Review by Nick H.
For basketball fans, NBA 2K18 provides the best gameplay experience out there. It is heavily weighted towards being a simulation experience, which has both benefits and drawbacks depending on your experience with the sport coming in. However, despite game itself being fantastic on the court, there are a handful of notable issues that keep this year’s iteration from being perfect.
For starters, I will preface this by saying the 2K basketball series is one of the games I most look forward to every year. I love the NFL, and Madden is another yearly guilty pleasure of mine, but for most of the last decade the 2K brand of basketball has been the best sports title year in and year out. Even if I like a different sport more (the NBA is runner up to the NFL for me), certain things about NBA 2K keep me coming back to it on and off for months after I have abandoned other sports titles. Fun fact – I was playing 2K17 with some friends online less than a month ago. That is some serious staying power.
Because I am still quite bullish on this year’s release, I’m going to talk first about the improvements over last year’s game. For one, the visuals are fantastic. You still get the occasional second rate player whose face just doesn’t quite look right, but by and large the biggest stars are immediately recognisable and the players animate fantastically in-game. Sure, there are a few moments here and there were a limb may clip through someone a little oddly, but for my money NBA titles have the toughest job in sports when it comes to the visuals. Unlike hockey or football, you are seeing the majority of the player. This means their physical differences and faces are more pronounced than sports where helmets and padding have a way of homogenizing players from the same team. Because the number of players on the court are also fewer, the camera tends to be in closer to the action than in games like FIFA. Additionally, fields in games like FIFA have a tendency to be a bit more static, with green grass and painted lines rimmed with fans making up the majority of the environment where in contrast the NBA hardwood tends to show off reflective lights and colours as signs in the background for various advertising partners sometimes change up every few minutes. So to that end, NBA 2K18 deserves some serious kudos for continuing to push the boundary in regard to visual realism.
The 2K series has always always had one of the better audio presentations as well. A NBA season is 82 games, not including playoff games. That is ample opportunity for the commentary to become very repetitive within a single season, and you will certainly hear some statements several times over the course of a season, but the convincingly television-like presentation (complete with cut-ins, replays and TNT pre-game commentary) really helps to sell the experience. Additionally, the announcers have some variation depending on the game, which helps to keep things fresh. I think if they had the same static two or three announcers all game every game, the commentary would wear thin a lot faster, but for the last few years 2K Sports has done an excellent job of adding additional people to the colour commentary such as Doris Burke and Chris Webber, while sprinkling in new personalities this season such as Kobe Bryant.
As for the gameplay itself, if I had to define this year’s controls, I would say they feel somewhat looser. That is not a bad thing. In a platforming title, having tight, precise controls makes absolute sense, but in a sports title having players who feel as though they are on rails is not a good thing. Basketball is one of the most visually creative sports on the planet, whether it’s the variety of ways you can dribble the ball, to the mid-air acrobatics of players as they drive to the hoop to the variety of release points in jumpshots that vary in technique from player to player. Therefore, having a little more freedom in how your characters move can certainly cause some problems as you play (the ball pokes loose more than ever before, which is certainly realistic as it does not feel like it is glued to a player’s hands and defence does not feel quite as locked-in as prior iterations of the game), but you learn to adapt to them and the experience comes away feeling more authentic for it.
While the actual gameplay is something of a dream for a veteran NBA game fan such as myself, it is not terribly accessible to newcomers. There are some really detailed menus that help to explain basic moves from dribbling and passing to more complicated techniques such as spin moves, skip passes and offensive principles. I have been toying around with two career modes so far, just because I like the vastly different archtypes you can construct and how they impact the flow of the game in dramatically different ways. I feel my bulky center is better equipped for lower level play because he can do dirty work such as setting screens and getting rebounds to help his development along more quickly than my slashing three point specialist, who needs to have the ball in his hands to perform. The former tends to get higher team mate grades as a result, which allows him to earn more currency.
I will say that I’m actually pretty pleased with most of the tweaks to the team mate system. This has been around for years now, and while it is not perfect, it has made some pretty solid strides in this year’s entry. In the past I would play good rotational defence with my center, only to have the ball handler kick a pass over to the man I rotated off of. In no world should that cost me because I was playing good team defence, but in the past the system did not account for this, and I would regularly get dinged for a ‘defensive breakdown’ when my computer AI team members failed to rotate over and cover my man. More often than not, little things like that no longer ding your team mate grade in this year’s entry, and I appreciate the improved nuance in the system.
That said, I will toss out one small gripe about character development that impacts your team grade, and that is free throw shooting. Every character seems to start with a 65 overall free throw rating which… sucks, frankly. But at least in last year’s game, you could put in extra work at scheduled practices and bring it up a point at a time and make progress. So far as I have been able to see and ascertain with much online Googling, the only way to improve your free throw shooting is by increasing the Free Throw Ace Badge. Doing so will help it to go up 10 points, but it’s a big jump and lacking that incremental improvement found in every other ability. Also, it’s a huge slog to get that first one, since you are going to be bricking a lot of free throws along the way. Worse yet, missing two free throws on a single trip drops your team grade by one whole bar (so a B+ becomes a B).
If anyone from 2K reads the above – consider putting a practice ability in, because it is really annoying for me, and based on what I have read online, no one else is really happy about that particular change either so far. Moving on…
This then moves me into discussing the various modes, which are essentially the same as last year, but with some revisions along the way. I don’t know why, but I’ve taken more to the fantasy/ collectible card game modes in sporting titles this year than I have in years past, and that mode is found in MyTeam. Here you open packs of cards, and try to make the best squad you can out of them. There are various goals that get updated throughout the season that encourage you to keep coming back and playing again in hopes of dangling some new packs to open while hopefully upgrading your team. In most sports titles, this is the primary form of microtransaction (such as Madden’s MUT). There is certain an aspect of that here as well, but take note of this first mention of microtransactions, because it will become a bit more of a theme later in this review.
While the MyTeam is interesting enough, it is not the best of the modes. MyGM/ MyLeague are two of the beefier options out there as well. MyLeague is essentially you setting up a league – potentially with friends online where you manage a team through NBA seasons. It is… interesting, but not quite what I am looking for. I really enjoy the online franchise mode in titles like Madden, yet if there has been one hole in the NBA 2K portfolio for the last several years, this has been it. MyLeague is not a progression / development heavy simulation experience like the online franchise modes found in games like Madden, and while I have given it a pass the last couple of years, my friends and I are baffled that this mode still feels so bare bones. We would love a MyGM-mode online for us to play through several seasons like we do in sports games, but it does not exist. MyGM is a much more story-driven experience. Things kick off with your ex-NBA player suffering a career-ending injury several years prior, and then fast forwarding you to the present day where you now take over the GM duties of your chose team. I certainly enjoy the more narrative-driven experience, and while I am not suggesting MyLeague needs a story to be fun, I think it would benefit from the more detailed management options found in the MyGM mode.
Moving on to MyCareer however, I now get to talk about my favourite mode in the series and arguably the most popular mode as well. 2K Sports has struck gold here, as it has often found a great balance between grinding for VC (the game’s currency) that you can use to improve your player, and allowing you to make pretty regular gains in your character’s improvement. There is also usually a story tucked in there. A few years ago they introduced a story created by Spike Lee, and while I did not much care for the story itself, I thought the emphasis on a story was a cool idea. Last year 2K continued this trend, and this year is another nice variation on the story surrounding your player’s career. Unlike the prior years that followed a sort of preps to pros storyline, 2K18 starts your character off on the streetball circuit.
This is a pretty smart choice, given the rise in popularity of NBA 2K’s online modes that allow you to bring your MyCareer player online to compete with and against friends and complete strangers in a variety of different games. In fact, this is all tied neatly together in a giant hub that thankfully does away with the somewhat confusing menu system of the past. Last year you had to log into your MyCareer mode and then choose some different options from the menu that allowed you to play online. It got even more convoluted if you wanted to join your friends. Now there is a small city at your disposal that serves as a sort of physical hub. Last year if you had a promotional event in MyCareer, you picked a menu item and went. Now you walk to the NBA store and wind up taking selfies with some fans, again lending that more story-driven flavour to the experience. Now, some will probably bemoan the various cutscenes that cannot be skipped, but I generally don’t mind because these story bits are what separate 2K basketball from other sports titles.
Now everything is more cleanly blended. You can go to your navigation menu and play the next game on your calendar, or you can run to the team’s practice facility to work on your player’s stats. If you prefer, you can jog down the road and around the corner and the online courts are right there ready and waiting for you. This interconnected hub can be a little laggy (and it sure was on release day, forcing me to disconnect twice) and leads to some lengthier loading times than I cared for now and again, but I have to say I liked the overall idea and had fun with it. Combine this with a more robust character creation process in MyCareer that has you layering archtypes by picking two (you can be a deadly 3-point specialist by making that both your primary and secondary skill, or you can choose to be a center doing the dirty work and go with a defensive primary and rebounding secondary – it’s entirely up to you as it impacts your badges and stat caps) and clearer badge progression, and character growth is one of the most rewarding of any sports game.
However, it is also one of the most grind-heavy of any I have ever seen. Now, I am an old school RPG fan, so grinding does not get to me the way it does a lot of other people, but I can easily see where the new progression system might rub some players the wrong way. Why? Because the grind seems almost unnaturally slow when compared to games from the prior years, but it goes back to the aforementioned VC. Microtransactions do not only exist in the MyTeam / fantasy card mode, but in fact are a part of the MyCareer mode like never before. If this was just impacting an offline single player mode, that would be one thing, but since MyCareer is directly tied into the online component, it starts to give off a very heavy pay to win vibe.
Your player starts at a 60 overall. I had this game in my hands as early as anyone, actually before the five day pre-release period. I sunk several hours in that first morning and got myself up to a 64. I figured I would be ahead of the game a bit and strolled over to the local courts to where there were already quite a few 80 and 90-something players. Now mind you, there are multiple versions of this game you can buy that have things like additional packs of cards and bonus VC, but it was clear that people were dropping big bucks on this. While this is no doubt good for the bottom line at 2K, I can’t help but wonder if this is bad for the health of the game in the long run. Pay to win is generally accepted in a free-to-play game, but generally with titles you are already paying a AAA price on, these kinds of microtransactions are limited to cosmetic items for the sake of game balance. No matter how good your timing is on releasing a jump shot or how crafty you are when playing defence, the fact of the matter is this: a player who is an 85 overall is going to destroy a player who is 65 overall just about every single time. They are faster, they are stronger, they have more shots available to them and they have a wider margin of error under the hood when determining if a shot is going to go in or whose hands a rebound is going to stick to.
You can do that as well, mind you. Buying a new pair of shoes or increasing your character’s vertical come from the same pool of VC. It’s been that way for a long time. However, as I found myself running past the NBA store and rounding the corner past a Foot Locker shop on may way back from the multiplayer basketball courts, I could not help but wonder if perhaps 2K Sports has gone a bit too far down the road to sponsorship and microtransactions. I would strongly recommend that for the sake of gameplay balance in future iterations, that the development team give some serious thought to the idea that stat improvement should only be earned and only cosmetics be purchased (perhaps with a second form of currency). Of course if they continue to make money off of the current model given the popularity of these modes, it is unlikely 2K will opt to go my suggested route, but one can hope.
The only other negative I have is that last season there were some pretty big technical issues that crept up weeks after I posted my review of NBA 2K17, including a frozen MyCareer player and some nasty freezing/ crashing issues. Had they occurred during my review process, it would no doubt have driven the score down by a half star or more, but they did not. To their credit, 2K managed to fix just about all of them, and the final product was pretty spectacular. Still, I was hoping that they would have learned from those lessons but things got off to a pretty rough start for me with this year’s release as well. Nothing as bad as the stuck MyCareer player that would not load, but I have had a handful of freezing issues during the days prior to the official release. A patch went out last night fixing several problems, and since then my experience has been cleaner. As a result, I can’t really hold those concerns over my review score this year as I don’t know that they’re going to be present in the final product, but my confidence is at least somewhat shaken based on the problems I experienced last year. Hopefully nothing new crops up a week or a month after this review goes live, as we do not go back and change our scores once they go live. This is however, why I wanted to wait a couple of days before this review goes live just to test out the server and patch stability which currently seem fine.
I can honestly say that NBA 2K18 is a bit of a challenge. In terms of modes and quality of gameplay, this year’s edition is fantastic. I can easily see myself playing it both by myself and with friends online for several months, if not throughout the next year until 2K19 comes out. It really is that good. Over the last week, I come back to it time and again whenever I have a gap of spare time, regardless of the concerns I have about it. However, a handful of technical hiccups mixed with an aggressive monetisation strategy could very well leave a questionable taste in peoples’ mouths.
– Nick H.