Descending from up on high, it’s that time of year where I get excited about the latest NBA 2K release and remember what it fleetingly feels like to be an idealistic youngster. Discussion of the NBA and the most recent video game is a core bonding experience between my brother and me, and its tradition for us to play every single yearly release together dating back to 2007. Some years we’ve been disappointed while others we’ve wondered how 2K could top the next one – it has truly been a rollercoaster ride this past decade. But how does 2K18 stack up, you say? I’m glad you asked imaginary reader.
NBA 2K18 drops you into the shoes of “DJ,” a former All-American high school stand-out who abandoned basketball to pursue a career in music. By participating in a Pro-Am streetball tournament at the beginning of the game, DJ impresses a talent scout from your pre-selected favourite team and invites you to try out for them (shout out to my boys, the Golden State Warriors). If you’re an NBA fan, then like me I’m sure this brief paragraph is already blowing your mind due to how ridiculous it sounds. Forget the legitimacy and realism of playing through high school, being offered a scholarship by a college and then being drafted by an NBA team. If I knew getting drafted to your favourite NBA team was as easy as playing in a streetball tournament, I’d have dusted off my high-tops and given it one more crack already. I’m honestly disappointed that 2K decided to abandon the realistic simulation they’ve built up over the years, and I can’t help but feel like this is a move which is attempting to court the more “casual” fan. While I hate using the term, I’d love to know what 2K and Visual Concept’s thought process was behind this because I’ve never experienced such a brutal 180-degree turn before from a video game. If 2K17 perfected the art of pure basketball simulation, 2K18 doused it with gasoline, struck a match and watched it burn to the ground.
This year also brings us “The Neighbourhood,” which is essentially a central hub and lobby where you can access different shops to purchase clothes, accessories and more for your MyPlayer avatar. You share this space with other active NBA 2K players, which almost reminded me of some bizarre type of high-tech Habbo Hotel. While I think the idea is a great conceptual innovation, it’s apparent that there’s a lot more work to do to make this idea fully realised. I honestly couldn’t find many personal uses to stick around often unless I specifically had a goal to visit a shop or the training facility so I could work on skilling up my player badges. Ultimately, I can see this being the future of menu design and how to create more meaningful interactions between virtual worlds and players when it comes to simple tasking. If there’s anything I want to take away from NBA 2K18, it’s that I’m curious as to where they plan to take the concept of The Neighbourhood and how it will work in future releases.
Looking at the other game modes available, all the usual suspects that we’ve come to know and love are present – including the return of MyGM and MyLeague. Unlike last year, I managed to avoid getting hooked to MyTeam mode and meticulously building out my virtual trading card collection. The real sticking point and the reason behind this are the extensive use of VC that MyTeam and NBA 2K18 requires in general. Would you like a cool looking character? A high skill level? Super powerful trading card team? Excellent! That will be ONE BAZILLION VC, please. NBA 2K18 demands a significant amount of VC input from players to get the “most” out of the experience and releases only a fraction of the amount required for you to maintain all these different facets of the game. After putting in 20+ hours, my character is still wearing all the starting gear because I just refuse to invest VC and by extension either real life money OR a ridiculous number of hours into acquiring VC through playing. Like every year, 2K has again delivered a gameplay experience that they’ve polished to the bone. And yes, I understand that business is business, but this type of “soft-ball” cash-grabbing deters fans, and, in this instance, disappoints long-time fans.
Visually, the game is stunning, and 2K/Visual Concepts continue to up the ante to a point where it’s almost reaching the level of “uncanny valley.’ Still, the whole game has been a treat to take in from start to finish and is a testament to the degree of work and development put into making gameplay simulations as realistic as possible. The soundtrack is also an absolute work of brilliance, from the ’80s glam stylings of Def Leppard to the work of Mase and the crew from Bad Boy Records. If I didn’t know better, it felt like I’d been moonlighting as the music selector for NBA 2K18 by night and doing my regular job by day. As per usual, though, the voice acting is a little spotty and is still one facet of the game which has never managed to win me over. Everything always seems so static and telegraphed, and the voice provided for the main character just never seems to suit whichever character I play.
When it boils down to it, the question shouldn’t be whether NBA 2K18 is good – because it is. The question is rather whether NBA 2K18 is GREAT? And it’s not, pure and simple. This year, I just felt like 2K undid so much of their great work through the butchering of their MyCareer mode and the whispering breeze in the air telling me to open my wallet and drop my hard-earned cash on VC. Undeniably, NBA 2K18 is a great basketball game but just not a great experience, and for that, the game suffers in my eyes. While I do recommend giving it a look at some point, just do yourself a favour and don’t get excited as I did.