It gets lonely at the top. The NBA 2K franchise has been the undisputed king for almost a decade now when it comes to virtual basketball. Long gone are the days of being the plucky underdog who scrapped for years, slowly but surely chipping away at EA’s vast, seemingly untouchable, video game sporting kingdom. NBA 2K is now the MVP, and while it’s still the leader in its field, some cracks are starting to appear.
Much like previous years, NBA 2K19 is once again the best simulation of basketball that you can find on the market. In fact, it might just be the very best and most accurate simulation of any sport. The core gameplay here is so fluid, and to casual fans it can be hard to distinguish between on-court play in 2K’s powerhouse title and a real life game. Everything here just feels right. Playing offence is a joy, with an almost limitless array of dribble moves at your disposal to dance around defences, and loads of animations that make each jump shot, drive through the lane, and rim-rattling dunk feel unique. Similarly, defence is a challenging but rewarding experience. Each time you boot up a new game you feel like you’re controlling a living and breathing NBA contest.
The unmatched gameplay here combines with NBA 2K19’s returning MyLeague mode to create one of the most immersive and engrossing experiences available in a sporting video game. For those out of the loop, MyLeague is essentially the game’s season mode, which can continue on for as long as 80 seasons and is a life-like recreation of the NBA. As you play through seasons your league will evolve, grow, and change over time. Each year the NBA owners will get together to decide if they want to implement new changes to various rules, which can alter your league in a big way. Similarly, teams will trade draft picks, offload players, make huge signings, and even relocate or introduce a new expansion team. If you want to micromanage everything you can always overrule these decisions to ensure your league never gets out of hand.
In MyLeague players can take control of as many, or as few, teams as they want to and control every single aspect of them. You have the ability to play team owner, GM, coach, and players, all in one neat package. The best part of this mode is just how much freedom is on offer. Does controlling every single aspect of an NBA franchise sound daunting? Well, you can adjust your MyLeague so that all you have to do is play basketball. Want to tweak some game tactics or make some blockbuster trades and signings? Then you can change your settings accordingly.
Alongside these settings is a plethora of sliders and options that control everything from how many games are played in a season, to how likely it is for a league-altering player trade to be made, and how often career-ending injuries occur. If there is a particular aspect of the NBA you’d like to control, then it’s extremely likely you’re able to have complete control over it here.
To the dismay of some, the MyGM mode is again bringing a story alongside it. Last year’s entry saw a narrative play out while you assumed the role of an NBA general manager, and this year is a continuation of that story. As is often the case when the 2K series implements a story, it manages to get in the way and hamper the enjoyment. Luckily, players who just want the straight MyGM experience without a ludicrous story interwoven can choose to do so.
Unfortunately, those who are fans of the MyCareer mode aren’t as lucky. One of the big selling points that helped the NBA 2K series win the battle with NBA Live was the MyCareer mode, which allows players to take control of one player created baller and play out their entire career. The constant quest to innovate and give fans a reason to buy the game every year has resulted in a story, complete with cutscenes, to be added to this mode. While early examples of this were less intrusive and developed mostly in the background, narrative has come to dominate the mode in recent years and is at its very worst in 2K19. This year you have the option to skip all cutscenes, but the terrible story still weaves its way into all aspects of the mode.
You take control of “A.I.”, a college star with serious attitude issues who nominates for the NBA Draft far too early, resulting in him being left undrafted and forced to play in China. The initial story isn’t too bad, and playing in China (a first for the series) even comes with the addition of authentic Mandarin commentary. While the story seems kind of interesting at first, we quickly found that were tired of the intense focus on it. At one point there's a cutscene that is approximately 15 minutes long. In the space of this one cutscene your player gets traded from two different teams, travels from Shanghai to Los Angeles, and then travels again to Fort Wayne, all while being introduced to half a dozen new characters. It’s a chore to sit through. Eventually you find yourself playing in the G-League (the NBA’s second-tier league) and trying to work your way into the NBA. The idea of having your player miss out on being drafted and taking the longest and hardest possible road to get to the NBA had the potential to be interesting and justifies why your initial overall rating is so low, but 2K’s execution is a genuine airball.
Arguably even worse than the intrusive cutscenes is that MyCareer mode no longer feels like you’re controlling your own player. Rather than a blank canvas you’re now given a character with built-in personality traits, which clashes wildly with the concept of this game mode. It’s no longer my career. A.I. is arrogant, selfish, and stubborn beyond belief, and you just have to accept that all of those traits now apply to you. You don’t think your player should be out shooting fireworks the night before a game? Well too bad, because your player has just accidentally burned down the hotel you were staying in and you just have to accept it.
You’re even majorly restricted in what you can make your player look like thanks to a shockingly lacklustre amount of haircut options. These restrictions are put in place in order to force you to spend Virtual Currency at a barber shop later in the game. Fortunately, we found that the presence of microtransactions didn’t seem to affect character progression much, if at all. It always felt like we were levelling our character at a steady pace and that upgrading stats to get our player to a solid base didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of VC.
It’s a genuine shame that the story gets in the way so much during MyCareer, because the actual gameplay is brilliant. Without the constant story interruptions this would be a mode that fans could get lost in for hundreds of hours. However, with an ever-looming narrative many people will no doubt be turned off and struggle to even progress past the first handful of hours.
NBA 2K19 is once again the best simulation of basketball. When it comes to gameplay, presentation, and polish 2K’s latest entry is undoubtedly unmatched. However, basic cosmetic options being held hostage behind microtransactions and an obtrusive story during MyCareer are huge unforced turnovers and prevent NBA 2K19 from cementing itself as the Greatest Of All Time.