The best basketball franchise finds a way to be even better.
The NBA 2K series has long stood as the ultimate basketball video game experience with yearly iterations consistently improving and advancing the magic formula. Even with NBA Live 19 being a step up from its usual mundane offerings this year, NBA 2K19 (referred to as 2K19 going forward in this review) is nevertheless still the champion. And by the looks of it, 2K Games isn’t resting on its laurels, choosing instead to continue pushing the franchise forward.
The best example of this forward momentum can be seen in this year’s vastly revised MyCareer mode. This story-driven campaign puts you in the shoes of a fairly stubborn but relatable main character looking to make it big. The story clocks in at an underwhelming 5-7 hours, but it boasts a nice collection of RPG-esque choices that help you craft a personalized journey. Not all of these choices seem to actually change anything major in the long-term, but they never feel superfluous or meaningless to your character’s story.
"For those seeking that casual approach with some of the management built in, MyGM continues to be hit or miss depending entirely on your preferences for the mode."
You can spend real money on progression, but I never felt like the game was punishing me for not doing so. There’s more to do now than ever, so currency flows in quickly. This is made even easier thanks to an unquestionably superior neighborhood that feels laid out more efficiently compared to last year’s vague and inconvenient design. Praise be to 2K Games for not making us walk around for ages searching out the courts this go-around. This better progression system and more refined navigation round out a stellar presentation.
And presentation is really what MyCareer is all about. What works best about the mode is simply its attention to detail. A Gatorade rep visited me and knocked me down a few pegs, but I spent the majority of the meeting admiring the level of care given to his dialogue, voice acting, and mannerisms. He didn’t feel like a generic NPC – he came across as a real person. This isn’t an isolated example either, with both voice acting and character design being impeccable around the board.
Of course, MyCareer is only one piece of the 2K19 experience, but it feels like its strongest among the core pillars. MyLeague is always a wonderful starting point for those seeking to really delve into the micromanagement of a full-fledged basketball franchise and all the customization that comes with it, but I definitely lean more towards more accessible modes like 2K19’s fun Blacktop mode. It’s a street mode with multiple pairing options, and I really enjoyed some one-on-ones using beloved NBA icons. It’s not the game’s best mode, but it helps give casual players something new to kick back with.
For those seeking that casual approach with some of the management built in, MyGM continues to be hit or miss depending entirely on your preferences for the mode. The story option is a bunch of text boxes about as much fun to read through as an instruction book on an industrial floor buffer. I opted to mess around with the mode that foregoes any type of narrative and found that a bit more tolerable, but it’s still just a little too much trouble for my taste.
"It takes a downright obnoxious amount of time to earn in-game currency for card packs, and these extreme type of pay-to-win microtransactions have no place in a full-priced game."
Unfortunately, this year’s entry delves ever deeper into a microtransaction hell of card collecting with MyTeam. The prices for these virtual items are offensively high with some packs reaching over $20. I didn’t actually invest in any of this on principle, but I spent enough time investigating to understand the aggravating pay-to-win concepts at work. Attempting to take on anyone with a more advanced deck would likely place you at a significant disadvantage; one that I’m simply not willing to contend with or give in to when other modes are devoid of such ridiculous elements. It takes a downright obnoxious amount of time to earn in-game currency for card packs, and these extreme type of pay-to-win microtransactions have no place in a full-priced game.
Beyond this, however, 2K19 continues to impress with its expected gameplay enhancements. A new Takeover mechanic makes its way into this year’s game, giving players the opportunity to play well and use that momentum to raise their attributes within distinct categories. It’s an extremely interesting gameplay element unlike anything I’ve seen in modern sports games that made me think more carefully about my choices to ensure I didn’t adversely affect myself with poor performance, as bad playing can hurt those same attributes.
AI sees a notable change this year as well, with opponent defense getting a welcomed buff. While I’m no basketball veteran, I typically had little trouble outsmarting the games fairly often in the past, yet I certainly found it harder than usual to push towards the hoop in 2K19.
Additionally, button spam won’t fly anymore. 2K Games is really pushing its affection for realism this year and forcing players to manually control defense moves that were previous less hands-on. I found it irritating at first, but after an hour or two with the game, I was more engrossed in each engagement because of it. With a nice boost to accuracy and seemingly tighter controls this year as well, everything about the on-court experience feels drastically improved.
"Commentary has always been something 2K19 does really well compared to its competition, and this year isn’t any different. The real star here is the intricately-designed interviews and pre-game shows that lend a credibility to the entire on-court experience unlike any other game in the genre."
If I had any major complaint, however, it’d be leveraged at 2K19’s online multiplayer. I often experienced total lockups where I lost control for a while, and on at least two occasions I was kicked from the game entirely. Even worse, there’s a noticeable input lag that frequently caused me to fumble my timing in some truly tense moments where I was finally mounting my comeback against (admittedly better) online players. The polish that’s been added to the gameplay and AI feel somewhat undermined by this quirk when playing online, which is a real shame considering that’s where the bulk of some truly challenging gameplay comes from.
Commentary has always been something 2K19 does really well compared to its competition, and this year isn’t any different. The real star here is the intricately-designed interviews and pre-game shows that lend a credibility to the entire on-court experience unlike any other game in the genre. Each match-up feels wholly unique, and while commentary is obviously recycled, it’s spruced up with enough naturally-delivered bits of trivia and detailed play-by-play to never make me annoyed by it. 2K has injected a true love of the sport into every ounce of their audio design.
This love isn’t as well translated to visual fidelity, however. Character models and faces are forever plagued by an awkward and same-y design that does a poor job of differentiating individual players. The courts and crowd aesthetics are modeled well enough though, and I certainly never felt appalled by anything on the screen. If anything, the below-average models are so overshadowed by the exceptional moment-to-moment gameplay that they become entirely secondary. I’d love to see 2K put a little more effort into the visuals next year, but there’s nothing here that overtly offends the eyes.
2K Games seems intent on ensuring that they only press forward and never settle for “good enough”. Because of that dedication to quality, 2K19 is still the reigning champ and comes strong with the best single player experience in basketball.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Excellent presentation, stellar MyCareer, exciting, natural commentary delivery, improved AI.
Online lag, pay-to-win microtransactions in MyTeam.
A few hiccups along the way, especially in relation to some pretty serious online multiplayer instabilities, definitely bring down the experience in 2K19. Thankfully though, these quibbles don't tarnish what is definitely the best option for your basketball fix this year.