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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review: NBA 2K20 (Microsoft Xbox One)


Review by Nick H.

There is a lot to do in NBA 2K20, and most of it is a good deal of fun. Some new inclusions, from the WNBA to a heavily modified player builder are welcome additions as well. That being said, the entire framework being built on connectivity and microtransactions does test my patience at times as well.

With almost all sports games, there is a focus on iterative improvement. I play these year in and year out, and there is a fine line between those who shout 'roster update' versus those who feel there are notable gameplay changes. Given the tight release cycles and the tweaks along the way, I do not expect wholesale changes each and every year (in fact, I imagine many players would be upset by this because the title would risk losing its sense of familiarity). The typical check boxes can be found here as a starting place:
  • Improved visuals
  • Less repetitive announcers
  • Tweaked existing or altogether new modes
  • Updated rosters
  • New music tracks
And so on...

NBA 2K20 manages to do all of the above things that are basically expected with each and every release. So the question then circles around whether or not there are other, notable changes worth talking about. One of the most prominent this year was the addition of the WNBA. Adding the women to NBA 2K20 was a nice touch, even if it comes across as slightly superficial due to a lack of career or franchise modes in it. I get it, because creating two MyCareer modes - one for women and male - would likely be a lot of work, however, its omission does mean the women's game a welcome, if shallow inclusion. EA's NBA offering actually did that last season, though the recent EA announcement that NBA LIve is getting a postponed launch means that 2K20 the only real hoops game to choose from at the moment.


MyGM is probably my second most heavily played mode, and while the overall experience is still solid, I struggle to find any discernible way that this particular mode has improved. In fact, it feels as though it took a step back due to several of the customisation options found in previous years having been stripped out of this one. Also, the initial structure was not well explained as you spend action points each day to do certain things. I tend to be hyper-focused on how to improve my team right out of the gates and then play games, and did not realise that I had missed a couple of games by accident that the AI auto-played for me. It is not a bad system necessary, just a bit ambiguous early on. The strangest addition is adding online leaderboards. For a notoriously single player experience, I find myself asking who requested this feature. I certainly do not see any point to it.

MyLeague has lots of options still for those who like to heavily customise leagues for others to participate in, but it also has an undeniable sense of sameness to it as the last year or two. I am sure a handful of things were tweaked, but I honestly cannot pinpoint a single one right now as I write about it. This kind of untouched mode is not going to do much to silent those who like to say that sports titles skimp on adding new features to their games. I am also not a tremendous fan of MyTeam - a sort of fusion between fantasy sports and collecting sports cards. I do both of those things heavily in real life, so I seem like the perfect audience for this feature (and to be fair, it shows up in many of the big sports titles, like the EA games or The Show on PlayStation). The premise seems simple and interesting at first: open some packs of cards, get some random players and ancillary items and take on a bunch of challenges to earn currency to buy more digital packs of cards.

I think my two largest quibbles with the MyTeam mode is that it can be very slow to start. Full disclosure, but when I received this game for review, I was given the Legend Edition, which comes with a couple of free cards for the MyTeam mode as well as a notable amount of two different types of currencies. MyTeam mode actually has three currencies. The primary currency in this game is the VC, which is used across this mode and MyCareer and has long been a sticking spot for those who feel the 2K series is a bit too money hungry (more on that later). You can use VC (in large quantities) to buy large 'boxes' of cards instead of 'packs'. There is another currency you earn from playing the MyTeam mode, and that cannot be used on the bigger boxes, but can be used to purchase individual packs. There are also tokens you can earn through completing certain gameplay objectives and then unlocking special items. Given the slow start rate and these different currencies, I decided to play without spending any of it out of the gates. I was able to hold my own rather well with some of the lighter-weight challenges, but it was not until I started to burn through some of my free currency in this mode that things started to pick up.


It has to be noted that there is also a weird gambling controversy following the MyTeam mode. And while the game avoided being flagged in the US or Europe for it, that has not necessarily quelled the concerns voiced. With mini-games such as slot machines or wheel spins available to help earn items or currency more quickly. I find the controversy a little strange after experiencing the modes myself. For one, the daily wheel spin was in the game last year, and I do not recall any kind of a fuss about it. In fact, I personally appreciated the ability to get some free items or VC just for logging in once a day and spinning a virtual wheel. I log into a variety of games on a daily basis, both on my phone and on my consoles to collect these types of earnings and accelerate my gameplay experience.

To me, this is not a worthwhile controversy. You are not actually spending anything to play them. It is no different than being a contestant on or watching Wheel of Fortune. You spend nothing to potentially get something minor. There are legitimate complains to be made about the slow nature of progression and the selling of VC, especially over the last couple of years, but at least in my mind, this is not gambling and is no worse or different than the slot machine between stages back in Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES.

The primary mode in all recent NBA 2K games however, is the MyCareer mode. This mode, like MyTeam, benefits heavily from VC spending. You can earn VC of course, by playing well in-game, but for those who want to compete at a high level out of the gates, you are going to probably have to spend money or grind a lot. That being said, I actually think this year's NBA 2K title is the least grind-heavy and VC-needy I have seen it in years. I was a little surprised by this actually, because when I first opened up the big new feature in this year's MyCareer mode, which was the character builder, I saw how easy it was to create a variety of different archetypes for your characters. Of course, applying that gameplay style to your character is basically rolling up a new character from scratch each time. My initial thought was: "Hey, this is really cool. I can build up a quick, flashy point guard, an athletic shooting guard with a nice three point stroke and even my usual - a beastly, athletic centre who is focused more on setting good screens and doing the dirty work under the boards than working with the ball in my hands." However, it was quickly followed by: "Good lord, I'm going to need a boatload of VC to ever see these builds on the court."


This is because the last two years, progress in MyCareer mode was slo-o-o-o-o-o-w. As an RPG fan my entire life, I'm good with some grind. I actually enjoy it - but I'm not most people and I have witnessed my son trying to play games with grind-heavy mechanics and watched him give up long before making any significant progress. But as I played here, I found that VC was relatively easy to come by. Sure, you can spend some money and accelerate the process, but I by no means felt like I had to after I dumped my bundled VC into my centre and then moved on to my shooting guard to see if the story mode could be made to play out differently than it had the first time. So, much to my delight - progression in this mode feels really good compared to the last couple of years. However, the general online hub is very close to what was available last year, and is again one of those things that some fans are going to view as a copy/paste job due to a lack of new additions there.

Speaking of the story mode, NBA 2K has for years now had the best narrative experience in sports gaming. It has felt like years that other games are just trying to play catch-up, and even when the story itself was not the best, the experience was still pretty engrossing. This year's storyline seems pretty clear-cut. It is not much of a spoiler here, as these events happen almost right away in MyCareer mode, but in this career, your supremely talented player is trying to lead his team through the collage post season when one of the more well-liked players on the team is badly hurt. So badly hurt, that he is not going to be able to continue his basketball career, so the school and coach are pulling his scholarship and sending him away from the team to fend for himself in rehabilitating from the injury. Your player stands up to the system - making a strong statement in support for his team mate, but at the same time is now viewed by a lot of pro teams as being a selfish guy (despite the opposite really being true). This mode was produced by Lebron James, who has had quite a bit of social commentary of his own he has shared in recent years. Mechanically it is all sound with excellent animation, an entertaining story, a couple of big-name actors voicing characters and a rather cool (if overly long) draft combine process.

What I liked best about this however, was I had a character who was standing up for what he believed was right, even if the decision to do so was unpopular in many circles. I am not saying all sports games should have social or political commentary, and I know athletes speaking their minds on those topics has become rather divisive in recent years. That being said, this storyline actually reflects some of that social commentary, which is both unusual and enjoyable from my standpoint. In and of itself, the idea that a player might stand up for a team mate that he feels was done wrong by their establishment is not all that controversial, but it is a bit more interesting and insightful than the usual rags to riches tales that we usually see from these titles.


There is a strong sense of connectivity between these different modes, in part due to the currencies involved - and that just leaves a slightly weird taste in my mouth even if it feels like money-grubbing than in years past. Additionally, the online connectivity still provides issues as well. MyCareer and MyTeam require you to be connected to the Internet so you can access your VC pool. Both modes have online competitive components as well. The street ball games in MyCareer are probably the most popular part of NBA 2K over the last several years, and NBA 2K20 is no different. Taking your custom character onto the courts to compete with friends and against others is a lot of fun - but it also encourages you to level up that MyCareer player as quickly as possible - which lends itself to that VC purchasing conversation. It is pay-to-win, at least on some level.

There are other issues as well. Every year I seem to run into a weird profile bug or two some three or four weeks after my review is posted. None of them have been too terrible (though one did require a couple of weeks for the team to fix the issue with one of my characters three years ago), but this year as soon as the public joined in, it was clear that the 2K servers were getting hit pretty hard. I had about a half-dozen or so unexplained disconnections that booted me out of my game or practice activity over the last few days. Connectivity issues have also plagued a couple of my online matches that felt incredibly jittery and borderline unplayable. Perhaps the most annoying glitch I have had is an inability to spend my earned VC on stats every now and then. Just with no particular warning or reason, the system will tell me that my skill purchase failed, even though I am just trying to improve my character in MyCareer mode while trying to enjoy the single player content. That it requires me to be connected online and bugs out is mildly annoying when it happens.

Last but not least, the gameplay is certainly different this year compared to the last couple. At first, I found it a little bit off-putting. Defence is certainly more challenging, as the game's speed is just a tick faster and just holding down the lateral movement trigger does not necessarily mean you will stay in front of your opponent. Big guys moving as quickly as the smaller, zippier ones is a thing of the past, and your stats in the defensive categories seem to have a great impact on your effectiveness as well. It makes the gameplay this year feel a bit less 'sticky' during collisions like playing defence or setting a screen. It is a bit more realistic, which I can appreciate - but it definitely took some getting used to. I still believe that out of all sports games, the NBA ones are the most difficult to do right visually and in terms of how the players collide and interact with one another. Baseball players are relatively linear, titles like golf and tennis are more about the movement of the ball than the players themselves, hockey and NFL players are made bulky and generic via their padding and uniforms. Only soccer players really have that same level of visibility that basketball players due with their jerseys and shorts, but there is so much collision that happens on the basketball court that animations have the potential to go wild. Kudos to the NBA 2K20 team for making the vast majority of these interactions look and feel more accurate than ever.


NBA 2K20 is a fun game that has tweaked a handful of different modes, provided a better story than usual and modified the gameplay in a challenging new way that takes some getting used to. I really do wish they would just do away with the whole currency option altogether, because I suspect you would see more people trying out different types of players and experiencing more of the game without the artificial slowness that forces you to grind or pay. Additionally, there are still some rough edges around the required connectivity for all of the modes, though it seems to be in a better state than the game was at this time last year. These are real flaws and concerns, and for those who feel that annual sports titles are nothing but roster updates with minimal changes, my guess is NBA 2K20 will not be the title that sways you otherwise. However, I appreciate the RPG-like elements sprinkled into the various modes of play, the improved sense of progression and the better-than-ever action on the court enough to know that this will likely be my most heavily played sports title of the year.



- Nick H.
US Editor




Review: NBA 2K20 (Microsoft Xbox One)
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