NBA 2K19 review: Virtual currency hinders an otherwise awesome basketball game

2K Sports and Visual Concepts are back with another installment in their long-running NBA 2K series. The series has earned itself a reputation as the gold standard in sports gaming, but are we moving in the right direction with the release of NBA 2K19?

2K's reputation precedes itself

Visual Concepts' basketball game developmental prowess is best summed up with two words: perennially awesome. It always begins with the gameplay, and that's where NBA 2K19 lives up to the reputation through and through.

Admittedly, there was a short stretch of time in the series's history where things seemed to begin falling off the rails. Animations overpower user control, causing for situations where your players often did things that you didn't want them to do.

I'm happy to say NBA 2K19 has reeled it in a little bit. The dance between authentic basketball animations and user-controlled action is a delicate one, and it's never felt better. Players move where and when you tell them to move. You don't get sucked into game-breaking pick-and-roll animations unless you actually collide with the pick setter. The transference of weight and other physics-based movement don't make you feel helpless unless the player you're controlling has bricks for feet and pans for hands.

NBA 2K19 is as good, and as deep, as it gets.

And while I've never had a problem with jump shot control in these games, post moves and layups are a different story. There used to be inconsistencies with the shot button timing and it sometimes felt like you never knew when the ball would roll off your player's fingers, nor was it easy to determine when, exactly, you'd make a double move. Thanks to the new shot meter, however, you can attack the paint and the rim exactly how you want to.

The result is a more exciting game overall. That feeling you get when you're driving to the hole for a shot and you see your player contort his body in order to get the best angle is simply sublime. Frustration is a feeling I've often been imbued with in years past, but it was more like elation in NBA 2K19 because I knew that the great plays I made were because I made the play, and the bad plays I made were because I did make a boneheaded mistake.

There are still some areas of concern for me. Namely, defense seems to be a bit "overtuned." Driving to the hole with Lebron James should be something I can pull off with ease, but even on the game's default Pro difficulty I am being stonewalled a bit too much. The lateral quickness of even below-average players is just a bit too tight and flawless for my taste. This can be a bit of a sour experience for folks who like doing most of their work in the key. This is an area 2K has confirmed they will monitor and things may improve with future updates.

I didn't know the Lakers were playing

As is usually the case, 2K is unmatched when it comes to presentation. I wouldn't fault someone for walking into the room as I'm playing and asking if an actual NBA game was underway.

It begins with the unmistakable likenesses of all the NBA stars and coaches. The company goes to great lengths to scan player faces in using their multi-camera capture technology, and the results speak for themselves. Player models are accurate and true to life, down to the wrinkles and blemishes on Russell Westbrook's face.

Seeing players walk out of the locker room, through the tunnel, and into the arena is also awe-inspiring. From the shimmering of light bouncing off the wooden floors to the engineering work on display in the rafters, you'll feel like you're right inside the venue or watching everything unfold live on TV. It's a little cliche to say, but you can't foul me if it's true.

This is an area where 2K has never struggled.

I only hate that 2K seems to darken the upper portions of the arena while the game is ongoing, especially since it dulls the random crowd movements and the reactions they have when big plays are made. Seeing thousands of people slapping their knee along to the cheer song is something you just can't unsee.

All of it is wrapped in a broadcast presentation that puts most other sports games to shame. It starts with seeing Shaq, Kenny, and Ernie in the pre-game show offering analysis and telling the very sort of dry jokes that we've come to love. The personalities touch on league trends and offer insight into teams, players, and matchups in strikingly accurate detail. That level of detail extends well into tipoff, with Kevin Harlan leading the way for authentic play-by-play, and stars like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Bill Simmons offering the flavorful bits.

2K has a number of authentic broadcast-style angles to choose from if you want to feel like you're watching an actual contest, and you'll see broadcast graphics swoop, swipe, and swing in to offer relevant information at key moments. And the audio package, from shoes squeaking on the floor to the reverberation of the defense chant, ultimately help recreate that heart-pumping feeling that only NBA basketball can provide.

This is an area where 2K has never struggled. It's a level of mastery and artistry only possible thanks to years of experience in the basketball game genre that Visual Concepts has, and it goes a long way to keeping me engaged. And yes, playing on the Xbox One X in native 4K with HDR looks just as amazing as you'd think it would.

Become an NBA star

MyCareer has become the mode by which NBA 2K lives and dies. Who wouldn't want a virtual version of themselves playing in the NBA as a world-class athlete?

The mode is better than ever. You truly create the character you want to make. There are tons of visual options, including a face scan feature that, although sometimes wonky, allows you to create your virtual doppelganger.

You also have nigh-limitless options on how your character plays thanks to 2K's archetype system. Are you more of a point guard guy throwing around flashy passes and alley-oops? Do you want to be a seven-foot monster who can drain three-point shots? Perhaps you want to be the defensive monstrosity everyone fears in the paint? Pick two archetypes that fit your preferred playstyle and you'll be able to take the relevant attributes to great heights.

There's also an embarrassment of animations to customize. You can choose your dunk and layup packages, your various shot animations, your dribble moves. Hell, you can even change nuances like the way you step up to take a free throw or your pre-game ritual. Some are based on real NBA players, but there's also an assortment of original ones. I spent a good 30 minutes alone choosing the dunks and layups I wanted, and I didn't have the patience to view every single option.

As has been the case lately, NBA 2K19's MyCareer mode is propped up by an original story, complete with actual Hollywood actors and voiced NBA stars. While the story hasn't always been great, this year's tale is told very well. It's your typical rags to riches affair, though it shows some of the lass glamorous paths some players have to take to the NBA.

From China through the developmental D-League, all the way up to the elite of the elite and into the hall of fame, it's a story that emphasizes the importance of humility, hard work, patience, and determination. It's also the first story in an NBA 2K game that genuinely made me laugh. Character development was a big issue for previous titles, but I find myself actually caring about the folks and their goings-on here. It's something we take for granted in many other types of games, but NBA 2K19 proves it works just as well in the world of sports.

You have a lot of other stuff going on outside of the dramatics, too. You'll go in and play your weekly games as normal with practices in-between. Those practices mean more than they ever have now that each drill you can do will give you direct progress toward earning and upgrading specific badges. It takes the guesswork and grind out of building the exact sort of character you want, and that's always something I'll welcome. Between games, you'll negotiate sponsorship and team contracts, deal with injuries, buy new gear for your player, conduct interviews, deal with locker room antics, and build your fanbase.

All of these elements come together in a big melting pot designed to fuel the Virtual Currency system 2K has become infamous for, as you can't build your character up without earning it. We'll have more on that later in this review.

There goes The Neighborhood

You'll find that MyCareer blends seamlessly into The Neighborhood, the new shared world online hub for NBA 2K19. This is where you take your character online to compete with others for rewards and fun. For the uninitiated, The Neighborhood — previously known as The Park — lets you walk around a collection of courts to compete in blacktop-style basketball. Claim a spot on the court and wait your turn just like you would at your local park or gym.

I've been content with pickup games alone, but The Neighborhood offers so much more. There are wacky game modes to be played at The Cages where you can jump on trampolines to execute flashy dunks. A wheel-of-fortune style game lets you play a game of basketball with randomly selected stipulations. There's even dodgeball and trivia if you want to take a break from hooping. These extracurricular activities came off as cheesy at first, but they do add a great degree of variety and fun.

Walking around The Neighborhood is just plain awesome. You'll see a line of stores, training facilities, gyms, shops, and other sorts of destinations that you can walk inside. And seeing everyone running (or skating, or dancing, or just plain being weird) around with their unique characters as the days turn into nights makes NBA 2K19 feel like a living, breathing world.

The elephant in the room

And then reality kicks in: Online play can be absolutely brutal in a world with VC. It's not fun walking onto the court as a 65-rated power forward with folks who have dumped money (or insane amounts of time) into their characters.

Having to step onto the court to guard a 7'3" center who never misses a layup and doesn't surrender any room in the paint isn't fun. Guarding a three-point specialist who can run circles around a gazelle and hit anything from half court makes it more about mind games than stick skills. And don't even think about going up against a team of pre-made ballers who have full communication if you're going into the game as a ragtag group of stragglers with no chemistry.

Intentional or not, it feels like the game is designed to punish you for not spending VC, and frustrates you just beyond the tipping point to where you're dying to reach for your wallet. I was disgusted to learn that some of my friends willingly spend $50 on each new character they make to level them up right away. One friend I know has already spent $400 in this endeavor.

2K knows what it's doing and for whom it's doing with this system. It's a vulturous practice which crosses the line of unacceptable by a country mile. NBA 2K19 attempted to ease the pain for those who dare keep their spending to a minimum. There are more ways to earn VC than ever before, and you do earn more overall. And yes, haircuts are free. Praise the high heavens.

But to reward 2K for loosening the grip on this exploitative business model is to accept it as something I'm OK with. I'm not. And while they appear merciful in some areas, the fact that they're identifying other ways to make the grind harder — like lowering the amount of XP you get toward badges — tells me that nothing has changed.

And that's just in MyCareer. I won't even get started on the fantasy team building mode known as MyTeam, which is almost impossible to be competitive in without an endless grind.

Verdict on NBA 2K19

There are other game modes you can play to dodge the constant VC pedaling. There are MyLeague and MyGM for more league-structured gameplay, as well as regular head-to-head online modes including exhibition and blacktop games. There's still tremendous amounts of fun to be had if you aren't in a position to deal with NBA 2K19's economy.

As such, the game won't live or die by its monetization model. The fact of the matter is that this is still a meaty game that offers the most accurate, deep, and fun, and exciting NBA experience in a video game to date, and that alone is enough to secure the initial purchase. But there's nothing I hate more than paying $60 for a game and being made to feel like I owe even more.

Quentyn Kennemer