Ongoing sports franchises in video games can seem like a bit of an odd proposition. On the one hand, of course, they do what they do extremely well year on year; developers like EA and 2K iterate on tried-and-tested formulae to ensure that each instalment of franchises like FIFA and NBA is as polished and accomplished as it can possibly be. On the other hand, though, they’re undeniably niche products, not meant for consumption by a general audience in the same way as certain films or musical genres.
NBA 2k19 is not meant for a non-basketball audience any more than Dark Souls is meant for casual gamers. With that said, although it should likely fall to those who love the sport to see if the game does it justice, Sports games have always had a certain crossover appeal; titles like FIFA have become mainstays in the gaming rooms of millions worldwide, whether they’re interested in football or not. With that in mind, we corralled the opinions of both basketball aficionados and newbies in order to construct as impartial a review as possible here. Thankfully, we can categorically say that NBA 2k19 continues the proud legacy of its forebears with aplomb. Mostly, anyway.
The first thing that surprised us as we headed into a game of this new NBA was how punishing it can feel to new players. We had a couple of newbies try it out and they got schooled up and down the court, while those of us who are NBA veterans only fared slightly better on a first run. There’s an increased focus on defensive AI in NBA 2k19 which makes aggressive plays a lot more difficult than they have been in the series up until now, while ball control and court positioning is more important than it’s ever been. Often, sports games have something of a reputation for not reinventing the wheel, but NBA 2k19 feels like a markedly different game on the court.
Of course, for basketball newbies, this probably isn’t going to matter, especially if it’s just going to be you and your friends on a Friday night gathered around your console. The sense of realism and verisimilitude to actual NBA basketball is astonishing, and neophytes and experts alike will appreciate the incredible attention to detail that’s gone into each animation. There’s still the occasional hiccup when it comes to the engine; previous instalments in the series are slightly notorious for having some hilarious physics glitches, and NBA 2k19 is no exception.
It’s nitpicking to point this out in a game with so much content for basketball lovers, though. MyCareer has been significantly improved since NBA 2k18’s rather depressing cash-grab microtransaction-fest; upgrades and cosmetic items are no longer hiding behind a baffling paywall, which makes the career mode feel more complete as a result. Progression through the career as a whole feels better, more streamlined and more focused. It feels as though 2K have paid attention to fan feedback and implemented it here, resulting in a single-player experience that (while still undeniably slight) feels much more like a video game than a thinly-veiled plea for your money.
Unfortunately, that cash-grab element does rear its ugly head in the game’s MyTeam mode. Devised as an answer to EA’s ubiquitous FIFA Ultimate Team feature, MyTeam similarly sees players collecting cards and constructing fantasy teams based around those cards. It’s a known fact that 2K sees microtransactions as a necessary evil, so it won’t come as a shock to hear that MyTeam is absolutely riddled with them. Sure, there are ways to earn enough in-game currency to purchase card packs, but the grind is extremely intensive and repetitive; it feels like the game was intentionally designed poorly in order to extract cash from players.
Elsewhere, NBA 2k19 plays like a souped-up, slightly better version of NBA 2k18. Cash-grab elements aside, the MyGM mode makes a reappearance here, and it’s not really any better or worse than it was last year. Customisation is incredibly deep and detailed, so if you’re the kind of person who stays awake at night calculating stats and building your own basketball franchise, then you’ll be happy as the proverbial pig in NBA 2k19. The big new addition gameplay-wise is the ability to contest every shot as it comes, so you’ll need to watch players closely to see what they’re doing with the ball and react accordingly. It’s organic and leads to a lot of compelling situations, but whether it’s enough to make you plump for this installment remains to be seen.
In the end, NBA 2k19 is more great basketball from 2K. Like many of its peers, it shies away from reinventing the wheel, but it does add one or two new features (and remove some of its predecessor’s more contentious habits). On-court, the game feels great; it’s more true-to-life than it’s ever been, moving us ever closer to the perfect basketball simulation. Off the court, things could stand to improve a little, but we won’t begrudge the game that when the core gameplay loop is so satisfying and well-implemented.