NBA 2K19 Review: A Facelift Can’t Hide the Blemishes Underneath

With the NBA 2K series getting the nod over its EA rival, NBA Live,the battle for supremacy on the digital hard court has been considered settled law among many gamers.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of accurately translating the game played in arenas around the country onto the screen on your wall, it’s simply the superior option.

Unfortunately, as has proven with other sports game rivalries, clear cut genre leaders can lull developers into a sense of complacency, pushing out annual titles but not always earning the entry fee.

King James stands next to a Chicago Bulls player with his arms crossed

For NBA 2K19, some changes are readily apparent. The game looks beautiful, and players are rendered more lifelike and recognizable than ever before. That is certainly no small thing with a sports game, but at the end of the day, it ultimately pales in the shadow of the elephant in the room: gameplay.

While 2K remains the preferred option among basketball fans, it’s evident the game engine has stagnated in recent years. Although 2K19 attempts to act on the frustration voiced by the community at large, the results for this entry are mixed.

Leading up to its release, a great deal of hype surrounded the changes being made to 19‘s one-on-one defending game, promising that drives to the lane would not be as easy as in the series’ previous edition. By combination of a smarter algorithm for steals and improvements to the collision detection system (where bull-rushes were made harder), defense has been improved.

Defenders who learn how to time their steals will be picking pockets, and players who excel at positioning can shepherd opposing ball handlers into the low-efficiency deserts of the mid-range jumper. Though the changes are seemingly small, they go a long way in swinging the luck vs. skill pendulum significantly toward the latter.

If anything, the complaints from fans in 2K19 may end up being that 2K Games made defending too effective, leading to more frustrating offensive possessions.

A basketball player dives for a ball on the hardwood as another player jumps

The other major addition to 19‘s gameplay is the implementation of the Takeover system.

Every player in the game falls into a specific archetype based on their position and style of play, and these archetypes have areas of expertise. If playing a created character, you even have the option to lean into one specialization or take on a primary or secondary type.

The more success you have in a player’s expert area(s), the more their Takeover gauge will charge. String together enough good plays without making errors to drain the gauge, and their icon will catch fire. While you shouldn’t expect half-court dunks or near-perfect shooting like the system’s clear NBA Jam inspiration, your player will perform better and access special skills based on their archtype when in Takeover mode.

New Players Beware

With the best representation of real-life basketball in the digital realm, NBA 2K19 provides an outstanding in-game experience for veterans of the series. The engine is still not entirely without its flaws — transitions are clunky, and at times, the defensive decisions of your NPC teammates can be maddening — but the overall experience is improved.

The changes to gameplay reward skilled execution, meaning the better player will come out on top more often than not.

On the flip side, the game is not particularly welcoming to new players. The provided 2KU game mode sets out to teach players the complicated controls, but there’s only so much that can be done when you put the controller in the hands of a newbie. That’s doubly so  when your game prides itself on having tremendous depth and responsiveness.

Even on lower difficulty settings, 2K-novices should expect to have some growing pains as they adjust to the game.

Players stand at the free throw line in NBA 2K19's practice mode

Microtransactions are Coming for Your Money

Microtransactions are a sad reality in most online gaming these days, and 2K Games’ has proven particularly fond of the system. The use of microtransactions reached a breaking point with NBA 2K18, where players were faced with the realization that their created characters could look good, or they could play good, but if they wanted to do both, it was going to be pricey.

While the use of microtransactions in NBA 2K19 is an improvement, that’s a low hurdle to clear. And it’s apparent 2K Games didn’t have a lot of interest in doing much more than barely clearing it.

Where 2K really insults its fans is the importance of VC in your MyCareer mode. The starting attributes for your created player are terrible, and while you will earn VC with every game you play, the graduating costs of each upgrade and the massive improvement required to be even a decent player mean it’s unreasonable to expect to be a competitive player without splashing out some cash.

The problem compounds itself at the completion of the early development phase in China and the G-League, where your created player receives their first NBA contract. If you haven’t spent real money on improving your attributes, the contracts on offer will be significantly worse.

Not only will you be starting off less-skilled than a player who spent real money, but the problem will only snowball as you earn fewer VC with each win because of your cheap contract.

Houston Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder from mid court

MyGM Soars, While MyCareer Stutters

In addition to a basic season mode, 2K19 includes two different modes featuring role-playing elements — and to mixed results.

The MyGM mode is an outstanding bit of front office simulation. It provides one of the most enjoyable experiences of full-scale management in any sports game, not just of the 2K series. The use of goals offers guidance to newer players while providing an additional challenge to veterans, forcing you to win it all in certain ways.

Unfortunately, the MyCareer mode is not as successful. Be-a-Player modes are usually fan favorites, but 2K19‘s leaves much to be desired.

In addition to the previously mentioned issues with pay-to-win, the narrative’s writing leaves a lot to be desired. The main character is an unrepentant jerk to nearly everyone he encounters, which could have been an interesting arc to take if there was more development — but that development never comes.

For every false dawn, where he appears to realize he’s sabotaging himself and being terrible to everyone around him for no good reason, there’s a near immediate follow-up where he again reverts to bemoaning that the world is out to get him and nobody has his back.

It gets old very quickly, particularly when paired with the paltry attributes of a non-boosted character, which make him legitimately undeserving of all the opportunities he’s furious at being denied.

A player attributes panel in NBA 2K19

Online Play Off to Promising Start

It’s difficult to take a strong stance on how online play will shake up in the early stages of a game’s release. At the time of this review, only 18 players have even reached the fourth-highest tier of online play.

With that said, the structure of matchmaking relies on a tried-and-true method, which has tended to lead to fair and balanced play. Every 10 games played counts as a season, at the end of which your results can see you moved up or down a level.

When opting to start up an online match, not only will you receive an opponent from the same level as you, but the NBA teams are also divided into three tiers, with the servers attempting to also pair you with an NBA team of the same tier. This means if like me, you’re a fan of a team who could charitably be described as “not super great,” as the Hornets, you can freely choose them online without being demolished by an endless stream of Warriors opposition.

Final Verdict

NBA 2K19 is far from a bad game — by any stretch of the word. Once you get your feet under you and get the motor running, it provides fun gameplay and enough variety to keep you interested as you play.

Unfortunately, it is not a game without its flaws, either. From play-to-win issues to those moments of frustration when the engine suddenly sputters, there are just enough annoyances to mar the overall experience.

If you’re in the habit of always buying the newest 2K game, then you won’t be disappointed with the latest effort. But if you’re just looking for a game to play around on from time to time, you’d be better served to check out the used game rack and finding an edition two or three years back for next to nothing.

[Note: A review copy of NBA 2K19 was provided y the developer for this review.]

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