It has become a rite of fall to complain about NBA 2K and its focus on VC. Where other games have deliberately scaled back their focus on microtransactions in light of last year's massive loot box backlash, Visual Concepts has clung stubbornly to the model that many claim is ruining its popular My Career mode. But there's much more to NBA 2K19 than My Career and VC, as I'm reminded of every time I sit down to review 2K's flagship basketball sim.
Per usual, NBA 2K19 is one of the slickest and most attractive sports sims around. Its gameplay on the court is sharper than ever, and its suite of career modes simply can't be topped. It is, to put it mildly, the envy of pretty much every other sports sim on the market today.
But it's also slightly less ambitious than in past years. Where NBA 2K18 gave us big gameplay improvements, the fully explorable "Neighborhood," and a GM story mode, NBA 2K19 mostly chooses to refine what's already there. The microtransactions have been scaled back ever so slightly and the GM story mode gets a sequel among other things. But if you're looking for the big, sweeping new features that have defined previous versions, you might be disappointed.
Probably the most meaningful update is on the court. This year's version features "Takeovers," which are meant to capture the real-life moments where players get hot and win games by themselves. Think LeBron's Game 6 against the Celtics back in 2012, or Klay Thompson's massive 41 point game against OKC. Of course, shorn of its fancy branding, it's basically a hot/cold system that will confer archetype-specific buffs and debuffs depending on your performance. This is on top of the usual tweaks and refinements to the balance.
It's a very video game-centric improvement, which is to say that it feels somewhat contrived and mechanical, but it's not necessarily a bad addition. It does effectively capture the way that a player can catch fire and become utterly dominant. On the other hand, it can also result in a bit of a death spiral, as going cold casts the RNG gods against you when trying to make shots. It's also demoralizing to go cold, especially when you're trying to build stats in My Career.
The rest of the gameplay, of course, remains strong as ever. NBA 2K18 made some major improvements after the somewhat stiff NBA 2K17, and they're once again evident here. It does a really effective job of capturing the styles of individual teams and players, from the sheer unstoppable power of LeBron James to Steph Curry's ability to rain down buckets from afar. At a higher level, calling plays and setting your matchups becomes critical, lending the action an extra bit of depth for basketball nuts. But the most important thing is that it feels like something I might watch on TV, which isn't something I can always say for other sports sims.
Speaking of television, NBA 2K's presentation is once again top-notch. Games are front-ended by Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Shaq from Inside the NBA, all of whom invariably have something unique and interesting to say about the forthcoming matchup. Once the game itself starts, you'll get NBA 2K's customarily outstanding commentary, which includes guest appearances from the likes of Kevin Garnett and more. You'll also see in-game interviews with NBA stars, including your My Career avatars.
Presentation has always been one of the key strengths of NBA 2K. Its a strength that has a ripple effect through every single mode, making the big games feel that much bigger, and helping to put franchise mode games into context. NBA 2K's commentators will talk about how your team is doing, whether or not players are struggling, and throw up graphics like power rankings on the screen. It's truly outstanding, and an example for every other sports sim out there.
NBA 2K19's excellent production values extend to My Career, which, for all the criticism lobbed at its reliance on VC, is still very enjoyable. You can see it in the opening moments when you're customizing your character, which is pitched as a weigh-in and a photo shoot ahead of your introduction in Shanghai. You can see it in the custom commentary for both the Chinese league and the NBA G League (in which poor Indiana takes a bit of a beating in their portrayal as small town hicks). And you can see it in cool touches like NBA 2K's tribute to Yao Ming and the 2008 Celtics.
Visual Concepts has long been ahead of the curve in terms of storytelling, and while FIFA and Madden have both caught up to some degree, NBA 2K still stands apart in the way that it integrates its story into the development of your avatar. This year's story is also a clear step from a production value standpoint, with far more interesting locations and camera work helping to make it feel that much more like a movie. Of course, plenty of players will care more about finally being able to skip cutscenes, and that's fine too. But I enjoy the way that it captures the life of being a basketball player, even if A.I's improbable journey to the NBA ends with something of a deus ex machina.
Once the story concludes, it's on to the flow of life in NBA, which includes your own apartment, the ability to participate in Pro-Am teams, and the ability to hang out with familiar NBA stars like Ben Simmons and Anthony Davis. Happily, Visual Concepts has finally figured out the importance of gameplay flow, so basically everything is accessible straight from your phone. After a game is finished, you can jump right into the next match. The only onerous bit is periodically having to go to the Gatorade Training Facility to play a few shallow mini-games to get your turbo boost back (even more than most sports sims, NBA 2K19 is pure brand hell) .
So let's talk about VC. Yes, it's still here. It's the reason that the bulk of MyCareer's best features can only be enjoyed while connected online, and it's at least partly responsible for the rather intense grind that defines the early hours of MyCareer. If you're not willing to spend, you're going to have to work harder to get your player up to speed, because they will absolutely suck from a stats perspective until they hit 70 overall or so.
While some might call it "pay to win," spending straight to 85 overall or higher isn't really possible because Visual Concepts intentionally caps stats until you hit certain milestones. Badges that confer various buffs are also crucial to player development, and they can only be earned by playing games and earning XP (or grinding away in the gym). In that regard, VC takes more of a backseat.
But that doesn't mean it's exempt from criticism. The very fact that your character is so weak to start is clearly intended to get you to spend. VC makes you choose between stats and wearing what amounts to a brown paper bag. Granted, My Career is still pretty enjoyable if you don't spend any money. You can earn badges and VC at a pretty reasonable pace just by playing the games once you hit a certain point. But the fact that NBA 2K19's flagship mode is so mired in microtransactions, not to mention all the tacky in-game advertisements for Gatorade and Foot Locker, remains a letdown.
Thankfully, there is a way to enjoy NBA 2K19 that is totally microtransaction free. That, of course, is its incredible suite of franchise modes, which frankly do not get enough credit. In this area, NBA 2K does pretty much everything right. More than most sports sims, it does a tremendous job of making you feel like you're part of the team, which is most evident on draft day, when your coaches come together and recommend picks. Like NHL 19, NBA 2K19 includes expansion and custom teams, which is augmented by a large array of community uploaded logos for download.
If you're not into the crunchier elements of running a team, NBA 2K lets you play simpler variants, or just run through a normal season with no player transactions whatsoever. Returning to this verson is a gnarly and experimental GM story mode, wherein you take control of the new Seattle Supersonics or a team that you build yourself. It's a novel, roleplaying-heavy take on managing a team, allowing you to live out the fantasy of being an actual NBA GM, and it's pure NBA 2K in its aggressive innovation. But it's a rough, text-heavy mode that's frankly much less polished than the rest of the game, and often verges on the silly. Your owner is a stereotypical old cowboy who speaks almost completely in cliche Texas-isms, but is apparently able to beat you on the court. Your staff is loaded with weird gurus and people who look like they belong in a Boston dive bar. It's a clever twist for players who want a more structured, story-heavy experience, and I want NBA 2K to keep building on it, but I personally prefer the more traditional modes.
If the GM story mode highlights anything, it's how well NBA 2K nails the element of wish fulfillment that is so inherent to the appeal of a sports sim. It's an element that lies at the very core of NBA 2K's design, from the way that it takes you behind the scenes into the locker room, to the subtle excitement of doing a shootaround while the crowds get to their seats and the arena music booms all around you. It understands the celebrity-driven nature of the game, and lets you hang out with your favorite players. No game makes me feel like I'm an actual part of the league more than NBA 2K.
I find it fascinating, even if I also abhor its determination to be a "platform" in the worst sense of the word. I love the way that it incorporates the history and culture of the league, the way that it constantly pushes its competition in the sports space, and the love that goes into its presentation. It's amazing love letter to the sport of basketball. Shame that Visual Concepts otherwise exemplary work continues to come with caveats.
The two sides of NBA 2K are once again on display in this year's version. One side is the immensely polished and ambitious design that has propelled it to the top of the sports sim heap. The other is the tacky, brand-heavy microtransactions that dominate its showcase mode. I think the former outweighs the latter, but it's too bad that microtransactions overshadow what should otherwise be an amazing love letter to the sport of basketball. At least there's always franchise mode.