Over the past few years, my interest in the NBA 2K franchise has waxed and waned. That has less to do with the quality of the series, though, and rather my fondness for the real-life product. With the NBA getting stuck in the relentless slog known as Cavaliers vs. Warriors for the past four years, it’s been tough sledding at times. Things feel different this year, though, even if Golden State remains the team to beat. LeBron is on the Lakers, the Process has improbably become trustworthy, and my beloved Hawks are trying to become relevant. All that and more has provided enough intrigue for me to step back on the court for NBA 2K19.
As both a yearly release and 2K Games’ major cash cow, it would be ridiculous to expect the gameplay to completely change from year to year. As such, if you are at all familiar with past iterations, you’ll be able to get acquainted with NBA 2K19 pretty easily. And that’s far from a bad thing, as Visual Concepts’ on-court action remains the best in the game. The Pro Stick may take some time to get used to, but with enough practice, you’ll be executing pick and rolls and juking out defenders with the best of them.
(Be sure to check out our review of NBA 2K19’s main competitor, NBA Live 19)
One of the new aspects to the game, though, is the addition of the Takeover system. Almost like a variation of the classic NBA Jam “On Fire” meter, the mechanic gives players a stat boost if they do things such as set-up shots, control their man and drop dimes. Once Takeover is activated, you’ll see a boost in stats for a given skill, depending on what type of player they are. A terrorizing big man may get even tougher to defend inside the paint, while a sharpshooter may become unstoppable from beyond the arc. The flip side of this, though, is that if you’re dragging the team down with a poor performance, your stats will get negatively influenced. Playing smarter is more important than ever.
If the excellent gameplay originally brought fans to the series, then the overwhelming amount of content packed into each release kept them coming back. Like previous years, NBA 2K19 features an absurd amount of modes for every kind of gamer to jump into. Interested in bringing your favorite team to the finals? Load up season or franchise mode. Want to live the life of a star? MyCareer will put you on the road to success. Intrigued by the behind the scenes nonsense of running a team? MyGM lets you undertake such an endeavor. There’s plenty here to keep the audience returning through, and even after, the upcoming NBA season.
For those that appreciate insanity with their sports game storylines, The Way Back in NBA 2K19, unfortunately, won’t satisfy your needs. For those who are more interested in just proper, good storytelling, though, the tale of fulfilling your potential is a surprise success. After going undrafted after college, your wanna-be star will need to work his way through both China and the NBA G-League to reach the big time. Boasting talent such as Anthony Mackie, Haley Joel Osment, and Rob Huebel, the story is more or less on par with most cinematic sports films. I’m not saying it’s Oscar-worthy or anything, but it’s certainly strong enough to be worth playing through at least once.
When you’re not working on grinding for success, the improved online hub of The Neighborhood is worth exploring. While the best way to boost stats and rise through the ranks is by simply playing games, additional activities in your neighborhood can help you reach your goals sooner. From playing a few pick-up games to engaging in side activities such as dodgeball, there’s plenty for your burgeoning star to do. The Neighborhood also houses most of the customization options the title possesses. For the right price, you can get some fresh ink or a new pair of shoes.
The Ultimate Team inspired MyTeam mode is back, and will probably captivate the same audience it has for years. Almost like a digital card game, the gist of it is that you acquire cards of players in order to create mini super teams. You start with only a handful of cards, but as you complete additional challenges and win games, you’ll be able to purchase more packs. As is a recurring issue with the title, you can also circumvent all of this grinding by choosing to just buy VC (NBA 2K‘s virtual currency) with real-world cash. As with these modes in EA Sports’ roster of titles, this just doesn’t really hold any appeal for me. I’m glad it’s there for fans, but I’m content with using existing rosters or just doing simple pick-up games.
For a slight change of pace, MyGM lets you take the reigns of a fresh expansion team. While you’ll be doing some playing from time to time, the focus on the mode is largely on getting your team off the ground and managing the many personalities that such an operation takes. It’s a rather absurd take on the traditional league management setting, and it’s all the better for it. What other team management sim lets you go one-on-one with the Texas tycoon caricature that owns your new team? If nothing else, it’s a welcome distraction from the more gameplay heavy other modes.
The Achilles heel of NBA 2K19, and really the series in general in recent years, is the constant specter of microtransactions. VC plays an important role in several of the major modes of the title, including the aforementioned MyTeam and MyCareer. Whether you’re trying to boost your stats or are just looking for new things to do in the neighborhood, VC is pushed regardless. While it is definitely possible to grind your way to success, purchasing VC will just get you to the same destination, but much quicker. And if you want to stand a chance in some of the online modes, you’re going to need the boost that going the microtransaction route provides. With how much money 2K Games makes from it year after year, it’s easy to see why the digital currency is pushed so hard, but that doesn’t excuse it from the headaches it often causes.
Although Sir Charles still deems himself above it, the presence of the Inside the NBA crew is a major benefit to NBA 2K19. While they can’t match their real-life camaraderie, Ernie Johnson, Shaq, and Kenny Smith are the best in the game. The pre-game banter between the trio is just one facet of the title’s strong presentation, though. The graphics are once again top-notch, with both player models and courts being easily identifiable. Sit-down player interviews can look a little shaky at times, but I think they add a lot to the action regardless. The Travis Scott curated soundtrack is also excellent. With tracks from the likes of Bruno Mars, Marshmello and Toro Y Moi, there’s a little something for everyone.
If you look at NBA 2K19 purely from a gameplay perspective, it’s arguably the strongest sports franchise on the market. The on-court action has been strong for years, and Visual Concepts continues to tinker with it successfully. Couple that with the abundance of modes and a robust presentation, and the series has arguably never been better. Still, the frustrating and overwhelming presence of microtransactions continues to bog the series down. I would never expect them to go away altogether, as that’s just where the industry is at at the moment. However, it would be nice if it didn’t constantly feel like they were being pushed down your throat.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title. A copy was provided to us by 2K Sports.
The on-court action of NBA 2K19 has never been better, and the new Takeover system adds a fresh wrinkle to the gameplay. However, the continued presence of microtransactions continues to bog down the otherwise overwhelming amount of content.