Alright, here we go. I’m settling in and ready to shoot some straight fire about the latest release in my favourite sports series of all time, NBA 2K. For those that follow my yearly instalments on 2K, you’ll already know that I’m heavily against the emphasis on the virtual currency fueled economy that debuted in NBA 2K18. Friends I spoke with argued that VC is only necessary for half the game, which means that the game at large is still enjoyable without having to bow underneath the pressure of the digital dollar. Critically, games media have been unrelenting in their disdain at the 2K money-making initiative that seemingly has overtaken the popular basketball series. Which leaves me with one final question, “Is the game good despite the economy?”.
This year, MyCareer mode follows the journey of a former college basketball player nicknamed “AI.” Nominating out of college to pursue his dreams of NBA glory, AI finds himself without a team on Draft Night, much to his chagrin as his former college teammate Corey Harris gets selected to the LA Lakers. This leads our wayward protagonist to the CBA in China, where he’s suiting up for the Shanghai Bears in an attempt to work his way back to a chance at the big leagues. While I loathed MyCareer mode in 2K18, 2K19 comes out fighting for your attention straight away. From the character creation screen straight through until the campaign’s end, everything is new and different this year. 2K took an all-in gamble this time, and it has paid off in spades for them.
As a character, AI is unlikable in the beginning, but through the process of development and struggle, he’s someone that you end up rooting for and being invested in. It’s reminiscent of the sports movies of yesteryear and managed to strike a very similar chord with yours truly. Also gone is the favourite team selection element from last year, meaning you have to think critically about where you’d like your character to be playing. Play minutes, wages, and player rewards all come into play before signing on the dotted line with your team, and the field of suitors is determined based on your progress through the developmental G league. I’m ecstatic that 2K has returned to a more realistic approach to their storytelling, and I have to commend the depth and gravitas that AI’s story lends to the series.
Once the “Prelude” wraps up, the game returns you to the familiar Neighbourhood from last year. Much of it remains untouched, although it has been positively scaled down to allow easier access to the array of shops and buildings, but also to eliminate some of the fluff. One of the most striking new additions, however, is the “Ante-Up,” which is what it sounds like – a casino. You can go in and spin a wheel once a day, which gives you free items or currency depending on where the ticker lands (like Wheel of Fortune). What bugs me, though, is that you’re able to place tips on who you think will win actual NBA games – with the option to take the match by match payouts, or double down and gain more but only if you pick 100% of the winners. While it doesn’t cost anything to participate, this is EXACTLY what gambling is. With all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the nether regions, children can now prepare early for their crippling gambling addictions in adulthood. I don’t know what 2K was thinking with this one, especially given the level of scrutiny and criticism the industry is under right now in regards to gambling systems in video games. I mean, are we not even pretending to try anymore?
The success of MyCareer comes alongside the continuation of the MyGM mode story from last year, which also rings as a success for 2K. Your character takes control of an expansion team, with the gameplay allowing you to choose the area you’ll be playing in, designing the arena and uniforms, as well as picking your staff and roster. While not as visually and audibly engaging as MyCareer, the basketball purists will love this year’s MyGM mode as it offers a balance between realism and enjoyment at being the General Manager of your franchise. While MyGM is not as buoyed by issues with VC as MyCareer, there’s still a grind towards purchasing the team if you want to aim to be the owner. This presents the same dilemma as MyCareer, where the choice is to either grind it out or cough up your hard earned money for a currency which is intrinsically worthless.
However, this isn’t the case with the rest of the game modes such as Season, Playoffs etc. (bar MyTeam) which allow you uninhibited play without the worry of VC. As always, the game is a dream to play, and some minor tweaks to the shooting mechanics have continued to perfect what is already a seemingly flawless system. It feels like the smoothest NBA experience to date, and something like that shouldn’t be overlooked. While last year I noted that producing a good basketball game isn’t good enough anymore, props to the 2K team for consistently delivering a quality product, even more so over the last few years than ever before.
Delivering great performances in NBA 2K19 are well-known actors Blake Jenner (Glee, Supergirl), Anthony Mackie (Avengers, Hurt Locker), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, Forrest Gump), Michael Rapaport (Deep Blue Sea, Atypical) and Ricky Whittle (American Gods) amongst others. As a special mention to MyCareer Mode, the game features Mandarin language with legitimate CBA commentary from the China portion of MyCareer mode. As always, the music is geared towards the hot tracks of the moment and comes curated this year by rapper Travis Scott. His picks included artists such as Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Dua Lipa, Fall Out Boy and many more. If you’re fortunate enough to have a 4K TV and compatible console to play with, the game is also visually stunning as always and continues to reach for further heights of realism with every release.
The biggest question mark on NBA 2K19 is if the game can be separated from its economy? And the answer is no, definitely not. Your character can’t both look cool with baller swag and be good at the game unless you’re willing to put in hundreds of hours or spend a significant amount of money. However, can the game be enjoyed despite its economy? Absolutely. Despite the dire circumstances of 2K going all-in on VC, NBA 2K19 has seen a return to form for MyCareer mode as well as a solid showing across every single game mode. But when 50% of your game is heavily reliant upon a “pay-to-win” system, there is something fundamentally flawed about the product and message that you’re putting out to your players and potential audiences. I understand the need for video games to make money, but there are more ethical ways of doing so without ruining the experience along the way. Please buy NBA 2K19 because it’s a great game, but don’t give in to the pressure of the non-existent shiny gold coins – they’re just not worth it.