It’s hard not to be impressed when playing any of the recent NBA 2K games and the newest edition is no different. Despite the lack of massive changes, as a basketball sim – the technical quality, enjoyable story mode, variety of options and general gameplay are all high quality. Of course, your overall experience may differ substantially depending if you are new to the series or a longtime fan, but in short, you are getting a very polished game. Ultimately, however, what mars this very good game is the continuous encroachment of mock-gambling elements, low-yield loot boxes and the repetitive focus on the commercial side of things.
Upon booting up the game, you’ll immediately enter a tutorial section. This section gives you a quick break-down of the basics of playing NBA 2K basketball. And while for returning players it may seem pointless – personally, I love it when long-standing franchises like this one remember to cater specifically for new players. In fact, it’s one of the things I realised very quickly while reviewing NBA 2K20 – the experience for new players is likely going to be very different to returning fans. For those of you out there that may be thinking of NBA 2K20 as your first basketball game – it’s important to note that while not a lot has changed in the overall package from last year if you haven’t played a basketball sim in a while you’ll quickly realise that they’ve made a massive jump in the last few years.
A shinier coat of paint on a pretty comprehensive but familiar package.
Admittedly, the vast majority of people that will be interested in 2K20 will be returning players. And while tutorials are really quite a drag and having the option to skip is always best, every year we do get some tweaks and the short tutorial is probably enough to get you used to any gameplay changes. And while this year – there’s not much more than a shinier coat of paint to look forward to, the meagre upgrades are still updates to a pretty comprehensive package.
Visually, NBA 2K20 has seen a bit of an upgrade from last year’s edition. Big-name players look even better and gameplay in general (while complicated) is still really fantastic. I did find that shooting is tough. The timing system is different for every player based on the skill levels and abilities and I noticed a significant jump up in difficulty in the story mode once I had gone ‘pro’. While you could argue that this is realistic – my player was offensively weighted with higher stats on my shooting abilities. Still, I went from scoring reasonably frequently in the early stages to missing consistently without changing anything about the way I played. In all honesty, shooting is the one gameplay feature I really struggled with throughout the different modes though so it could also be a personal preference rather than a massive change. Conversely, I really loved the defensive side of things. Speed is more balanced and the man-to-man marking mechanic is fantastic. It is really suited to the format of basketball (fewer players and limited space) but I wish other sports games including FIFA would adopt a similar mechanic.
Game mode wise – you can expect the usual suspects: MyCareer, MyLeague and MyTeam. Online play is available in one way or another in almost all modes and in my experience, the games felt pretty good and connections were generally quite stable. Encouragingly, the WNBA finally has a real presence in the game – featuring prominently in the MyLeague experience. It’s a great addition. MyGM and similar modes are still pretty standard (good but not great). The modes are very detailed and now include an updated daily action points system and a heavier focus on levelling up skill-trees based on accomplished goals and results. I think for returning players it’s going to feel very similar to previous editions, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you enjoyed it previously, I found it a little bland in presentation and due to the intricacies of all you can do, also a little overwhelming.
Player speed is more balanced and on the defensive side of things the man-to-man marking mechanic is fantastic.
I spent the majority of my early hours with the game in the MyCareer mode. Story modes in sports games can be a bit hit-and-miss, however, on the whole, I enjoy them. I have to admit that although the story didn’t always appeal to me – this is undoubtedly the biggest and best production I have experienced in a sports game. In fact, after having the opportunity of recently reviewing a few sports titles – it’s clear 2K is putting way more time and definitely more money into their story mode.
While creating my in-game character using the MyPlayer App had some unfortunate results (as seen below) even choosing a more generic character, choosing their stats and potential and seeing them interact with characters modelled after and voiced by the likes Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson is a lot of fun. The voice acting was good and the storyline believable, while evoking strong themes of leadership and enough social commentary without becoming overbearing. It must be said that the high-level production does mean that at least at the beginning it feels less like a game and more like a movie interspersed with very limited branching-path selections and the occasional basketball game. This eases up the further along the story you go and like I said above I still enjoyed it – but it may not be for everyone.
This is undoubtedly the biggest and best production I have experienced in a sports game story mode.
Unfortunately, while wondering how 2K has the budget for including starring roles for Elba and Dawson in a video game – the issue of money reared up its ugly head and seemed to do so again and again. During the story mode, the number of blatant product placements is ridiculous. The more I considered it the more I realised that in the commercial world of pro basketball having all these brands shoved in your face is probably the norm. However, in a video game, it’s one ‘realistic’ feature I would be happy to not see depicted so accurately. And while on it’s own it may have been manageable – commercialisation has gone wild in this game.
There was a lot of talk about microtransactions and the like surrounding the game’s launch. And to be honest, 2K themselves have done little to alter public perception – communication and choice of game trailers just seem to make matters worse. However, knowing that some confirmation bias is probably at play I did try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sports games, in general, have come under increasing scrutiny in the last year or so and having just played several new editions of these games I was prepared for some inclusions I wouldn’t particularly like. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere.
Apart from the rampant product placement mentioned above, as soon as you hit The Neighbourhood in the story mode in-game spending takes centre stage. You can choose to use your VC (in-game currency which you can earn or buy) in the returning ‘Ante Up’ building (wagering your VC on whether you win or not). The theme continues with the new spin-to-win Daily Spin Room. Yes, these do not require real money to be spent, but the weird obsession on pseudo-gambling in a game available to kids made me feel very uncomfortable, to say the least, and I avoided them altogether. To be fair there are some fantastic non-money/gambling options in this mode too. The option to quickly join a variety of online games with people around the world and the new Cages and returning Por-Am buildings are a great way to test your skill and really should be standard in all sports games. Sadly, cosmetic visual upgrades (shoes clothing etc) are prominently depicted alongside them. In these virtual ‘stores’ prices are high enough that for many the temptation to ‘look good’ will no doubt result in further compulsive spending.
Excessive product placement, predatory microtransactions and several gambling-like mechanics. It’s blatant and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
In the FUT-like MyTeam mode – card packs for building your own team are much like before. However, new challenges do allow you to rack up points without, theoretically, having to spend money. Much like PES and FIFA, I like to see what sort of team I can put together without spending any real money. Once again I was able to do make up a decent enough team. However, in order of how much time it takes to develop a strong lineup – the results were clear: PES then FIFA and then… wait some more time… and some more… and then 2K20. Sure, it’s true if you spend enough time you’ll eventually probably fortuitously open up a rare pack. But in general, you’ll only have access to standard players and once you start playing online and comparing your team to what’s out there – it’s clear the game is pushing you to spend real money to get the best players quickly.
Sports games are really starting to become a challenge to review. Most of these games are on the whole technically very good. Visuals are astounding. The gameplay is intricate and realistic. And fans know every feature in minute detail. Because of these factors and the yearly release schedule – it’s hard to pick apart one edition from the next. We’re all hoping for massive new changes and additions every year and unfortunately despite their high costs – this happens more rarely than we like. Then you throw in the growing trend for rampant microtransactions and you somehow also start juggling with content, purpose and intended audience.
NBA 2K20 is a good game. In fact, as a basketball sim – it has some stunning visuals, a remarkable amount of content, a great single-player story and everything around the production from amazing pre and post-game analysis, in-game commentary and realistic game data is unmatched when compared to other sports titles. And in a vacuum, I may have scored it a 7 or 8. However, because of it’s massive budget the question will always be – has it changed enough from one year to the next to warrant a purchase? I’m just not convinced. And while excelling with positive technical and production attributes it also seems to be at the forefront on the negative side of things. Introducing more and more predatory microtransactions and several gambling mechanics. Like me, you can choose to simply not engage in any way with those features, but their prominence is unnecessary and not everyone can choose to not engage. And for those reasons, it’s just not a game I’m comfortable recommending.