When you’re the big dog on the block, it’s tough to consistently find ways to change. Games in the NHL and Madden NFL series are often accused of rarely progressing, and with so few games to compete with, it’s not hard to see why they don’t. The NBA 2K series has long been the only NBA basketball simulator that fans could flock to, but after last year’s constant complaints regarding the pay-to-win model of the game and the NBA Live series making a comeback, the franchise finds itself in turmoil for the first time in a long time. Can it bounce back and continue its reign as the king of hoops games with NBA 2K19? It’s complicated.
Jumping right into the meat of the game, it’s obvious from the very first tip-off that NBA 2K19 is by far the best basketball game out there. Things look and sound just like they should on the basketball court, and the gameplay – while generally user-friendly – allows for even the most seasoned veteran to continue learning thanks to its wide variety of moves. Unlike last year, more defensive opportunities have been presented in 2K19, which mainly allows for players and AI alike to more easily contest shots that were nearly impossible to defend last year. Instead of just driving into the paint for an uncontested, acrobatic layup, players will now find it much harder to get into the paint if their player’s skillset doesn’t call for it.
If you’re playing as a team not heavy in 3 point shooters, it wouldn’t be wise to just chuck up shots, and vice versa if you plan on attacking the paint. With that being said, it’s still generally easy enough to play that you’ll find yourself lost in playing for hours upon end. The presentation – something that the 2K series prides itself on – is back in full this year, and just like every year, they do an admirable job of it. Sideline interviews, pre-game shows, and commentary are all here and all sound close enough to the real thing to pass. While the in-game commentary and pre-game show jokes may get stale as you play more, it’s nice to see that the folks behind 2K care enough to get some of the biggest names and faces in the NBA to come in and lend their voice to make it even that more realistic.
When it comes to the game’s MyCareer mode, it’s almost unbelievable how much of a leap has been made. Titled “The Way Back,” the story puts your players in the shoe of a college player who declared for the NBA draft a bit too soon, and after not being drafted, has been forced to play overseas for a Chinese team. After making it into the NBA G-League, your player (nicknamed A.I., for some reason) then follows a story filled with various twists and turns as he bickers with teammates, feuds with some who want their own shot of glory, and struggles to come to grips with what it means to be a teammate.
Included in the mode is a new “Takeover” feature, that allows players to become the main focal point of a game after they build up enough of the takeover meter through good play. Passes will be instantly given to you, extra fans are earned when good plays happened, and if you level up enough of the meter, you can take control of your entire team and play out the game as you see fit, for a brief moment anyway. All in all, the storytelling of the mode has taken a huge leap from the previous iterations, and it’s clear that the team behind it have gone to great lengths to make fans feel more connected to their MyPlayer then they ever have. If there are any downsides to the story, it’s that things come crashing back to reality after it.
After about 4 or 5 hours of your prelude, the game is right back to its normal MyCareer self, and you’ll be grinding your way into becoming one of the NBA’s elites. It isn’t exactly boring, but it would be nice to see the 2K series begin incorporating more story driven moments into your MyCareer mode, even if just for brief moments. Still, it’s a huge upgrade over how things have been before, so at least there’s that.
Once things are all said and done in MyCareer, players will find that not much has changed from last year. The Neighborhood – your central hub for all things to do with your created player – is generally still the same, with training facilities, clothing stores, and the Park still all within walking distance. Some new features have been tossed into the games Park to make playing with friends even more fun, but the reality is that most players will either be too busy grinding their way through seasons or getting games in on the courts to really do much of anything else.
MyGM, MyLeague, and MyTeam all make returns to 2K19, and all have been much improved in just a short year. MyGM and MyLeague will allow players to take control of either an entire league, or simply just one team, and guide them through a season. MyGM even has a story with it, one that connects to NBA 2K18, although a lot of the writing and storytelling aspects of it were flat out weird.
MyTeam, 2K’s answer to the card collecting game of other sports games, also makes a triumphant return. Honestly, this has become my favorite game mode of the 2K series, and with another massive overhaul implemented in 2K19, that might just continue. While the mode still relies heavily on buying packs with virtual currency (that you spend real money on), there are much more ways to gain cards without paying than there have been before. Completing challenges, playing online, and grinding out other game modes can reward you with cards, and building a team in that mode feels even more enjoyable then it has before.
One of the biggest complaints about NBA 2K18 was its constant barrage of making the player spend Virtual Currency (VC). Things have changed a bit in 2K19, but unfortunately, it’s still a lot of the same. While things in the Neighborhood may be cheaper or even free (haircuts now don’t cost anything, thankfully), leveling up your player in NBA 2K19 is still very much the pay-to-win system that it was in years past. MyCareer progression is still tied to VC, meaning that to upgrade your player, you’ll have to spend in-game money. Earning VC in the game has become much easier (you get more per game, you can negotiate contracts to give you more VC), but if you’re not playing well on the court, you won’t be seeing much of it, and that’s a big problem.
As noted earlier, the story for NBA 2K19 takes your player through the Chinese league and the G-League, and even though you’re not playing against NBA talent, you still have to play well. Unfortunately, you start out pretty bad, and so any missed shot, poor defense of a shot, or foul will cost you. Getting your player up to even a respectable rating will be a nightmare for those who don’t fork over money for VC or who aren’t too good at the game. While there certainly will be a contingent of players who level up their players the natural way, the higher in rating you get, the more VC it costs to upgrade them, creating this terrible cycle of either having to play perfectly or simply spending $20 to grab some VC.
It’s definitely possible to slowly grind your way through it, especially given how much VC 2K19 rewards you for playing. Unfortunately, the draw for a majority of players is to immediately jump into multiplayer and begin playing, and that’s just way too hard to do without spending actual cash. While 2K may not want you to have 99 rated player right off the bat, the compromise they’ve come to – essentially forcing players to fork over cash – is not one that will resonate with the community, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see fans upset with the series again.
NBA 2K19, much like its predecessor, is still the basketball game king. Its gameplay, presentation, and fanfare are simply unrivaled at the moment, and that’s both a good and very bad thing. Even though user scores for NBA 2K18 were at all-time lows, sales were through the roof, and it seems like 2K hasn’t learned enough from last year’s failures to truly make NBA 2K19 a success. Once you get past the new, shiny aspects of the game, there’s still the very familiar, pay-to-win model waiting for you. It’s a tough balance to strike for the developers, but one that they must continue to strive for as other basketball games begin to flood the market.
This review was written based on a digital review copy of the Anniversary Edition of NBA 2K19 for PlayStation 4 provided by 2K Sports.