NBA 2K18 review for PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, PS3, Switch
Publisher: 2K
Developer: Visual Concepts
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1-10
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+

From a purely technical point of view, NBA 2K18 delivers a solid on-court experience. This should come as no surprise: after all, for the past several years running, the NBA 2K series has been held up as a gold standard for sports games. That the game continues to run smoothly and competently means that 2K understood the value of sticking with what works, at least when it comes to the game of basketball itself.

Unfortunately, NBA 2K has, at least for the past few years, been committed to providing an experience that goes beyond the hardwood. And where it succeeded at that in past years (sometimes spectacularly), this year, it’s those off-the-court components of the game that drag it down. Significantly.

In no small part, of course, this is because of the game’s well-documented reliance on Virtual Currency (VC) and microtransactions. Even if VC was present and pushed aggressively in past years, it was never at the expense of making a well-rounded game. Here, however, that balance goes flying out the window. The game’s focus, at least in the MyCareer mode, is around getting your player to a 99 rating, and 2K have made it so that, essentially, you need to pay to achieve that.

Don’t get me wrong: with hard work, it’s something you can probably achieve on your own. But the amount of grinding you’d need to undertake to get there is more than I can fathom. Whereas last year’s game made it possible to grow from prospect to superstar without having to devote yourself too much to earning VC (it just sort of happened naturally), in NBA 2K18 VC is doled out for practice and exercise at the stingiest rate imaginable, which means you either need to spend hours in the gym and on the practice court, doing the same drills over and over and over again…or you can spend a bunch of money, and instantly buy your way into being better. It’s one thing for “pay to win” to infect freemium mobile games (after all, those games are, at least, free to download), but it becomes a bit much to stomach when we’re talking about a AAA console experience.

I speak about the hours in the gym and on the practice court in a very literal sense, by the way. Because I wasn’t interested in shelling out real money to buy fake money, it meant I had to try and better my player through lots and lots and lots of practice.

I’ll be blunt: it sucked.

My player wasn’t anywhere close to being good enough to getting a lot of time on the court (regardless of what he was told in nonsensical cutscenes), which meant he generally rode the bench, which in turn meant the only way to get better was to earn VC through team practices, or going to the gym and trying out the different exercises. Seeing as you’re limited to three on-court drills between games, that meant I spent a lot of time in the gym…and quite frankly, when a basketball game is designed in a way that means you spend more time doing ladder climbs and crunches than actually playing basketball, I feel like that’s a pretty clear sign the game is doing something seriously wrong.

Of course, that’s just one sign that NBA 2K18 is doing some things seriously wrong. Here’s another one: the MyCareer Neighborhood.

Designed to be a hub world, I kind of understand the thinking behind it. It’s designed to make it feel like your player doesn’t just exist on the court, but also in a larger world. In practice, however, the Neighborhood is just an excuse to try to drain more money out of players. In the few blocks you can walk around — while avoiding all the other online players who are standing or running around — there’s an NBA Store (where you can spend money to buy new clothes), a Foot Locker (where you can spend money to buy new clothes), there’s a Swag shop (where you can — you guessed it — spend money to buy new clothes), there’s a tattoo parlor (where, in an example of things switching up a little, you can spend money to buy new tattoos), and a barbershop (money to buy new haircuts). NBA 2K18 even makes you go to some of these stores in order to complete some of your objectives. To be fair, you don’t necessarily have to spend VC at these places, but it’s another example of the game trying to put you in a position to spend money — real, virtual or both — as frequently as it can.

The surprising thing about this is that NBA 2K18 is so riddled with ads, you’d think some of that corporate cash could’ve been used to…you know, not make it pay-to-win. I don’t have a problem with incorporating branding into sports games to achieve a higher degree of verisimilitude, but when a fringe story character who hangs around your apartment in MyCareer starts talking about how Reese’s Puffs make her tastebuds feel sweet and rejuvenated, it’s enough to make even a committed capitalist start thinking that maybe Das Kapital has a point.

As far as I’m concerned, however, NBA 2K18’s most unforgiveable flaw is that its MyCareer storyline is awful. Whereas 2K16 and 2K17 both brought in big names to tell stories with plots and everything, NBA 2K18 just has a bland central character interacting with other bland characters, without trying to convey anything greater than that. As someone who welcomed those previous attempts to make sports games more than just annual roster updates, this disappointed me to no end, and went a long way towards making me notice all the other disappointing things going on in the game.

And believe me, this game has no shortage of disappointing things — even beyond the big failures mentioned above. Lengthy load times are everywhere in this game: any time you go from a game to the Neighborhood (or vice versa), you’ll have to sit and wait for the little progress metre/basketball to reach 100%. The MyCareer menu is horrifically bland: while, like last year, it tells you what you need to know via smartphone, this time around the menu icons are all ugly and it feels like they provide you with significantly less information. The way NBA 2K18 incorporates social media is a lot less interesting: last year, amazing plays were followed by cutaways to the stands, where you could see how it helped your social media standing. This year, that’s gone.

Also gone: the NBA 2K’s status as the must-play sports franchise. Where other sports games have stepped up their games to provide a comprehensive experience, NBA 2K18 has taken a huge step back, and seems more focused on getting more money out of players than doing anything else. If you just want a game where you can play as Lebron James or Kevin Durant in exhibition games, it’s fine for that, but if you want to do anything else, stay far, far away.

Grade: D+