NBA 2K19’s rock-solid gameplay and strong sense of style make it the best of the series.
Professional basketball has a sense of style that is unique to the world of sports. The glowing arenas, fashionable apparel and high speed of the game are all unmatched. On the court, it’s not just about the win or the loss, it’s about the way you look doing it. NBA 2K19 builds upon its strong gameplay, fantastic presentation, and wide array of game modes to embody this attitude. Its style is cramped a bit by a small number of persistent issues with AI behavior and obscene microtransactions in the MyPlayer mode, but other than that, NBA 2K19 is a high point for the series.
Getting into the action isn’t as smooth as it could be because NBA 2K19 has a tougher learning curve than the series has in the past, one that rewards skill and punishes novice play. Even as a veteran of the series, I found myself getting pounded by the CPU on the default difficulty level as I relearned the old mechanics and adapted to a slew of defensive improvements that make dribble-drives much more difficult. (I actually found playing online against others who were struggling with the same things to be a better learning tool.) This year places a tremendous amount of emphasis on ball control and maximizing your players’ abilities. Each time the buzzer rang, however, I felt myself getting a little better.
NBA 2K19 did an excellent job of rewarding me for taking the time to learn its various skill moves, including a complex post-game and set of dribbling techniques. Pulling off a Steph Curry step-back jumper or a Lebron James fadeaway is really satisfying, especially because of the work you need to put into learning them first. Unfortunately, the complex nature of the controls and movement system can lead to some really unflattering moments. A successful move leads to a beautiful animation that seems perfectly in tune with what you would see in any NBA game, but an unsuccessful attempt often results in your player running into the defender awkwardly. I’ve seen instances where the AI will start a dribble move only to bump right into a defender, carrying them all the way into a backcourt violation. For a game that is usually so naturally fluid with its motion, these hiccups are easy to spot.
Pulling off a Steph Curry step-back jumper or a Lebron James fadeaway is really satisfying.
While it’s an improvement over previous iterations, NBA 2K19 still struggles in transition. Floor spacing is a little better but still underwhelming. Despite playing as some of the best athletes in the world, the fast break still feels too slow to develop. There have been several instances where an easy transition dunk turns into my own teammate running right out in front of me and preventing that from happening. Even with guys like Russell Westbrook, who are traditionally phenomenal in transition, I’d find myself having to settle for a jumper instead of being able to get to the basket.
The AI does a nice job of distributing the ball to its playmakers, which really accentuates how different every player feels. Guys like Karl-Anthony Towns dominate the paint with their athleticism while someone like Jonas Valanciunas will make you pay if you let him pop out of the pick and roll. There have been instances, however, where the AI will actively avoid open players in order to get the ball to their superstar, which is a bit absurd. Off-ball movement is actually pretty good, which makes it even more frustrating that players will work themselves open for a shot and never get to touch the ball. The AI also has a really bad tendency to hold onto the ball beyond the three-point line, even when time isn’t in its favor. Thankfully, this only happens a couple of times every game, but it’s certainly jarring when the AI puts up such a good fight everywhere else.
NBA 2K19 shines on the defensive end of the court thanks to tight controls and emphasis on player ratings. Lockdown defenders like Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard stand out against weaker defenders. As a compliment to the complex mechanics available on offense, defense became much more of a chess match. Predicting what moves they’ll make and when they will make them becomes of the utmost importance, especially if you don’t have a strong defense behind you. Making sure your roster has at least one or two defensive stoppers, even if they’re lacking offensive talent like Andre Roberson, is now a priority. The most noticeable difference comes from the interior, where bigs are no longer content letting guys like James Harden blow by on a one-on-one dribble drive. It is hard to make the defensive side of things interesting and engaging, but it helps keep NBA 2K19 fun all of the time instead of just half of it.
More Than a Game
While the immense amount of animations dedicated to matching the identity of their real-life counterparts helps, players have a tendency to look a little strange from the neck down. Lebron James, who is large and muscular, shouldn’t have the same body type as Rajon Rondo, who is trim by comparison. The players’ faces do a fine job differentiating one player from the next, at least among the more popular stars, but it’s still an odd look.
Beyond player physique, NBA 2K19 is a masterclass in presentation. From before the tip-off to when the lights shut off in the arena, there is always fantastic quality and attention to detail. Clever in-game commentary can keep even a blowout game interesting through small anecdotal stories on the part of former NBA player Clark Kellogg or more personal details about players that add to the impact of what they are doing on the court. For instance, I never knew that Jimmy Butler likes to pay for other people’s groceries while at the store. Hearing about it mid-game made me want to trade for him later that season. On top of that, there are excellent interviews – some that appear to be shot from a booth and others that are done on the court – with players using their real-life voices. Seeing someone like Dirk Nowitzki interviewed about basketball mechanics is a fun detail that feels thoroughly executed.
Similarly entertaining are the pre and post-game shows from Ernie Johnson Jr.,
Charles Barkley,[Correction: that’s Kenny Smith], and Shaquille O’Neal. They possess the same unique chemistry and charm in NBA 2K19 as they do on TNT, providing both useful insight and comedic delivery that break up the seriousness of a sports match. The pre-game show transitions really well into the pizzazz of the on-court battle, where the arenas are theatrical and the attire is chic. Because of the depth in its presentation, no two games of NBA 2K19 ever feel the same, giving it more than ample replay value.
Thankfully, there are a dozen or so different ways to digest NBA 2K19’s strong gameplay and presentation. The best, and perhaps the only mode that matches the intensity of the complex mechanics, is MyLeague. MyLeague allows you to build upon (or create from the ground up) an NBA franchise with an inordinate amount of customization. From something like the frequency of trades taking place across the league to the shade of orange you want the New York Knicks to have, nothing seems like it is off the table. This game mode really struck my desire to run the NBA the way I see fit, which included lots of unreasonable trades between superstars and the dismantling of the Golden State Warriors, and became the perfect medium for me to enjoy NBA 2K19’s strengths.
The story never lacks for interesting conflict.
NBA 2K19 also enjoys its strongest MyCareer mode yet with The Way Back, which is much more story-focused than in previous years. A.I., whose name might the most unfortunate part of the mode due to the NBA’s history with a more well-known player by the same nickname in Allen Iverson, is a complicated protagonist who isn’t always reasonable or kind. The resulting story of his attempt to be picked up in the NBA feels personal, and certainly more pragmatic than I expected from a franchise that has really struggled in this regard. The story never lacks for interesting conflict, but it starts to run out of creative juice toward the back end. A.I.’s constant struggle to learn that the scope of professional basketball goes beyond his own wellbeing is a theme that goes to the well one too many times.
Sadly, while The Way Back poses as an RPG with impactful decisions that can be made at various points throughout the story, in a second playthrough I found that, at least early on, these choices have very little impact on the storyline. Similarly, the way I performed in the games that took place in between cutscenes seemed to have very little to do with the direction of A.I.’s career. There were moments where I’d perform horribly, only to be told in a cutscene afterward that I had the game of a lifetime. Also, the teammate grade you are given as a result of your performance is incredibly inconsistent, as it would dock an unreasonable amount of score for things out of your control while barely adding any for things like setting screens. All the same, the writing is unusually strong for a game mode like this and appearances from Anthony Mackie and Haley Joel Osment bring life to a fun and relatively short (at about five hours) MyCareer mode.
Not all of the game modes felt as well worth my time as MyLeague and MyCareer. NBA 2K’s foray into the card-opening business feels all too familiar, with currency being a little too hard to come by – especially because it’s the same currency you use to bolster A.I.’s stats in MyCareer. Naturally, 2K is willing to sell you virtual currency to speed along the process, but that comes at a frighteningly high cost. Normal packs range anywhere from about $5 to $10 where more expensive boxes go for double of that. Even the more expensive packs don’t guarantee you the players you want, so I was much happier to spend the $25 worth of currency that came with the Anniversary Edition on my MyPlayer. Without dedicating major time to MyTeam, it’s hard to imagine being competitive with people who will shell out the cash for a better team. Thankfully, MyLeague is entirely devoid of these microtransactions, making it much easier to enjoy without any second thought.
There is also a Blacktop mode that includes street basketball, whether it be one-on-one half court or five-on-five full court. I had fun here playing as some of my favorite NBA legends, like John Stockton and Allen Iverson, but I couldn’t help but wish the gameplay branched off into something more exaggerated and along the lines of NBA Street or NBA Jam. Instead, it feels like a slightly modified version of what you’d normally see in NBA 2K19.
My time with online play was mostly positive, with the largest issue being a very small delay between the push of a button and the resulting action. Unfortunately, when the shooting mechanics rely almost entirely upon that timing, it can lead to some frustrating misses or turnovers that may not have happened otherwise. This was especially easy to notice when shooting free throws, which became almost impossible to time. At its worst, I did have some instances when online where it would freeze altogether, taking me out of control for chunks at a time. It’s unfortunate because there is a real element of strategy when facing a human opponent and some of that is lost in the latency. But if you don’t have someone to play with locally, the thrill of going back and forth with another player, especially with the improved defense which largely removed cheap ways of scoring easily, is still worth the effort.