In a lot of ways, NBA 2K18 is more show than substance. While MyCareer has seen a big aesthetic improvement in terms of the new Neighborhood shared world and more involved cut-scenes, the core gameplay is still the same. Add to that the fact that, at every opportunity, it feels like developer Visual Concepts is telling you that you have to spend money to make money, and you begin to feel like you’re spending more time on the bench than on the court.
It doesn’t help that the other basketball game is better than it’s been in a while and, in some ways, more fun to play. To be fair, NBA Live 18 stole a lot from NBA 2K18, right down to its basic controls, to regain its reputation as a respectable basketball sim. And while NBA Live 18 has its own philosophy towards microtransactions, it never lost sight of its commitment to making its core gameplay fun. The same can’t be said about NBA 2K18.
Offense is as fun as ever in the latest NBA 2K game. That’s because it was fun in NBA 2K17, and Visual Concepts smartly changed very little. Stringing moves together still feels fluid and more controlled in this year’s installment, and once you get the rhythm down for shooting the ball, hitting threes and long jumpers is as satisfying as anything else in games.
But NBA 2K18 drops the ball in defense. I probably wouldn’t have noticed how sloppy defense felt in NBA 2K18 if NBA Live 18’s defensive gameplay wasn’t such a revelation. Taken on its own, playing defense in NBA 2K18 feels loose yet serviceable. When my defense broke down, I only occasionally felt like it was the game’s fault. But defense in NBA 2K18 continues to lack depth and engagement. It just didn’t feel like I had many options other than sticking to my assigned coverage as best as I could (which sometimes meant fighting the somewhat floaty player movement). Of course, sticking to actual players with vastly superior speed attributes in 3v3 games is a lot less manageable than sticking to CPU players, and this is where the defensive gameplay really shows its biggest flaw, which is that it’s much too easy to get by other players and there’s nothing to help out players who might be new to the series.
But let’s be real here: NBA 2K has been as much about its presentation and its bells and whistles as it’s been about actually playing basketball. This truth about the series has never been more obvious than in NBA 2K18, where MyCareer has gotten a major face lift in the form of a shared world called the Neighborhood.
The Neighborhood is, for all intents and purposes, a living menu system where you and other players (as your created MyCareer characters) can walk around, shop for new duds, play pick-up games, exercise, or get a haircut. MyCourt is still there, but now you can walk to the courts from your apartment or your team’s practice facility, because everyone loves walking, right?
It’s an interesting concept, but in actuality the Neighborhood itself feels like a weird planned community that’s completely lacking in personality, like a Westworld for basketball (minus the killer robots, of course). Imagine a place with the size and aesthetics of an outdoor “luxury” mall set in a dystopian future where everyone plays basketball, and you have an idea of what the Neighborhood feels like walking around in it.
The thing about the Neighborhood is that, around every corner, there’s some shop that’s trying to get you to spend money. This is most obvious when you look at the drab, almost prison-like uniform of a brown t-shirt and gray sweatpants that every player starts with at the beginning. Pretty soon, you see level 85 players (who had to have spent real-life money to get there already) walking around in flashy outfits, and your player feels like a loser in comparison. It’s just like high school all over again, except instead of Tommy Hillfiger (or whatever the kids are wearing these days), it’s virtual Air Jordan and virtual Under Armour. If I hadn’t been magically gifted 150,000 virtual credits because the copy of NBA 2K18 that the publisher sent me to review was the Legendary Edition, I would have been stuck with an overall rating in the 60s (which is a long way on the “Road to 99”) for a while.
None of this would be a problem if NBA 2K18 compartmentalized its currency a bit. Maybe after playing a game, you can get some tokens to spend on upgrading your character’s skills and some more on upgrading your character’s wardrobe. But there’s only one form of currency in NBA 2K18—gold coins cleverly named “Virtual Currency”—and you use it for literally everything, whether that’s your MyCareer character’s attributes, wardrobe, or haircut, or your MyTeam cards. Alternatively, that means that almost every mode you play will net you a handful of gold coins that you can then spend in any other mode, but you really only make a little money at a time, at least starting out, which lends itself to a feeling of running in place early on in your NBA 2K18experience. Deciding whether to spend your hard-earned coins on one more attribute point in your 3-point category or on a potentially wasteful MyTeam deck of cards is like Sophie’s choice but, you know, a little less dramatic.
Of course, playing the game isn’t the only way to earn virtual currency. You can always spend real currency on virtual currency as well, and NBA 2K18 has plenty of options for how much money you can spend on its gold coins. And if you’re feeling lucky, you can always visit the Ante Up Courts in the Neighborhood, where you can put Virtual Currency on the line against other players. In other words, you can potentially gamble away real money in NBA 2K18, in a game that is somehow still rated E10+. But hey, at least you’re gambling on yourself.
NBA 2K18’s obsession with earning and spending Virtual Currency isn’t the only thing that takes time away from actually playing the game. Waiting is a big part of NBA 2K18. Before almost every MyCareer game is a locker room cut-scene that you can’t skip. To be fair, the cut-scenes are fairly well-written and -acted, but it’s not like they develop your character or the characters around you in any significant way, and only occasionally will they offer you dialogue choices that, as far as I could tell, have absolutely zero impact on your character’s journey. Add to that all the waiting around you’ll do on the sidelines, in the gym, or even waiting for a wide open pass from player-controlled and AI teammates alike, and NBA 2K18 becomes an even more life-like simulacra but for all the wrong reasons, namely that you’ll be waiting in line as much in NBA 2K18 as you do in the real world.
Even the presentations in games still suffer from the same poor facial animations and dead eyes that plagued the last iteration. Shaq, Ernie, and Kenny sometimes look like they’re asleep at the desk during pre-game shows, but at least their lip-syncing isn’t as Mass Effect: Andromeda bad as the lip-syncing for the in-game interviews with the players. And sideline reporter David Aldridge still looks like a ventriloquist dummy come to life. Not to mention there’s still a major disparity between the “stars” of the show—Shaq, Ernie, Kenny, and all-star players like Lebron James and Stephen Curry—and some of the more supporting characters like cheerleaders or even Rachel, the 2KTV reporter, who looks nothing like her real-life counterpart. Fortunately, the play-by-play with Kevin Harlan and Greg Anthony is as good as ever, and you don’t have to look at anyone’s face. But the on-court action that they’re describing is just as stuttered and blocky in moments as last year’s game.
Fortunately, when NBA 2K18 focuses on the foundation of sports games, which are the franchise modes, there’s still a lot on offer. MyGM/MyLeague has a plethora of options, including the new MyGM: The Next Chapter, which (somewhat oddly) follows your created character’s first run as a GM a decade after suffering a tragic career-ending injury. The only problem with this mode is that all of the poorly written dialogue is rendered even worse by the fact that it’s delivered entirely in text, drawing even closer attention to how clunky and forced it is. Fortunately, there’s always MyLeague, which still lets you put together the NBA of your dreams, plus season and playoffs modes, which are there for players like me who get the most enjoyment out of sports games when I’m bringing my favorite team to the championship. Even if you entirely skip the MyCareer and MyTeam portions of the game and leave the distractions of Virtual Currency behind, you’ll still have plenty to do in NBA 2K18.
And if you simply ignore the ways in which MyTeam tries to get you to spend money, that can be fun as well. Weekly Challenges promise to keep the single-player portions of the mode fresh, and if you’re feeling lucky, you can always take your team up against another player’s who might have put a lot more money into their team than you are willing to do.
Unfortunately, it seems that every year NBA 2K moves further and further away from developing the true meat-and-potatoes of sports games and are investing more in figuring out new ways to get players to spend more money on developing their avatars. And even after developing those avatars, unless you have a Pro-Am team, your individual PvP efforts will be funneled into waiting in line to player matches of 3v3 with strangers. At the very least, the online server stability is stronger here at launch than in years past, but now that NBA 2K18 has competition that lets you simply queue for 5v5 matches the old-fashioned way, its propensity to make you wander around until you can find an almost full court and then wait for the current game to end before you can step onto the blacktop seems like a complete miscalculation. In a way, however, this experience is actually a perfect metaphor for NBA 2K18 in a nutshell: it would rather make you walk through hoops than simply you play its perennially solid basketball game.
Maybe NBA 2K18 has been the king of the court for too long and now it’s getting bored. Instead of improving gameplay, it’s figuring out more ways to make money through MyCareer and MyTeam. It’s new Neighborhood functions as a metaphor for the entire game itself, in that it seems like a big addition to the game but you quickly realize it’s pretty much just an empty shopping mall and a distraction from the actual game.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|NBA 2K18 is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by 2K Sports for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.