Oh 2K Sports, you were so close, yet so far from creating a masterpiece with NBA 2K18. There are many changes in place; some are fine-tunings, and other modes were demoed and rebuilt. While a majority of the adjustments improve the game, the most egregious changes stop it from improving upon its predecessor.
With NBA Live 18 now firmly in their rear-view mirror, the revamped MyPlayer mode and microtransactions aren’t 2K’s best moves for countering EA.
Of course, they’re still the best at what they do. The moment the pre-game show ended in a Warriors-Cavs quickplay game, I mistook the pre tip-off footage as the real thing. The players are photo-realistic, and at times it's hard to distinguish the rendered models from their real-life counterparts. Little ticks players have – like Steph Curry exposing his mouthguard during free throws, or LeBron James’ stanky-face after a poster dunk – are all captured in the game.
Gameplay-wise, it’s unbelievably polished – I genuinely couldn't find any flaws. The developers have dotted every i and crossed every t to ensure NBA 2K18 is as authentic as possible. Players protect the ball when they gather for a lay-up, make an attempt at stripping the ball defensively, scramble for loose balls reactively; they all occur organically. There's no pre-canned animations that kick into place, like a line of code with certain parameters. It doesn't feel like a basketball game. It feels like watching a game of basketball.
The flow of the sport is captured perfectly, too. Previously I found the substitution pattern to be systematic and wholesale, but in 2K18 they’re more accurate; no more four to five player substitutions, and a more accurate substitution pattern aligned with the real game is in place. Playing a 48 minute match in All-Star difficulty level (the same duration as an actual game) results in similar scores to the real thing. Previously I would score 80 to 100 points in a half, but now it’s a lot more challenging to rain down threes with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. The A.I. adjusts to your playstyle, forcing you to vary your offense in order to score points – much like the NBA.
Minor additions like the ball receiver overlay (where an icon pops up under the intended receiver’s feet to reduce errant passes), and A.I. calling out switches during screens makes the gameplay a lot easier to digest.
Even the commentary sounds authentic: no forced colour commentary that cuts in amongst play-by-play calls, and enough dialogue to not repeat itself in every game. Their roster of now nine announcers (adding Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett) also means a continually fresh rotation of commentary teams.
Still, some of the footage designed to immerse you – like the national anthem, and interviews with rendered players – look out of place, especially when they talk out of sync with their audio. Extra gimmicks, like t-shirt parachute drops during time-outs that continue to fall during play, take you out of the game at times.
The unique selling point of the NBA 2K franchise has been the MyPlayer mode, which allows you to create a custom athlete, letting you play out a hall-of-fame career. It has had misses due to the story (thanks, Spike Lee), but this time around it's a blank canvas.
Other than (unskippable!) cutscenes that carry your player into the league, there isn't really a story to tell. Instead, the focus is on your freedom to choose what to do daily. Choices that are presented to you in cutscenes are insignificant, and the MacGuffin is chasing the “Road to 99” overall rating. It isn't without its problems: your best friend, who is designed as comic relief, is as tacky as they come, and some design decisions vary from head-scratching to completely egregious.
The team at 2K has introduced a new feature called The Neighborhood, which is designed to give you the experience of exploring a small open world with various activities and shops. You get to see other players online, visit stores, and participate in activities by entering facilities. The different modes you can hop in (league, pro-am and MyPark) all contribute to your rating. The open world design is a neat idea, but unlike GTA Online, the activities are limited.
This brings up my biggest gripe with NBA 2K18: microtransactions. No, they aren't overly invasive, but it feels like we are venturing past pay-to-win, and into a territory where consumers have to pay to just experience 100-percent of the game. In previous iterations, players could customise some of their look, free of charge. Now, they have to walk into a barbershop and pay an amount of Virtual Currency (VC) to change their hair, without the ability to preview the choices. 2K Sports are well aware of this situation, surfacing an “add coins” option on each transaction screen. This means you’re dividing the VC you spend between customising your player and upgrading them – leaving you not much choice than to spend real money.
I received the Legendary Edition of the game, with bonus VC included. However I chose not to use the it, just to see how someone who purchased the standard edition would cope. The results are staggering: the progression curve is much, much, steeper than before – a grind akin to the original Destiny. While it adds longevity to the singleplayer, if you’re mostly playing online and you didn't get VC bonuses beforehand, you're shit out of luck.
If like me you prefer a narrative, then MyGM mode might pique your interest. Playing as a former player who suffered a career-ending injury, you are a newly hired GM with the team of your choosing. You control everything, from coaching, player changes, to parking prices at the arena. It’s a part-basketball, part-business, part-Telltale sim. Your answers to the media, owner, and your team will affect how your managerial-ship plays out. Although not as polished as MyPlayer, it’s still worth a look.
The MyLeague mode is still as deep as ever: On top of a standard league setup online or offline, it also allows for expansions of up to 36 teams. I'm still hankering for a custom league setup that utilizes ladders, à la NRL or the English Premier League.
MyTeam has had a minor addition called Super Max mode. Think of it as the salary-cap implementation to the card-collecting game, where valuable players eat up more of your salary, so it's a matter of juggling highly paid stars and undervalued players.
Visual Concepts have again made good on their name, developing a visually stunning game. The changes to some of the modes are beneficial, but the overhaul to an open-world MyPlayer feels pointless. The dependency on Virtual Currency and the ease of spending them compared to the challenge of earning them makes for a longer singleplayer experience, but greatly hampers the multiplayer. Hopefully 2K Sports reins it in, because if this continues, they will find resistance.
Tony received a physical copy of NBA 2K18 from 2K for review.