplay of an NBA 2K game in quite some time.
And all of this heaping praise that I have for NBA 2K19 on this front is what makes it all the more disappointing that it continues to be mired in these invasive practices with VC. This overwhelming encouragement to spend even further money on NBA 2K19 in addition to the base level $60 that you’ve already dropped to begin with is most clearly seen in the MyCareer mode.
MyCareer this year sees your character, named AI, starting out as an undrafted player who ends up going to China to continue his playing career after college in the hopes that he can find an eventual path to the NBA. After starting out overseas, you eventually make your way back stateside as a member of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, one of the NBA’s G-League teams.
As a resident of Indiana, let me be the first to say that the way that Fort Wayne is depicted in this game is the most stereotypical depiction of Indiana that I’ve ever seen. Y’all know that we have corn, here? Well if you didn’t, NBA 2K19 will be sure to mention it and show it to you plenty. There’s also a scene where you play basketball on the side of a barn — come on now. I know the film Hoosiers depicts small-town Indiana in this way, but it’s not like that everywhere. Especially not in Fort Wayne which is a pretty sizable city. You’ve failed the Indiana test according to me, NBA 2K19.
Anyway, the whole story kind of feels like a weird commercial for the benefits of playing either overseas or in the G-League to rise to the ranks of the NBA rather than taking the conventional college path. If you don’t pay much attention to what’s currently happening in the NBA, there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years that the Association should just allow high school players to immediately join the G-League rather than being forced to go to college. This would enable the G-League to turn into more of a minor league akin to what MLB has rather than making it a league for NBA rejects.
While this isn’t something that has been instituted just yet, this storyline feels like low-key propaganda to promote this idea. I don’t know how else to explain it. With 2K Sports and the NBA now officially having partnered up with things like the NBA 2K League, they’re working more closely than ever before, and it makes me wonder if the NBA would ever ask 2K to ever make a storyline of this manner. That’s probably a lofty conspiracy theory on my part, though. I should take my tin foil hat off now.
In a general sense, the story just continues to be awful. Some of the cutscenes last way too long, the writing continues to be excruciating at times to listen to, and the appearance of many mainstream actors (I hate you, Michael Rapaport) is jarring and takes you out of the moment. I also have to say specifically this year that your player character is a jerk. He complains far too often and treats others poorly even though most of his problems stem from his own stupidity.
For instance, early on in the story, AI begs one of his previous college teammates to speak highly of him to NBA teams so that they’ll consider drafting him. This former teammate tells AI that he can’t do that and in the process the game makes him seem like he’s the one being unreasonable. Like, my dude, why did you even come out of college in the first place if you knew you weren’t going to get drafted? And how is it this other person’s fault that you made a really dumb decision? Like my mom always says, stay in school.
Once you get out of this opening prelude that lasts just a bit too long, MyCareer opens up, and you gain access to everything else. The Neighborhood, the central hub for MyCareer which was introduced last year in 2K18, makes its return in 2K19 and it is far more streamlined this time around, which was one of my most significant issues with it initially. You can access all of the many different areas that The Neighborhood has to offer far more quickly this year, which is great.
Unfortunately, my overwhelming issue with The Neighborhood being nothing more than a series of areas that prompt you to spend VC still lingers. You can’t turn a corner in The Neighborhood without a giant VC symbol staring you in the face and asking you to buy something. Whether this purchase is in regards to new attire for your character or buying your way into a 3-on-3 game, VC looms over you like Big Brother in MyCareer.
When it comes to leveling up your player character, I also still have the same concerns as last year in the sense that this overhauled leveling system was re-done in the previous year solely to encourage you to want to spend more money. VC has always been the means by which you upgrade your player’s stats, but your VC stretches far thinner than it used to a few years ago.
I feel it necessary to mention that the version of the game that I was sent for this review was that of the Deluxe Edition, which came with a free 100,000 VC (about $25 worth) which allowed me to immediately bump my player up from a 60 overall to somewhere around 73. Only once I reached this point did I even start to feel competent on the court.
Playing with a 60 overall character is downright annoying. You can barely dribble without losing the ball, your jumper is busted like Lonzo Ball, and you can’t play defense to save your life. I have no earthly idea how anyone could tolerate playing in this way for long without feeling the desire to pour a few bucks into the game just to get out of this lower-level tier. 2K has stated that purchasing VC is only for those who aren’t patient enough to wait through the grind, but it goes deeper than that. Playing NBA 2K19 in this manner just straight up isn’t fun, and I still believe the leveling system was purposefully changed last year to make players more prone to spending money.
VC has become a cancer upon the MyCareer experience, and I’m honestly so mad that it has become this way. To make clear that I’m also not just one of these people who isn’t “patient” enough to make the grind, these complaints are coming from someone who used to routinely get his MyCareer characters to the 95+ area every year in NBA 2K without it feeling too grindy. As it stands, this manner of leveling your player is gross, manipulative, and in the end just isn’t fun whatsoever. Much like last year, I really don’t have a desire to dive back in and play more following this review.
I want to stress that MyCareer and its overwhelming reliance on VC being an overwhelming negative aspect of the complete NBA 2K19 package is a big deal. This is the mode that a vast majority of people who purchase NBA 2K annually come to play. NBA 2K19 makes some meta-commentary about how you’re now able to get a haircut without having to spend VC of a means of acting like things have lessened in the realm of microtransactions, but they really haven’t. When you have literal ATMs scattered throughout your world encouraging players to spend more money, your game might be pretty shameless.
What’s saddest about all of this is that I highly doubt any of this changes moving forward. NBA 2K18 was the highest-selling game in the series’ history which means that 2K Sports bottom line wasn’t impacted by these invasive practices whatsoever. Until that happens, nothing will likely change. What we’ve seen from NBA 2K the past two years with microtransactions is likely the new norm, and I’m going to have to accept that.
If you decide to just wholly circumvent the MyCareer content because of this, you’ll still be presented with the prospect of purchasing VC around every corner–you seriously can’t escape it–but the other modes at least don’t rely on it as heavily. MyTeam, the card-based mode where you build your own dream team, is back and seems to have more depth than ever before. With new challenges, specialized 3-on-3 tournaments, and the ability to take your team online to face others, there’s always a ton do see and do in this mode.
My only two issues with MyTeam continue to be the same ones that I’ve had over the years: the online connectivity always seems to lag for me, and I had that players can only be used for a certain number of games. The online issue is something that I’ve complained about in the past because that half second of delay in a game against someone else can really throw things off. No matter how fast my Internet is–trust me, it’s really fast–I have never been able to experience a game without just a tiny bit of input lag. As for the contracts system, I understand why it’s instituted, but I still wish you just had more freedom to use any player you own at any time rather than having to extend their usage periods.
I’d likely lose myself in MyTeam more if I weren’t already married to Road to the Show in MLB The Show every year. I can only afford the sanity to pour my time into one of these team building modes at a time. Still, there’s a lot to do in MyTeam, and if you fully immerse yourself in it, you could quickly lose hundreds of hours to it.
While MyTeam and MyCareer are the two most prominent pillars of NBA 2K19, the usual slew of MyLeague modes return as well. If you just want a straightforward experience through a single season with one team, you can do that here. You can also create an online league to play with a bunch of friends, and I really need to try this one year with some of my own buddies. MyGM continues to be my favorite of the bunch though, mainly because I love starting the league over from scratch and doing fantasy drafts to build my own team.
I brought this up last year, but for some strange reason there’s still a story mode option in MyGM and I really don’t understand why. What’s even weirder is that it the narrative picks up after the events of last year’s MyGM plotline. At the beginning of the story, you’re prompted to select certain decisions from last season’s MyGM story to carry over to this year — it’s like a Telltale game. The writing in this mode is also pretty and still contains no voice acting. It took three minutes of me reading dialogue boxes before I realized I was done with it and went back to start a non-story based MyGM mode. It’s a good idea on paper, I guess, but the execution behind the story mode in MyGM isn’t great.
As a whole, the NBA 2K19 package is more or less what it usually is, but each mode seems to have more options and features than normal. Per usual with sports games, none of these changes or additions are drastic, but they’re noticeable enough that those who play NBA 2K will notice them and appreciate what was done.
NBA 2K19 is a tale of two games. With perhaps the best gameplay that the series has ever had, it’s very easy for me to recommend on those mechanical merits alone. That said, I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth when it comes to microtransactions and the overall reliance on VC. I genuinely do believe that their emphasized inclusion has borderline ruined the MyCareer mode, which was one of the sole reasons why I picked the game up year-over-year for so long.
Purchasing NBA 2K19 for yourself just depends on what you plan to play within its larger package. If you were already put off by MyCareer last year, then not much has changed to win you over this season. If you’re looking for the best basketball sim on the market though to just play with friends or play by yourself in some of the more team-based game modes, you cannot do better than NBA 2K19. Despite there being so many fundamental changes that I want to see from this series moving forward in regards to many of its abrasive practices, at least the actual basketball has continued to be phenomenal without skipping a beat.