Basketball is perhaps one of the fastest paced sports around, and just as EA’s “NBA Live” franchise is beginning to show signs of life, 2K’s juggernaut returns on the back of 2K18’s duality – part great basketball game, part lightning rod for loot box woes. In the wake of a challenger, and the king wobbling, 2K19 needs to make a statement. As far as definitive statements go, this one is a doozy – NBA 2K19 might be the greatest sports game ever made, but predatory micro-transactions leave a bad taste in the mouth.
True to series form, 2K19 leaves an excellent first impression – the court shines, the squeaks of trainers on the hardwood are authentic, and the halftime show is animated impressively. There’s a short pre-game show, and in-game models of players are used for interviews between quarters. The whole thing has a broadcast quality unmatched in the genre by everything other than Madden. Where 2K19 teaches EA’s NFL juggernaut a lesson is in commentary – always up to date, always informative and often with anecdotes from former players, it’s class-leading.
As a facsimile of a sport where the score is constantly changing and attack and defence alter in seconds, NBA 2K19 nails it. Sticking with the excellent stick-based shooting mechanics that have become the norm for the genre, 2K19 is fluid and fast, while players will play best to their strengths – Steph Curry’s shots from downtown are more likely to go in, but a power forward like Lebron James can dunk with real authority. Every player feels like a character – and this is accentuated by the stellar visual depictions of all players, particularly on PlayStation 4 Pro. Animations are impressive – blurring the line between where one input ends and the next begins. Classic and All-Star teams are also included, so you’ll have plenty of players to experiment with.
This counts for AI too – NBA2K19 is a difficult game, with the CPU being smart in possession and playing to the aforementioned strengths. Armchair tacticians will find plenty to enjoy about the difficulty – cover star Giannis Anetetokounmpo (say that three times fast) is an excellent all-rounder, so playing against the Bucks you’ll want to ensure coverage of him when on defence. Just like with the real thing, there’s a flow to playing basketball here – you’ll soon learn when to hang back and look for a three-pointer, or break quickly. In fact, there is nothing more rewarding than intercepting a pass on defence and striding forward, no one in your way, and leaping to dunk with style.
Off the court, content (both single player and multiplayer) is bountiful. As with most of the genre, MyTeam is essentially Ultimate Team, while MyCareer is a single-player campaign. Neighbourhood is also returning – a hub world where you can earn new stats through mini-games and challenges, or customise your player at shops and barbers.
MyCareer is massively improved from last year’s iteration, and that’s evident right from the character creation suite which was dismal in 2K18. This year’s storyline is more personal, despite being a more globetrotting experience. As an undrafted player who didn’t get a chance in the NBA, you’ll begin playing in China – complete with new stadia and Chinese commentary. What begins as a “fish out of water” story shortly becomes a surprisingly touching one, complete with appearances from Anthony Mackie (of Avengers fame) and Haley Joel Osment (he who sees dead people).
MyTeam promises more constant updates over the course of the season, more in line with FIFA and Madden’s offerings – player variants and updated stats. New additions this year are MyTeam Unlimited (picking the best thirteen players possible and attempting to go 12-0 for big rewards) and Triple Threat (three on three matches against randomly chosen NBA All-Star trios or other players online). The key here seems to be improving the drop rate of rewards, allowing for something for everyone’s commitment level.
Fan favourite MyLeague is playable both on and offline – in offline play, you’ll negotiate contracts, set lineups and work towards expanding a team’s profile with an optional story added too. Online, the game plays like a fantasy draft – you can play with friends or others online and draft (with added options for trading draft picks). Depth is greatly improved, with players ageing and their stats declining. That said, you can also set an older player to mentor a younger one to inherit some of their strengths. The options are dizzying, with a tremendous amount of granularity there for those looking for it.
The elephant in the room (or rather, on the court), is the shadow cast by 2K18’s pervasive micro-transactions. What’s new? Virtual currency is doled out barely any more liberally than last year, and you don’t need to purchase hairstyles this time around – but every menu is permeated by the option to buy this currency. In fact, it borders on being close to a mobile style “freemium” game. You can spend VC to skip the prologue chapter of MyCareer, buy stats, MyTeam players and cosmetics for your player. It really is disappointing to see that 2K hasn’t learned from last year.
The lack of WNBA representation is another shame – with EA’s franchise being the first to add the women’s league to their offering. Here’s hoping this is added next year.
2K19 is the best basketball game you can buy right now – both in terms of moment to moment gameplay and the depth of content available. While the micro-transactions are a shameful indictment of the video game industry today, vote with your wallet – if no one buys them, maybe they’ll go away. That said, 2K19 is still the King of the Court.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*