There has to be tensions at NBA 2K20 developer Visual Concepts behind-the-scenes. We’re not ones to gossip, but the California-based team must be frustrated that its sublime basketball simulation is now defined by its casino minigames and emphasis on microtransactions. On the one hand, this year’s return to the hardwood is another glitzy affair, flush with modes and dazzling little details which are rivalled only by Sony’s equally excellent MLB The Show 19 – but there are still moments where you can see the boardroom meetings, as publisher 2K Sports aims to extract as much cash as possible from its New Era cap-wearing clientele. It’s gross, but it’s really good – the ultimate oxymoron, we suppose.

Let’s start with the positives, though: the gameplay is best in class. The developer’s really paid attention to the on boarding process this time, so tutorial mode 2KU is more effective than ever before. Whether you need to start with the very basics of ball – like how to dribble, pass, and shoot – or you want a refresher on some of the more complicated manoeuvres in the game, you can work through the training mode at your own pace to really get to grips with the intricacies of the release. Sliders, of course, also make it possible for you to completely customise the experience as you see fit.

The on-court action feels alarmingly slick, and while this has generally always been the case for the franchise, it’s easy to appreciate the improved footwork and overall animations. Just as impressive is the presentation, which sits alongside Sony San Diego’s work on its aforementioned baseball series. Everything has been designed with a real-world broadcast in mind; whether it’s the cuts to sideline reporter David Aldridge or the transitions between highlight plays, this is easily one of the most convincing sports games on the market. It’s the little touches that truly sell the authenticity, like when your teammates help you back onto the court if you accidentally stumble into the bench, for example.

There are still moments where NBA 2K20’s ambition gets ahead of itself; the pre-game shows with Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith continue to flirt with the uncanny valley, but the in-game commentary from the likes of Kevin Harlan, Greg Anthony, Chris Webber, and Doris Burke is lightyears ahead of what you find in other franchises. There’s also a separate commentary team for the newly added WNBA mode, which helps that segment to stand alone as its own thing.

But perhaps most impressive of all is just how different the women’s game feels to the men’s; it’s immediately obvious that Visual Concepts has invested significant effort into creating an entirely new set of animations for the WNBA, and while the absence of online play here is unfortunate, the groundwork that’s been laid is unprecedented.

Of course, this attention to detail also applies to the men’s game, where players feel more unique than ever before. Whether you’re bounding down the court as Giannis ‘the Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo or sinking deep three-pointers as Steph Curry, you really can sense the separation between superstars. This is all aided by the new badge system, which effectively assigns up to 80 different perks to players, augmenting every participant on the court with a bit of personality.

This system also applies to the MyCareer mode, which once again sees you creating your own star and working through an adversity-laden storyline in order to win them the ultimate prize: a spot on a real-world NBA roster. The story, which sees a collegiate captain nicknamed ‘Che’ take a stand for one of his injured teammates, is well-written, but it lacks the goofiness of its predecessor. There are decent cameos from Hollywood actors like Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson, but the plot’s pretty predictable, and the minigame sequences centred on the NBA Combine outstay their welcome. It’s entertaining while it lasts, and we hope that Visual Concepts will continue to create these campaigns, but we preferred the previous instalment.

Once you’ve completed the story, you’re segued into the PlayStation Home-esque Playground social hub area, which remains largely unchanged from NBA 2K19. Here you can participate in a slew of different multiplayer activities, ranging from street basketball to forming your own team with friends. It’s fun, but microtransactions once again play a huge part, with virtual currency VC required to upgrade your player. You earn small amounts of this during gameplay, but you’d have to grind like crazy to create a capable player; even with the Legend Edition’s included 100,000 VC, we were only able to improve our hero’s rank to 82 overall.

It does feel slightly better balanced than last year, with less overall investment required to create a capable player, but you’re still going to find yourself grinding through games to upgrade your badges, which can feel a little overbearing at times. This same criticism can be applied to the Ultimate Team-inspired MyTeam mode, where you have a seemingly endless array of activities to complete, but much of it feels like filler that could be expedited with the investment of real-world cash. To be honest, Visual Concepts isn’t helping itself by designing the whole thing around a casino, and while the dopamine drip-feed is addictive, it does feel exploitative at the best of times.

But with such an array of modes on offer, it’s impressive that you could get a full year’s gameplay out of NBA 2K20 without even touching either of the aforementioned modes. Basketball management mode MyGM has been refined to take a more tactical tact, and while some may find this format a bit more limiting, it sets it apart from the MyLeague franchise mode, which has received less iteration but is virtually already feature complete. Factor in your usual array of Play Now modes and the inclusion of an entire television series set to run all season long, and it’s difficult to argue with the value proposition on offer here.

Conclusion

NBA 2K20’s absurd production values put it alongside MLB The Show 19 as the most convincing sports game on the market, and its under-the-hood gameplay improvements mean it’s the best-playing basketball simulation ever made. With a dizzying array of modes and options, including a reasonably well-written single player campaign featuring a Hollywood cast, this is a bulky package that will keep you on-court for potentially hundreds of hours. The title’s tone-deaf approach to microtransactions is the only real downside, then, and while they have been dialled back a touch, it’s still difficult to ignore their ugly presence in practically every facet of the package.