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GAME REVIEW | NBA 2K19

Year in and year out, NBA 2k delivers top notch basketball action in video game form. The franchise has got it down to a science at this point and NBA 2K19 is no exception. With its tried-and-true gameplay, new improvements to existing features and a stellar MyPlayer mode, this year’s model is a solid addition to the roster.

Court Vision

You get quite a mixed bag in NBA 2K19’s visuals department. The player animations in-game are just as solid as ever. Players move, shoot, drive and even celebrate a play with uncanny realism. The different animations flow so smoothly and fluidly through the course of one regular game that its a visual treat to watch. However, it’s in the presentation segments, such as the halftime interviews and the various interstitial close-up interviews that things go a little awry. In these interviews, the camera close-ups reveal that 2k19’s robotic facial animations still have a lot to be desired.

On the likenesses front, the player models and faces range from incredibly life-like recreations to roughly-interpreted caricatures. It’s an irregularity that has been a long-time inconsistency for the franchise and the same is true for 2K19: more prominent players get a better character model than some of the more obscure ones. That being said, the bar for the rendering is still pretty high even for the worst offenders. And when the game really nails it, which is most of the time, it can look absolutely life-like.

This year’s presentation has managed to pack in a lot more that previous iterations. The games stylish menus and pop up are presented with much visual flair and pop. The various stadiums as well as the mascots, cheerleaders and acts that take the floor are recreated with stunning attention to detail.

In the pre-game and halftime segments, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille o’Neil provide breakdowns and analyses of the match-up in their signature style of commentary. I found this to be an acquired taste as some of their banter ranges from funny and entertaining to awkward and clunky. It doesn’t help that the camera is stuck in the wide shot most of the time, even during the many, many awkward pauses between jokes.

The soundtrack for NBA 2K19 is definitely a highpoint. This year’s celebrity executive producer, Travis Scott has selected a great mix of songs from different styles and genres. It includes everything from Bruno Mars’ Finesse, Fall Out Boy’s The Last of the Real Ones, MIGOS’ Stir Fry and Mike Jones’s Still Tippin‘. Quite literally, selections for all sides of the music industry. The genre-agnostic playlist is such a joy to listen to that I found myself just keeping it on even when I’m doing something else other than playing the game.

On-Court Action

As you can expect NBA 2K19’s gameplay is still as tuned and tight as it has been for years. The controls have relatively stayed the same across all game modes. The refined dual stick controls (left stick to move, right to dribble move and shoot) feel as fluid and satisfying to use as ever. Signature dribble and post moves are incredibly rewarding and fun to execute, not to mention very effective from a gameplay standpoint. Players also retain the roles and badges that signify what they’re good at doing and help them do it better, a system I’ve always adored.

There have been some changes to the inside scoring this year. Shots in the paint are now subjected to the shot meter. This means lay-ups, lay-ins and inside moves are now a bit more difficult to sink. The change is understandable and fair if not a little frustrating as sometimes the action in the middle gets in the way of the shot meter causing you to miss that crucial inside gimme.

There are also some noticeable changes on the defensive A.I. such as ramping up the difficulty in passing and slashing. A.I. controlled characters are now absolutely hawks when it comes to defense and will pick off an errant pass or weak dribble in an instant. That being said, in some ways the A.I. is fairer than it was before. They’ll still sink open jumpers with incredible accuracy but they’re a little more prone to mistakes now. Even on Hall of Fame difficulty they commit illegal screens, get in foul trouble and step out of bounds.

The Way Back

As far as additional features go, in my opinion nothing stands out better than NBA 2K19’s MyCareer. The game mode features an incredibly well-crafted story with the MyCareer Prelude called The Way Back. It’s a well-written, engaging narrative that sees the journey of your character, the undrafted college superstar named AI on his journey, earning a name for himself in China and the G League to find a way back into the NBA. The story is filled with memorable characters, brilliant writing and unique set pieces that are only available in this mode.

Anthony Mackie, Haley Joel Osment and a host of other stellar voice actors lend their best performances to the characters that AI meets along the way. Together they bring to life a charming story of determination, passion and purpose as your character finds himself in the midst of the cutthroat grind to the top.

The Way Back infuses MyCareer with a much-needed dose of personality for your character, his teammates and the people around him. At different points, when I played the game, I felt like I wasn’t just playing alongside hollow CPU teammates, I was playing with my friends. I knew I was passing the ball to Paul Tatum, my locker room bud who showed me the ropes. I know my lunk head teammate Howie Carter could use an assist or two his way after being talked down to by a scout in the back room.

The Way Back is NBA 2K19’s shinning glory. I’ve never seen a game take this much love and care in crafting a worthwhile story that can only happen in the world of sports. As a prelude, I knew The Way Back had to end sometime and when it did I was sad to see it go. I wanted more of that narrative to drive my player to become better. I wanted girlfriend and my friends from Fort Wayne and China to come hang out at my house or watch my game. It was that engaging. Hopefully 2k gives us more of this in the future.

Droppin’ Dimes

Aside from My Career, there are also a host of other features that didn’t seem quite as interesting to me. There is the collectible card game-inspired MyTeam where you assemble a team of three to compete with other players. In this mode, the players that you have will be determined randomly with a loot box/booster pack mechanic that just sounds like a microtransaction fodder. There’s the Blacktop where you can play for up to 5v5 with your friends in the games streetball inspired courts with simiarly inspires movesets.  There’s also the MyLeague that customizes your NBA season and MyGM in which you manage a selected to team to make it to the top. It also had a few other games modes that failed to hold my interest so far.

One thing that I did find very unpleasant about the game was that a lot of its key features were only accessible online. Despite paying full price for the game, players that haven’t connected to the internet and their 2K Account will have an inferior, barebones version of the game. They will only have access to a select few modes offline such as Play Now, My League and a limited version of MyCareer, without the stellar The Way Back and featuring a limited set of customization options for your create-a-player. I found the whole notion puzzling and confusing: Why would you lock out eager fans who bought your full price game of a significant chunk of content just for being offline?

Of course, there’s also the subject of microtransactions but in my experience, it hasn’t been that obnoxious. I acknowledge this does turn the game into a pay-to-win extravaganza with people who opt to subscribe to the microtransaction system having a significant advantage on those who want to grind it out in-game. It doesn’t help that the game charges you for everything from stat-upgrades to layup packages and post moves and even basic walking animations. Thankfully, microtransactions only come into play for the MyCareer online aspect of the game after the prelude and for the MyTeam mode for booster packs. This means that the core gameplay of every other mode is still thankfully intact.

Verdict

Despite the microtransaction economy and a few misgivings about the offline version of the game, NBA 2K19 is a strong entry in the series. Those willing to look past the game’s pay-to-win tendencies or flat out skip those modes will find a well-balanced and enjoyable game.  With a solid base of tight, refined gameplay and fun mechanics, propelled by an awesome soundtrack and an excellent MyCareer Mode, die hard fans of the sport and the franchise will not regret purchasing this year’s entry. If you haven’t picked up a NBA game in ages, then NBA 2K19 is the best way back.

8.5/10

NBA 2k19 was reviewed on the Playstation 4 Pro.