It seems like such a simple question; “is NBA 2K18 a good basketball game?” Ostensibly, NBA 2K18 is a masterpiece: the pinnacle of years of work for the Visual Concepts/2K teams, a game that fully embraces the changing philosophies of recent iterations of the world’s most popular basketball video game, markedly better than its predecessors in a number of measurable, tangible ways. Though I roll my eyes at this metaphor, the initial observations of NBA 2K18 at release was the epitome of a slam dunk; great reviews, solid sales, and buckets full of hype for the new modes and gameplay enhancements. It all seemed to be a perfect storm; and yet, after five weeks of playing NBA 2K18 religiously, I’m not able to definitively say whether this is a great game, a good game – or a terrible game that represents the worst business and development practices of the series.
The framework of NBA 2K18 is undeniably solid; as disappointed as I am yearly that the Create-a-Legend and Jordan Challenges of NBA 2K12 are never to return, it’s impressive how much content is available to play in the streamlined myCareer, myTeam, and myGM/myLeague modes, both on and offline (though, thanks to the VC currency system and other “features” I’ll detail throughout, 2K is mostly a useless game when not connected to the internet). myCareer has expanded from being a great career mode wrapped in a terrible story to being an all-encompassing monster of badge grinding, player upgrading, and online play – complete with another shitty story and set of characters – all taking place in the alternate universe known as “the Neighborhood”. myTeam has quadrupled the amount of single and multiplayer offerings within its mode (including “Schedule Mode”, which features 30 individual challenges to beat for each of the league’s 30 teams – that’s right, 900 mini-events to complete), a never-ending spigot of fantastic content and addictive card pack opening screens that’ll make Hearthstone developers jealous in how much revenue they’ll generate. myGM is no slouch either, the logic of the mode being reworked to incorporate the new rules and intricacies of the new collective bargaining agreement signed this year – PLUS it gets its own myCareer-level awful narrative thrown on top, as well!
Seriously – the first season of this year’s myGM sees a player’s chosen team be bought out by an obnoxious, disinterested owner that does whatever he can to ruin your initial experience with the mode – to the point he makes unapproved trades on your behalf, completely ruining the meticulous construction players go through to set up their franchises to become dynasties for years to come. And (spoilers) it only lasts for a season! The owner comes in, ruins your relationship with coaches and players, forces trades, screws up a team’s cap room for two-three seasons to come, and then he’s just gone the minute the first season has completed. Simply put – what the fuck was the point? Considering nothing else has changed in the mode (the menus are even exactly the same), it may just be a matter of 2K searching for ways to make a mode they hyped up as being completely refreshed, actually feel like something different – however, the only thing it does is ruin a lot of good will that comes with the actual, wanted changes to the mode’s logic and gameplay.
There’s no shortage of things to do in 2K, that’s for sure: in fact, this might be the most time anyone spends off a basketball court in a 2K basketball game without ever running in fear of getting bored. In The Neighborhood, players can always progress their “Road to 99” story by “experiencing” the lengthy, excruciatingly shitty cutscenes that tell this year’s story (which is so awful and predictable, it’s not even worth recapping – just know the player-controller character is a person who goes back to playing basketball when his true dream of being a DJ fails. Yes, that is correct). Players can also participate in any number of activities that will encourage them to spend cash on some hot VC currency: get a fresh haircut (that were so expensive 2K had to cut the prices in 1/4 the week of release, due to player complaints), work on badges in the gym, or head over to the outdoor courts, the myPark of NBA 2K18 that mostly works, most of the time (complete with the requisite amount mechanic cheesing and connection issues, of course).
Perhaps the most disappointing turn about myNeighborhood/Road to 99/The Story of DJ the Fuckboi is just how slow it all feels, top to bottom. Players move sluggishly around the neighborhood to go from place to place, progress of a player’s attributes and skill set is slower, and inextricably tied to VC – which of course, is earned significantly slower in this year’s games; for the first time since the mode’s inception, there’s really nothing exciting or rewarding enough to make myCareer worth playing, unless you’re really into Pro-Am (aka grinding to get into tournaments) mode, or have some investment in the 2K18 E-sports league that’s been slowly forming over the past six months. Forget how disappointing and stereotypical the main plot line of myCareer is; the entire mode is predictably disappointing, thanks to the increasing need to make the mode something that is only fun when extra monetary funds are being spent to artificially increase the almost non-existent feel of player evolution.
No matter how disappointing the mode and feature suites of 2K18 are, there’s no denying the mastery of on-court performance 2K once again offers its audience…. at least, in comparison to EA’s NBA Live relaunch, a well-intentioned basketball simulation that’s just janky and arcade-y enough to keep most virtual basketball heads at bay. For a game that still relies on the increasingly-archaic systems of animation construction and prioritization (rather than moving to real-time physics, as titles like FIFA have done in recent years), NBA 2K18 mostly looks and plays as smooth as it ever did, particularly on a PS4 Pro, where the 4K assets and 60-frames a second action look buttery smooth, and insanely detailed, right down to facial hair, sweat, and indentations on the court surface from sneaker scratches.
However, this doesn’t mean that NBA 2K18 plays “perfectly”, or even is a marked improvement over last year’s game: in fact, this game seems tuned even further towards replicating “modern” basketball, or at least 2K’s interpretation of it. This means the only two viable sources of offense is driving to the basket off a pick and roll, or driving the lane with a player in order to collapse defenses and kick outside; at least, that feels like the only two viable offensive options. Post play is as subdued as it ever was, and thanks to the everlasting glitches with rebounding and defense (where boxing out and blocking shots often lead to an easy opponent score), still showing off their ugly mugs at various points in each match. Errant passes and players stepping out of bounds in the corner are two big issues 2K clearly wanted to address, so at least there are a few bugs that have existed in 2K games for the past five years that are addressed in 2K18 – but not enough, a sentiment that is doubled down upon when faced with the new frustrations 2K’s on-court product presents players.
The most frustrating, and encompassing, of these issues, is the rampant changes in difficulty. Suddenly, there is no such thing as a consistent offensive player: “good” releases on 85% free throw shooters regularly brick, players like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving regularly miss routine layups on any difficulty above Pro, and the difference between opponent AI defense, and a player’s AI defense, have never been more apparent. The lack of consistency with defensive AI has increasingly gotten worse with each patch 2K has pushed out this year: to the point where I can no longer trust a big man not to leave his defensive assignment wide open under the basket during any type of offensive action, since every single one of them are magically glued to the ball handler during any type of pick and roll action, or getting locked up on screens underneath the basket. This isn’t just on lower difficulties: on Hall of Fame, AI defenders on my team would routinely make the most aggressively stupid choices possible, even though the opponent AI stuck to my players with some of the most aggressively unbalanced ability I’ve ever seen. I can’t get a PF to effectively hedge a pick when I’m controlling him, but I’m unable to create space between my PG and the opponent C 25-feet away from the basket, on multiple consecutive possessions?
As a player who has been playing 2K18 at an effectively high level for the past 15 years, I’m confident in my ability as a virtual basketball player. For the first time ever, NBA 2K18 makes me question my own choices: why are players missing “excellent” release shots, multiple times in a row? Why does every ball poked loose turn into easy points for the opponent, instead of a turnover? Why did I just miss three open layups in a row? No longer do I feel confident that I’ll be able to charge to victory when facing any sort of mechanical adversity in a 2K game; while that may make the game slightly more realistic in terms of shooting percentages and the “look” of a game, it can sometimes lead to a really offputting experience – and oddly, it appears to be totally random. I’ve shot 35% for a game on my home court, and I’ve also made 4/5 free throws with Hassan Whiteside in the late 4th quarter of a road game; the lack of consistency in experience undercuts the experience, in 10 point losses or 30 point wins. Maybe it’s the game’s undying allegiance to the effects of “momentum”, maybe it’s 2K forgetting that consistency in a sports video game is more important than staunch, stiff adherence to “realism” in all aspects; whatever the philosophic changes to the heart of 2K’s gameplay may be, it has ultimately led to a slightly less satisfying experience than in years prior.
Ultimately, that lack of confidence defines my experience with 2K: from the game-changing fundamentally on-court after each post-release update, to the inconsistent on and off-court experiences with its increasingly small mode set (and the game’s unholy obsession with shoving microtransactions down player’s throats, even after offering $80 and $100 priced versions of the game), 2K18 is as impressive as it is disappointing, a game that only superficially offers players new ways to engage and enjoy the most critically acclaimed sports series in the universe. And while it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll put multiple hundreds of hours into the robust myTeam mode, the specific joy of playing myCareer is completely gone, as is the excitement to dig into the new off-court features of any game mode, given how currency driven and uninspired they’ve all become. NBA 2K18 is still the best basketball game anyone could play in 2017 – and admittedly, one of the best sports titles overall – but that accomplishment is not as impressive, or exciting, as it was in years past.