Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is another double countdown, this time featuring the Top 5 Positives and Top 5 Negatives in NBA 2K19.
My full reviews for NBA Live 19 and NBA 2K19 will be out shortly, but before then, I wanted to offer up some more of my initial impressions of this year’s games. This time I’m talking about the latest offering from Visual Concepts, NBA 2K19. After really enjoying NBA 2K17, I was quite disappointed with NBA 2K18. It wasn’t just the unapologetically greedy approach to microtransactions and the brutal grind, either. I just didn’t enjoy the gameplay experience, and thus shelved NBA 2K18 much earlier than previous games, firing it up only to get screenshots for articles.
In a nutshell, I felt that NBA 2K18 was a surprising regression for the NBA 2K series, uncharacteristically stumbling off course. Is NBA 2K19 heading back in the right direction? In some respects, yes, but there are some key areas of concern, and design choices that I’m disappointed in. The team at Visual Concepts clearly did learn a few lessons from last year’s game however, and took gamer feedback to heart. With that in mind, NBA 2K19 is – as quite a few people have put it – the game that we should’ve received last year. At the same time, it’s not entirely the game that I was hoping for this year. Let’s take a look at the Top 5 Positives and Negatives, at least as I see them.
Top 5 Positives in NBA 2K19
5. Better Approach to MyCAREER Story
Yes, I’ve criticised MyCAREER stories at length and made my fair share of snide remarks about last year’s tale in particular. However, that’s why I have to commend 2K and acknowledge the improvement in this year’s story. Sure, the ratio of gameplay to cutscenes in The Prelude could stand to be better, and I’d still prefer to be able to skip the story without ever playing it, but overall I do approve of this new approach. As for the story, although they were a little cliché, the antagonists were genuinely dislikeable in a good way, and overall it was quite well-written and acted. I felt the humour was a lot better too, avoiding the cringe-inducing goofiness of B-Fresh.
The ability to skip The Prelude in subsequent playthroughs of MyCAREER is a very welcome addition. Again, I’d prefer to be able to skip it without even playing it once, but compared to previous years, it’s a reasonable compromise; especially with the work that’s gone into the story in NBA 2K19. It makes creating multiple players far more viable than in years past, as you can immediately jump to the end of the story where you’re beginning your NBA career. As such, it’s now a lot easier to test out different MyPLAYER Archetypes before committing your time (and possible VC purchases) to one player. Hats off to 2K for bouncing back from last year’s debacle!
4. More Retro Jerseys
When I was taking some screenshots for a couple of articles in my ongoing Friday Five series about retro teams I’d like to see added in future versions of NBA 2K, I had to fire up MyLEAGUE and dip into the community creations in order to get the right jerseys. That’s because the selection of retro jerseys in NBA 2K18 – as large as it was – lacked a lot of prominent and popular old school uniforms. I was very happy to see that the selection has been expanded this year, to the point where each team pretty much has a complete set of uniforms from the time they entered the league. At the very least, a bunch of noteworthy omissions in previous games have been added.
Some of the designs I’m glad to see include the Seattle SuperSonics jerseys that they wore through the 1995 season, the Washington Bullets’ final jerseys before becoming the Wizards, and the Orlando Magic’s jerseys from the early 2000s. Best of all, these jerseys are readily available for each of the teams, including the individual retro teams and the All-Time squads. This means that the All-Time Thunder team has uniforms from both the Oklahoma City and Seattle years, the latter being far more suitable for a lot of historical players on the roster. This is an area where NBA 2K has constantly shined over the past decade, and it’s great to see some new retro content this year.
3. Higher VC Earnings
Generally speaking, I wouldn’t describe Virtual Currency as a positive in NBA 2K games. Last year’s VC gouging was shamelessly greedy and I’m not buying 2K’s feeble excuses for it, but I will still give credit where it’s due. Gamers let their voices be heard, and despite the record-breaking sales and recurrent revenue figures, 2K has listened and been kinder with the VC rewards this year. The payouts in MyCAREER are much higher, and the difficulty multiplier has returned. Again, we shouldn’t really celebrate the simple fact that 2K is walking back on a scummy approach that was very much a blatant cash grab, but we wanted these changes to VC, and we got them.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the grind in NBA 2K, and for me, what it comes down to is this: the Road to 99 shouldn’t be a short stroll around the block, but it also shouldn’t be akin to crawling on your hands and knees all the way from New York to Los Angeles, on a road littered with broken glass. Sure, pay-to-win mechanics aren’t going anywhere, but to extend the above metaphor, as long as the people who elect to drive across country instead of flying still have a fun trip, that’s what matters. There are some exorbitant prices and some tough grinding in MyCAREER, but as long as 2K fixes a recent nerf, the process should be far more pleasant than in NBA 2K18.
2. Various Improvements Across the Board
I really like the revamped play vision in NBA 2K19. It’s clear, intuitive, and does a great job of guiding you through the play. In turn, this demonstrates the work that has gone into the playcalling functionality and AI this year. Even when I don’t call a play, I’m seeing players cutting to the hoop, taking advantage of holes in the defense and favourable mismatches, and generally playing a bit smarter on offense. We’ve also got some more control over cutters, and while I’m still getting used to it, the Takeover system doesn’t seem to be too overpowered like I feared it might be. If anything, it might be a little harsh in how a single bad shot or turnover can stifle momentum.
Menus are great this year, both visually and from a functionality standpoint. The user interface in NBA 2K games has been a mixed bag over the years, but in NBA 2K19, I think they’ve taken an approach that is both aesthetically pleasing and very easy to navigate, with minimal back and forth. While I’m still not a fan of The Neighborhood concept, the design and layout is greatly improved. The ability to skip cutscenes was overdue, though some unfortunately remain unskippable. Starting cards in MyTEAM seem a bit more generous, even excluding pre-order bonuses. 2K can’t please all of us in every way, but NBA 2K19 has some nice additions and fixes across the board.
If you’re like me and have strayed from the franchise experience somewhat in recent years, there’s probably no better time to get back into it. This year’s MyLEAGUE is as good as it’s ever been. Not only does it retain all the features that have allowed it to become the deepest franchise mode we’ve ever seen in basketball gaming, but it’s got a bunch of new wrinkles in the form of additional tuning sliders, and a new player mentor system. It’s been difficult to think of suggestions for MyLEAGUE these past few years, but the franchise team at Visual Concepts has found a way to keep adding new features and content to an incredibly deep mode. It’s really quite impressive.
Speaking of new content, this year we have historical Draft Classes that we can bring into the modern NBA. Not every player is licensed of course, but as with the regular Draft Classes, we’re able to edit them and add missing players as necessary. I should also note that MyGM has benefitted from added depth, and for those who’d prefer not to play through the MyGM story, it can be skipped entirely. I prefer MyLEAGUE and its more traditional experience where I have more control, but the bottom line is that franchise gaming is a very appealing option in NBA 2K19. My burnout on the career modes couldn’t have come at a better time, all things considered.
Top 5 Negatives in NBA 2K19
5. Legacy Issues
For better or worse, in many ways NBA 2K19 is a lot like its immediate predecessor and other recent titles in the series. That’s a good thing when it comes to areas and aspects of the game that are well done, but there are some noticeable legacy issues. In some cases, these issues have been present for several years now, and some even feel worse in NBA 2K19, compounding my frustration with them. It’s difficult not to feel disgruntled when you look at some of the new bells and whistles, and feel that time would’ve been better spent ironing out legacy issues. True, different teams work on different aspects of the game so that’s not exactly fair, but you can’t help thinking it.
Grading logic in MyCAREER is still bad, and now unnecessarily harsher. Canned moments, whether it’s “press steal to foul”, rebounds that seem to warp right into an opponent’s hands, or passing directly to a CPU opponent for a turnover on what should be an easy pass, can make the gameplay feel predetermined. Psychic steals, body steals, and elbow blocks still occur too often. Some of the problems with the motion engine introduced in NBA 2K18 are back (more on that later). Shot selection by teammates in MyCAREER is still a little suspect. In short, due to technical issues, oversight, or focus elsewhere, a lot of legacy issues do remain in NBA 2K19.
4. Microtransaction Mechanics Are Still Pushy
Just because VC rewards have been increased this year, it doesn’t mean that NBA 2K19 doesn’t try its best to force gamers to spend even more money. You still start out at 60 Overall in MyCAREER, and you’re not even past The Prelude when it becomes clear that you need to upgrade quicker than your earnings will allow. An obnoxious “Get VC” button has been added to the MyCAREER menu; you don’t even have to get to a store before NBA 2K19 starts pushing you, a figurative hand placed firmly in the small of your back, towards microtransactions. The Ante-Up building even has ATMs along its walls that are used to purchase VC. Very subtle, 2K!
Prices in The Neighborhood appear to have been inflated along with the increase in VC earnings, thereby reducing the ground we gained. At least it’s possible for us to negotiate a starting salary that’s higher than the cost of a pair of shorts, and we do get one free pair of grey basketball shorts that we can pick up from Swag’s if we’d like to change out of the default sweats. I wonder what happened to all those clothes that we were wearing during The Prelude; Gameplay and Story Segregation, I suppose. In any event, while there has been some improvement in terms of VC and grinding, the game still pushes microtransactions, and pay-to-win mechanics set the competitive balance.
3. MyTEAM Auction House Locked Once Again
Even though MyTEAM is loaded with content, is a lot deeper in terms of features, modes, and functionality, and allows me the opportunity to get Michael Jordan, I actually prefer Ultimate Team in NBA Live. You see, for all its great qualities, MyTEAM has some significant design flaws that get in the way of the fun. From the pack odds to retaining the outdated concept of contracts, there’s a tedious grind. Also, while it’s handy to be able to create multiple lineups, simply reordering your bench or moving players in and out of the starting lineup uses a rather clunky interface. A single button press can select players to move them around in an LUT lineup.
However, the most egregious design flaw in NBA 2K19’s MyTEAM is that once again, the Auction House is locked at the beginning. The fact that you have to unlock a basic function of the mode is bad enough, but this year, it requires you to complete online objectives, specifically winning games in the new Triple Threat Online and Unlimited modes. On the surface, these are reasonable tasks. Once you factor in lag, pay-to-win mechanics, and poor sportsmanship though, not so much. It’s simply not good design to force people to play and win modes they may not be interested in, just to access basic functionality. It was a bad idea last year, and it’s a bad idea this year.
2. CPU Teammate Defense
This is easily one of the most bothersome gameplay issues in NBA 2K19. Simply put, your CPU-controlled teammates aren’t very smart on defense. All too often, I see them scooting out of the way or standing out of position to begin with, allowing an opposing player to casually waltz into the paint and score with an uncontested dunk or layup. Now, defensive breakdowns should happen from time to time, but this is “Are you sure you’re not playing for the other side?” levels of incompetence. It’s not as bad when you’re controlling all five players because you can conceivably rapidly switch between defenders and plug the holes yourself. It’s far from ideal, though.
Furthermore, it’s not an option in player locked gameplay, where you’re at the mercy of your AI teammates paying attention and making an effort, to say nothing of smart decisions. Pick and roll defense is also problematic in NBA 2K19. Your teammates have a habit of being magnetically drawn to the screener and sticking to them, or simply not switching properly. This leads to open shots and drives, and more often than not, “Defensive Breakdown” penalties in MyCAREER. Look, I’m not saying that defense or gameplay in general should be easy, but when it feels like you’re playing 1-on-9, the challenge feels rather artificial. It’s not the sim style I know 2K is going for.
1. Skating, Floating, & The Motion System in General
I’m a little hesitant to write off the current motion system that’s been utilised in NBA 2K18 and NBA 2K19, especially after I gave IGNITE chance after chance in NBA Live. It’s turned out alright following the implementation of Real Player Motion, so there’s a chance that NBA 2K’s tech can be salvaged as well. However, I would have to say that so far, it’s been a bust. NBA 2K’s animations still look fantastic – for the most part – and the game is still generally smooth and responsive on the sticks as well. As quite a few people have already noted however, there are times when NBA 2K19 just doesn’t look or feel quite right in terms of player movement.
Year two of the new motion system has done very little to curb the issue of players skating and sliding around the court. If anything, it’s worse. Players glide along the hardwood as though they’re on ice, often advancing a fair distance up the hardwood without planting their feet. This leads to moments where the controls feel very loose and sloppy, with strange speed boosts where the players and the basketball awkwardly snap into place. There are rocket dunks and layups, not unlike the ones seen in NBA Live. It feels surprisingly “last gen” for NBA 2K, especially given how the series has consistently gone from strength to strength from a technological standpoint.
That’s my take on the full version of NBA 2K19 so far; my comprehensive review will be coming soon. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on NBA 2K19? Let me know in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.