**DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of NBA 2k18. I did not pay for my own copy**
It’s difficult being an NBA fan in Australia. Everything is so fucking expensive. Official merchandise is insanely priced and even if you were able to afford the exorbitantly priced NBA League pass ($300 AUD for the season?!) which simply gives you access to watch the games; Then all the games are on in the middle of the day, when people are busy working so that they can pay off the fucking league pass subscription. So for a lot of people (like me), 2k’s NBA series is one of the best ways to get their yearly basketball fix, outside of highlight videos and shit quality streaming websites that leave your machine riddled with malware.
Launching on the dreamcast in 1999, NBA 2k quickly positioned itself as the premiere basketball simulator and has built up a very loyal, and very vocal fanbase in the franchise’s ~20 year lifespan. The series has been praised for its gameplay, its commentary and oddly enough, its soundtrack. NBA 2k18 follows the trend with a satisfying, yet at times frustrating experience, that I am incredibly excited to explore further over the coming weeks.
At time of this writing, I have spent approximately 30 hours with the game’s MyCareer mode and feel like I have a pretty solid handle on how the game looks and plays. MyCareer is less ‘story’ oriented this time around and more focused on getting your custom NBA superstar to a ‘99 overall’ rating. A rating that I would assume, means maxing all your stats and grinding out all the badges available in the game. If this is the case, then it is very safe to say that I’ll be playing MyCareer mode for a very, very long time. As stats/badge progression in NBA 2k18 is a painstakingly slow, albeit incredibly fun process. While story is less of a focus in 2k18, that doesn’t mean there is none at all. Before games, between games, in leadup to signing deals and meeting other players all contain little vignettes/sequences that flesh out characters and add enough of a story beat to have me wishing they went a little further with this, and developed a story mode that didn’t end up feeling largely unimportant, uninspired and ultimately being more of a hinderance to get through than anything else. I say this as a lot of the ‘before game’ vignettes will eventually repeat themselves, and seem more like replacements for loading screens than actual story, and the PR sections where you get to chose your response (Which 99% of the time comes down to ‘bignote yourself’ and ‘praise the team’) seem to have absolutely zero impact on the game. Which is fitting, because unlike the rather interesting venture that was NBA 2k16’s adventure with Spike Lee, NBA 2k18’s story is something I will forget by the time NBA 2k19 rolls through.
In the looks department, elements of the experience are damn near jaw dropping. The courts themselves are amazing environments that I feel drawn into. The camera flashes and light displays that occur during the pre game shows and halftime are awesome to watch, and probably the closest I will ever get to experiencing it myself. Player animations during games are, for the most part, pretty solid. I haven’t noticed anyone falling through the hardwood floor, or floating up into the crowd during my time with the game, however I have noticed something a little creepy with some of the player models. I’m not sure why, but some of the models of characters who aren’t engaged in the actual basketball portion of the game, look like they belong back on the last generation of consoles. Sporting thousand yard stares, dead eyes, plastic skin and that empty, vacant expression, that only a badly rendered player model can give off. During the pre game show, Shaq down right looks like he just had a stroke. And the chick who sings the American anthem, looks like she belongs in NBA 2k12.
Shaq strokes aside, the game plays incredibly well… for the most part. Movement is fluid and natural and the animations are so dialled in, that you can easily spot the differences between character’s jump shot techniques. Rebounds, steals and scrambles all feel reasonably similar to previous NBA games and I find myself handling defense a lot better than in previous 2k titles. The shooting however, seems to be a little broken, at least that’s how I felt in the early stages of MyCareer. This is not a humblebrag, I am well aware that my realistic skill level in the NBA 2k franchise borders on ‘potato’. However, in previous titles, I found myself averaging around 30 points per game and sporting a shooting percentage well over 50%. Even during my rookie year. In fact, in both previous NBA titles, I received the coveted rookie of the year award. In 2k18, my shot percentage for the first half of my initial season was sitting at around 16%… my 30 point per game average, had been slashed to a meagre 4.8 points per game. And for a while I was struggling to find a reason why. About halfway through the first season, I switched my play style and stopped relying on shot timing so much. Instead, I started to move into uncontested positions before asking for a pass, this seemed to increase my shot percentage by a large margin and I have come to believe that the shooting isn’t ‘broken’ as much as it has been reworked to take contention and shot type much more into account. Awareness of getting into uncontested positions and shot types, as well as stat increases through VC and badge grinding during practice sessions, have helped my game a huge amount. While I’m still not at the level I remember being in previous titles, I am able to pull out the occasional 30 point games and shoot the ball without feeling like Ray Charles.
For those who have never played a 2K NBA title before, each match gives you a team grading based on how well you fulfilled your assigned role. Landing assists, getting rebounds, forcing turnovers, filling your lane and defending your man properly will mean that you finish the match with a higher overall rating. It’s pretty common for me to end a match with an A- or B+ rating; every now and then though, I enter a match that I swear is pre programmed to end you with a D-. No matter what you do. Passes meant for teammates magically curve and travel to opponents, defenders block every shot you take, your player drops the ball every 3 seconds and nothing you do works. The match descends into a hellishly degrading experience that I can’t quite explain. Even now, with multiple badges, an overall rating of 84 and multiple games with A+ ratings and 20+ points, I’m still forced to endure matches where I’m sure my player resembles a ground vegetable more than a trained physical athlete.
When it comes to the early career shooting troubles, I’m not the only one that appears to be experiencing these issues. The popular NBA 2k reddit thread is full of posts asking questions like “WHY CAN’T I HIT ANY SHOTS?!” and “IS THE SHOOTING BROKEN?” For the moment, it appears as though the weirdness is contained to the MyCareer mode (the mode I have spent all of my time in), and I am interested to see if an upcoming patch sorts the issues out. Or if it is, as I expect, a conscious development decision by the 2k team. Which is possible, as the reward of ‘being immortalised in NBA 2k19’ is being promised to the players who put the hard yards in, battle through the early sub 20% shooting average, and put in the 100+ hours I imagine it is going to take to reach such a level.
There is also a growing community who appear to have lost their hard earned, or in some cases, purchased VC. The currency used to increase stats on your MyCareer baller. I haven’t run into this personally as I usually use my VC as soon as I can, steering clear of stockpiling it. While I haven’t gone down the road of purchasing a large amount of the Virtual Currency, I can certainly empathise with the frustration of anyone who did, when they realise that it has all gone missing.
I can’t really comment on how well the game plays online, as I am far too terrified to take my skills out of the safety of my gaming room and onto the internet connected courts. Being styled on by the AI is one thing, being styled on by a squeaker from the internet is something that my ego simply cannot take.
As with previous games, the soundtrack is stellar. Licensed tracks by the likes of Mobb Deep and Kendrick Lamar mean that walking out onto the court always feels bad-ass. The commentary is another area in which 2K have seemed to spare no expense, with a nigh uncountable number of individual commentary lines on individual players, team matchups, performances and almost any other aspect I could imagine the commentary discussing in a real world situation. It’s not all roses though, as the near perfect execution of various aspects of the sound design mean that anything less than this standard sticks out like a stroked out Shaq. For instance, randomly between quarters of halves, we are treated to hearing the various coaches of the NBA drill their teams on what they are doing on the court. It is painfully obvious that these sound bytes are real life recordings, straight from the PR departments burner phone in an environment that doesn’t exactly sound like a recording studio. In fact, while it is neat to hear the lesser known superstars of the game, attempt to conduct their teams like some sort of sports composer; I would have prefered if they left these sections out, as they really do just sound like shit and drag an otherwise amazing sound design, down.
I’ve already mentioned it briefly, but NBA 2k18 includes a pretty hefty MicroTransaction system that allows players to purchase VC, then upgrade their players. When it comes to Micro-Transactions in games, I want to make something perfectly clear; generally, I don’t believe they have a place in single player experiences. Especially those that are full price games and not on a free to play model. Other games have been released this year, that I have chosen not to buy due to the inclusion of Micro-Transactions and while 2k’s implementation is pretty obnoxious, they really had little to no impact on my personal enjoyment of the game. This is most likely due to my decision to steer clear of online modes, where I could see myself caring a lot more about boosters with more money than me. But hey, just because they didn’t really effect me, doesn’t mean that I am ok with them being in there. So, yeah, stop putting in games, you big dickheads.
Ultimately, I am loving my time with NBA 2k18. Despite a few teething issues and the game making me feel like a spanner when it feels like it, the act of playing basketball is insanely fun. The last 20 seconds of any close game is an awesome experience. And when you get good enough to steal the ball from a star player, then fastbreak down to the end of the court and perform a 1 handed dunk in front of thousands of flashing lights to win the match, it is fucking exhilarating. Easily one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2017. And let’s get real for a second, as a 30+ year old male with busted knees and a love of nachos, NBA 2k18 is probably the closest I’ll get to actually playing basketball for the foreseeable future.
The Good:- If you like Basketball, this is the epitome of Basketball games available right now.
The Bad:- If you don’t like Basketball, then there probably isn’t really much here to like. Some interesting early game shooting mechanics and a weird AI system can lead to some frustration as well
The Final Verdict:- 2K really are at the top of their game when they create these beautiful titles. Fast, challenging, rewarding gameplay that I am stoked to be able to experience. And hopefully, with a little bit of luck, you will see me immortalised in NBA 2k19.
Gameplay - 7/10
Visual Design - 7/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay - 9/10
Personal Enjoyment - 9/10