As many sports game fans would likely agree, the NBA 2K brand is generally considered to be the standard in pro basketball video games. Thanks to the work of the development team at Visual Concepts, each successive entry has continually received a multitude of improvements and quality of life changes, which have given the series the ability to maintain a stellar track record both critically and financially. In fact, it’s this commitment to excellence that has helped the 2K Sports titles practically install themselves into NBA culture. For instance, some pro players often anxiously await their in-game rating as the next installment looms, while various hip-hop magnates such as Jay-Z and Pharrell have contributed to and produced the games' soundtracks. Bearing all of this in mind, it likely won't come as a major surprise to learn that the series' latest entry, NBA 2K19, manages to uphold the lofty expectations placed upon it, while also progressing the franchise in more ways than one.
NBA 2K19 keeps veterans and newcomers alike in mind by providing a finely tuned balance between deep mechanics to master on-court, and controls that are accessible enough to allow anyone to achieve such mastery. As one practices and progresses with the way the game handles, players should eventually be able to dazzle on the hardwood with a wide range of offensive and defensive plays and maneuvers. What's most important, though, is that the fundamentals are not forgotten–passing, ball handling, shooting, and defensive actions are all easily controlled by the thumbsticks, face buttons, and L and R buttons.
While it's fair to say that NBA 2K19 hews close to familiarity, it's important to note that Visual Concepts has made some fine and meaningful adjustments to the gameplay, too. For instance, players have a more robust set of defensive options this time around, and the AI has been improved to make the pacing of any given game feel more realistic. With this being the case, don't expect to constantly dominate the opposing squad with easy-to-make layups, as AI opponents should put up a lot more resistance on defense now. Shooting has also been better refined, as players should be able to find themselves scoring a lot more off of contested shots. Such changes seem to be catering to the league's current trend of high scoring games built around jump shots and three-pointers. So, fans of offense-heavy playbooks and sharpshooting outfits like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets ought to feel right at home putting numbers on the board.
The most recognizable addition to the series' on-court gameplay is NBA 2K19's new Takeover feature, which will give a player a skill boost once they successfully complete a series of plays. In a way, one can liken it to how NBA Jam's “On Fire” concept works, but that would be oversimplifying the mechanic. Essentially, by nailing certain plays that a particular player is good at in a steady, unbroken flow, they will fill and activate the Takeover meter. This will then provide bonuses, abilities, and animations designed for a specific player's skill set. So, to take full advantage of the feature, those who fall under the playmaker archetype will need to be constantly setting their teammates up for scoring drives by passing on the regular, while sharpshooters should focus on draining threes, and so on. While the Takeover meter seems somewhat out of place at first, it ends up becoming a great virtual interpretation of what an athlete's “flow state” can be like.
In addition to NBA 2K19's rock solid gameplay, the game is also dedicated to displaying the sport in the most detailed and realistic fashions possible. For instance, Visual Concepts brings back Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal, and Ernie Johnson for the series' flashy pre-game shows. Plus, David Aldridge is on the sidelines reporting, and some fantastic dynamic commentary is provided by the likes of Kevin Harlan, Bill Simmons, Doris Burke, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and more.
Furthermore, NBA 2K19's graphics are top-notch, with textures, lighting, shaders, and animations having been enhanced to make the stadiums and players look incredibly lifelike. Plus, frame-rates during games typically remain smooth and steady, as if it were a live broadcast. In all actuality, it's a safe bet to make that most people who walk into the room not knowing NBA 2K19 is being played will initially believe they're seeing a real NBA game in action.
Not only has Visual Concepts ensured that NBA 2K19's gameplay, visuals, and audio are a marked step up from its predecessor, but also this year’s MyCareer mode, “The Way Back”, is a significant improvement for the franchise when it comes to narrative set pieces. In the story, players take on the role of A.I., a self-involved prima donna who dreams of making it to the NBA after not being selected in the Draft. A.I.'s journey begins in China, which then takes him to Fort Wayne, Indiana to become a member of the NBA G League's team, the Mad Ants, as he trains to climb up into the pros. With superb turns from such actors as Anthony Mackie, Michael Rappaport, Haley Joel Osment, Aldis Hodge, Rob Huebel, and more, the terrific script from Adam Hoelzel comes alive, and serves up an engaging plot plump with suspense, humor, and heart.
That said, though, the actual story in “The Way Back” only lasts several hours tops, so NBA 2K19's MyCareer experience mostly relies on such well-worn gameplay methods as leveling up and customizing one's MyPlayer character. The character creator system is more in-depth than ever, but leveling up, on the other hand, can sometimes feel a tad tedious. Compound this with the rather staid hub world of The Neighborhood–a square courtyard environment populated with different shops and attractions through which to spend and earn the game's ever-controversial Virtual Currency (VC)–and it leaves one with the desire to just be able to pick certain activities and modes through a plain menu instead. Really, having to navigate through The Neighborhood can often be an unnecessary middle man to fun. Not to mention, it occasionally feels like an elaborately gussied up system that's primarily designed around and predicated on pushing microtransactions.
For those who want to take a break from the MyCareer grind, NBA 2K19 has a bunch of other modes on hand that offer their own unique gameplay experiences and features. For starters, there's MyGM, which lets players run a franchise as its general manager. Its story is a followup to the one from 2K18, but it must be mentioned that the writing and dialogue for MyGM's story in 2K19 can often be unbearably bad. So, thankfully, there's a story-free version of the mode for those who simply want to enjoy well-crafted team management mechanics instead of having to slog through innumerable conversational cul-de-sacs that go nowhere.
Further proving itself to be jam-packed with content, NBA 2K19 also has the modes MyLeague and MyTeam. The former lets players run a whole league of franchises, while the latter is a collectible card game that focuses on building a team of players and competing against other players' teams online. The series' fan-favorite street basketball mode Blacktop also makes a successful return, and it will likely be a hit with the multiplayer and co-op crowd. And, of course, NBA 2K19 offers the ability to jump into a single game, a whole season, or the playoffs.
In short, save for the ever-encroaching reach for players' wallets with the Virtual Currency system, the sheer breadth of content alone in NBA 2K19 will be plenty to satisfy newbies and long-time fans of the franchise looking for a complete basketball sim experience. And fortunately enough, Visual Concepts' dedication to nailing practically every important detail related to gameplay and presentation shows that the developer went the extra mile to make worthwhile improvements where it could. All told, despite the loot box backlash the game incurred prior to launch, NBA 2K19 will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable and enjoyable entries in the series yet.
NBA 2K19 is available now for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided with a PS4 code for this review.