Even though EA has once again provided competition with the resurrecting of their long-running NBA Live series, 2K has remained at the forefront in terms of gameplay and presentation. Along with all of the accolades garnered, the NBA 2K series remains one of the best-selling franchises, year after year. Last year’s title, NBA 2K18, felt like a betrayal from long-term fans due to the sheer amount of microtransactions tied to player progression in the fan-favorite MyCareer mode. Although it has been slightly altered for this year’s edition, it is still very prominent. The actual gameplay refinements and tweaks, however, result in an overwhelmingly satisfying simulation of the sport, in fact, it may be one of the best sports games on the market.
Animation issues that hampered the series for the past few years have been largely tweaked. Everything from dunks, to breakouts, feel much smoother and fluid than ever before, helping to provide a realistic sensation of watching a real-life NBA matchup. The controls can seem overwhelming for newcomers or casual players, but there are plenty of options, such as using face buttons for shooting instead of using the right analog stick. You’ll lose the subtlety of the analog controls when switching to buttons, but it may be the best option for casual players. It can still feel frustrating when shooting due to the precision necessary to fill the shot meter.
Presentation, which has been a staple for the franchise, successfully recreating both a TV broadcast and the on-court experience. There are so many conversations and discussions happening between the commentary team members outside of the actual play-by-play that feels natural. All of the stadiums have been faithfully designed, and the crowd seemingly reactions to the on-screen action. One thing I noticed is that the crowd isn’t blindly moving around, but will clap their hands or stamp their feet along with set chants of defense that bring excitement to games. You’ll see player interviews between quarters, taken from real-life conversations, that feel like they are geared and relate precisely to the game in hand. Not to mention, you get to play in both the G League and Chinese League in MyCareer mode, complete with their own set of commentators and pre-game presentations.
Although I quite enjoy playing exhibition matches based on the live game listings, I initially dove straight into the widely popular MyCareer mode. This story mode, dubbed, The Way Back, discusses themes of redemption and self-discovery, as you are put into the sneakers of an undrafted athlete attempting to find himself in the Chinese leagues. Last year’s offering included the Neighborhood, an online hub area, letting you walk around to various location instead of picking options straight from a menu system. However, with the heavy influence of microtransactions, progression felt more like a chore than an enjoyable experience, inherently limiting those players that chose not to spend real-life currency. This time around, you’ll earn VC (virtual currency) much faster through a wide array of different opportunities while progressing through your career as well as messing around the online area via alternating daily mini-games. Thankfully, visiting the barber no longer costs anything, letting you freely change your hairstyle at will (although the options are quite limiting).
Once you take AI (the name given to the MyCareer player) to the NBA (after playing for a few hours), you’ll gain access to the Neighborhood. It has been highly improved, both in terms of events and layout. With the courts moving to the center of the area, and the shops around the perimeter, you can quickly and quickly move between locations. This means less time running around (or riding) and more time earning precious VC to improve your player. It's a vast improvement over last year’s setup, especially when you take into account the daily bonuses that anyone will be able to earn. I would like to see VC usage start moving away from being able to purchase stat boosts, and instead only be used for visual customizations so that you can’t gain an advantage by spending money. Using the NBA 2K19 mobile app, you can scan your face into the game; however, I had a terrible experience with the app spitting out an error multiple times in a row. After about a 20-minute photo shoot, I was finally able to upload my images into the game, or so I thought as the game couldn’t find any head scan data. Going back into the app, it didn’t have any mention of saving the previous session and forced me to go through the tutorial for playing the game portion of the app. It really needs to be separated out into two different apps, one for scanning your face and one for the mobile gameplay that I have zero interest in ever touching. Nothing is more upsetting than being forced to click along through countless menus before you can freely move around inside the app.
The ever-changing design of the MyPark ensures that you’ll never get tired, and you’ll always have something new to experience. You can also transition to the Cages, where you can play matches with trampolines and other timed events, such as dodgeball. Pro-Am returns, this time with private matches, as well as the returning three-on-three Crews. In Crews, you can create your own squad with your friends and face others online or against the computer. One of the significant concerns with everything in MyPark is being forced into queues for the next game on the court instead of instantly matchmaking. 2K wants you to feel like you are physically there standing on the sidelines. While I do admit it was neat to see real players in the middle of a game, but it means you need the time commitment otherwise you may never be able to hop on the court. Considering you can see who you are being matched against, as the game isn't doing any skill-based balance check, you will frequently face off against players that are much higher in skill (especially if you just started).
One of my favorite modes in every sports game is being able to take control of my favorite team and manager ever little detail about the team. MyLeague provides different options; the standard franchise mode that everyone knows and loves, and the opportunity to take control of an all-new expansion team, guiding them through the expansion draft and everything that comes along with it. The latter features a fully featured story, bringing back characters from last year’s offering, providing a great behind-the-scenes look that fans never get to encounter. The standard franchise options do add a new mentoring mechanic, letting you pair up seasoned veterans with up-and-coming rookies. This ensures that the rate at which these players earn badges is significantly increased, allowing you to influence their growth and development directly. MyLeague Online transitions almost everything you love about these modes into a real-time online offering. Being an online league with other actual players, you’ll get to manage a real-time free agency pool as well as experience the thrill of drafting players in real-time. It may just be my favorite mode in any sports game to date. Of course, there are the other standard offerings, such as a single basic season and playoffs game mode for those that want to be able to customize their experience, but not have to worry about handling multiple years of action.
Considering the popularity of the Ultimate Team game mode in EA’s sports titles, it makes sense for MyTeam to be expanded upon. If you’re unfamiliar, it is the highly addicting card-collecting game mode, where players earn packs of cards with the hope of finding a star player to give your team a boost. Considering the backlash on loot boxes in other games in the industry, I’m shocked to see these types of modes continue to be popular. You can purchase new card packs with VC (remember, you can pay for VC with real-life currency) or through points earned in the MyTeam mode. New this year is the chance of earning tokens, which in turn can be used to purchase specific players within a set tier.
NBA 2K19 is the absolute best NBA simulation experience, with numerous refinements and improvements over previous years. I think there was a missed opportunity of adding the tutorials for newcomers located in 2KU into the MyCareer game mode, which puts you into the action without explaining any of the intricacies of the mechanics. The Neighborhood online hub experience has been improved, yielding more chances to earn VC, as well as hosting numerous events. The servers are another story, however, as the game will frequently not connect or hang while trying to synchronize data without a proper error message. At some point, the heavy reliance (although toned down) on microtransactions needs to be removed from the game entirely.
Note: NBA 2K19 was reviewed based on a digital Xbox One copy of the game, provided by the publisher.