Last weekend, I got a group of friends together to play a few sports games. We hung out, ate some pizza, and played a number of matches throughout the day. As you might have guessed (since you’re reading this review), one of the games we spent a good chunk of time with was NBA 2K18. For hours, we had fun doing nothing but going back and forth, taking turns by passing the controller around. There were blowouts, there were close games (one even went to overtime), and in the end, I walked away feeling like NBA 2K18 was one of the best party games I played this year.
Then the next day, I sat down to fool around in the rest of the modes, and get a full taste of what developer Visual Concepts had to offer. I was completely ready to give NBA 2K18 a great review based on the previous day I had with it. With the fun and excellent gameplay that was on display, I thought there was no way this game can let me down. Then, jumping into the “MyPlayer” mode, I quickly realized how utterly broken NBA 2K18 is.
Microtransactions are often a boogieman that are talked about within the gaming industry as something that is ruining the nature of traditional retail games. From controversies surrounding Destiny 2 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War, to the pseudo-gambling economies that a lot of multiplayer games find themselves caught up in via loot boxes. No matter how you slice it, microtransactions have been a huge talking point this year. While I personally understand the argument from both sides, I think there is a line that publishers can cross that goes a step too far as to what is acceptable in a retail game. NBA 2K18, more than any game I’ve ever played, completely crosses the line and smashes with it any argument that a publisher could have as to why microtransactions (implemented this way) in fully-priced retail titles can be acceptable.
Typically, in a sports game, microtransactions are located in some sort of collectibles mode. Be it in FIFA, Madden or NHL‘s “Ultimate Team”, or MLB: The Show’s “Diamond Dynasty”. This type of game mode has existed in sports games for a number of years. In NBA 2K18, publisher 2K Games has essentially infected the entire franchise by shoehorning microtransactions into nearly every corner of the game.
To start, NBA2K’s “MyPlayer” has always stood as one of the best RPG-like modes across the wide variety of sports video games. Building up your player, and going through the trials and tribulations of an NBA season as always been something that I found extremely rewarding. Seeing your player’s journey play out through an extremely interesting story mode (albeit with unskippable cutscenes) over the years has redefined what a sports game story can be. But now with NBA 2K18, all of the good that I typically reserve for “MyPlayer” is being swallowed up in a sea of terribly implemented ways to monetize the game post-release.
Virtual currency (or VC) is the in-game currency within NBA 2K18, which can be earned through every game mode by playing and performing well in-game. Simple enough, and at face value, seems like something that could provide for an entertaining gameplay loop if 2K Games were willing to implement it properly. However, what 2K18 does, is take what could have been a satisfying progression system within their game and turns it into one of the most grind-heavy treadmills I’ve seen this generation (and this is coming from someone who spent quite a bit of time in the first Destiny).
To start, NBA 2K18 gives you 6000 VC, which on the surface may seem like a fine deal. However, what that amount equates to is being able to rank up your “MyPlayer” by two, bringing them up from a 60 to a 62 overall rating. From there on in, to do anything else with your “MyPlayer”, you’re forced to fork over more and more virtual currency in order to get anything done. Unfortunately, this isn’t just limited to your “MyPlayer” skills as you might think. No, virtual currency dictates things like outfit choices, haircuts, animations and other customizable option,s all of which make up the core RPG elements that NBA 2K18 is chock-full of. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t earn VC at a reasonable rate. Unsurprisingly, however, the time it takes to earn a useful amount of VC is tremendously slow, and essentially forces you into considering forking over (more) real-world money if you desire to get anywhere in “MyPlayer”.
VC, as I said earlier, is earned based on your performance within a game; simply put, the better you do, the more you earn. However, if your rating is only 62, it’s hard to perform at a level in which you can earn a lot of currency. Therefore, you’ll end up pouring all of your VC into your stats, only to find out you’re still not able to play at a consistent enough rate to purchase the various in-game items that you really want, leaving you completely dejected and unsatisfied every time you step off the court.
Couple this with the fact that despite its name, “MyPlayer” isn’t just a single player only mode. No, “MyPlayer” is linked to another mode called “MyPark”, which allows you to compete head-to-head against other people’s “MyPlayer” characters. Characters who, if other people do choose to take the easy way out and purchase VC with real money, are extremely overpowered, essentially creating a pay-to-win system. If that’s not enough, NBA 2K18 features the series’ “MyTeam” mode, which serves as just another way to spend cash in order to have a noticeable in-game advantage. While separately these things might be forgivable, combined they comprise half of the game.
I understand that video games are a business. But, I also understand that businesses have customers, and there’s a fine line that you walk between upsetting your consumers to the point where your business is no longer appealing. This year’s version of 2K crosses that line on multiple levels, all of which make the game feel like a full priced version of pay-to-win mobile game.
Despite all of this, I think it would be unfair to overlook the things that NBA 2K18 does better than almost any other sports them on the market. Graphically, NBA 2K18 blows everything from FIFA to Madden out of the water. On an animation level, every player feels unique and handcrafted to match the play style of their real-life counterpart more so than anything else on the market.
The addition of an actual story to the “MyGM” mode is a step forward for sports games as a whole, and it’s something I hope will be emulated for years to come. From a presentation standpoint, 2K goes above and beyond with its commentary, featuring the likes of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, along with 11 different color commentators, that can be paired up with Kevin Harlan in the booth. This isn’t even to mention the awesome TNT-esque halftime show featuring Ernie Johnson, Kevin Smith and Shaq, all of which adds a layer of polish that few (if any) other sports game can aspire to.
Nonetheless, all of these positives play second fiddle to the disruptive and disappointing microtransactions that tarnish an otherwise mechanically sound game. Virtual currency isn’t just a small blemish that can be swept under 2K‘s rug, but rather it is a blight that sucks the enjoyment out of everything it touches (which in this case is a lot). NBA 2K18 has turned the slippery slope of microtransactions into a full-blown mountain which, without a major retooling, will be an uphill battle for the series for years to come.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by 2K Games.
NBA 2K18 is a king on the court, but its antics off it, particularly its use of microtransactions, leave it in a world of trouble.