|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch|
|Dev: Visual Concepts|
|Pub: 2K Sports|
|Release: September 6, 2019|
|Players: 1-10 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Mild Language, Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB, In-Game Purchases and Users Interact|
by Graham Russell
They say that all press is good press, but the NBA 2K team would probably disagree. Over the past year, it’s dealt with rocky launches, connection issues, in-game ad controversies and a trailer that prompted an explicit response from a ratings board. Lots of people are hearing about the franchise, but perhaps lesser known is what exactly this year’s release brings to the table.
NBA 2K20 brings back all the modes and gameplay you’d expect, built around connected online experiences. Things can change as the launch progresses, but there seem to be fewer connection issues and bugs this time around, and that makes sense given the fallout of last year’s release. It’s a comfort that you’re given something closer to the intended experience from the get-go. Even now, though, we’ve experienced some hiccups that make us think at least a bit more of the game should be playable when that happens. When it’s working, there’s a whole suite of available options.
The showcase mode for every NBA 2K release, this year’s MyCareer story is brought to you by LeBron James and his production company, SpringHill Entertainment. The franchise has long relied upon celebrities and auteurs to drive this mode, but LeBron’s edition doubles down on the idea. In one way, it succeeds: big names in both the acting and basketball worlds show up, from Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson to Mark Cuban and… well, LeBron James. The bench is deep, too: Ernie Hudson and Thomas Middleditch are here, and cover star Anthony Davis leads a group of players each showing up for a very short time. And therein lies the problem: this “story” is a montage of cameos that’s more about adding to the list of famous people than at all telling an interesting tale. No one sticks around for long enough to be a fleshed-out presence, but each is given “significant” roles full of unearned character and awkwardly forced narrative significance. You’re supposed to care about moments in your player’s life, but you just aren’t given the time or motivation.
It’s also basically a movie. There aren’t many opportunities to make decisions, and the ones you do make are either insignificant or seemingly unrelated to their consequences. The big moments, like your sitting out in protest on the distractingly poorly-named Bay City Flames, are taken away from you. Instead, you spend an hour listening to shoe brand pitches. There were opportunities here to have a real, choice-driven relationship with Rosario Dawson’s endearing advisor character, but they had to make time for a random NBA player to show up and tell you how good Gatorade is. So that’s what you get.
The gameplay of the mode itself is largely driven by short scrimmages and an exceedingly long combine minigame process. These minigames are awkward and difficult to control, and it seems like Visual Concepts knew that, because you get two full practice runs of each before the one that counts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the controls less wonky and unresponsive, and instead makes you spend three times as long dealing with them. Once you get through it and actually to your first rookie game, the credits roll and you’re essentially left with the old career mode. Which, once you get there, may be a relief.
Well, until you get to The Neighborhood, the game’s home for a lot of the sketchy pseudo-gambling you may have heard about. Yep, you still have to move slowly and through a bunch of load screens to stand in line to spin a wheel for a daily bonus, and yep, this multiplayer mode is as pay-to-win and money-hungry as ever. That it’s been in previous installments doesn’t give it a pass, though. In fact, we’d much rather see a sports game experiment with new ideas than remain stagnant, and that’s going to make for some imbalanced and unwise results sometimes, but the response to those issues has to be doing something about them in the next game. 2K has had multiple opportunities to clean up its act here, and it simply hasn’t. We wish we could ignore them, but the game still intentionally provides you with less progression than you’d reasonably expect, making the “free” experience (that you get by, um, paying full price for a game) frustratingly miserable.
This carries over to NBA 2K20’s other big mode, MyTeam. (Especially considering the two share currency.) 2K certainly isn’t alone in this space, and competitors like EA’s Ultimate Team have very similar tendencies. But while these modes have tried to provide options for the solo player to get some enjoyment out of it, NBA 2K20’s offerings provide meager rewards and just serve to point you toward buying packs. This game is not free. It already costs money. The game seems to have a lot of difficulty understanding that.
Another big selling point for NBA 2K20 is the addition of WNBA teams. Following their inclusion in competing series NBA Live last year, they’re here now! And… they don’t have a lot to do. The advantage of a behemoth franchise like 2K is its suite of functions and modes, but WNBA players can only play through a barebones season mode without features like trades or consecutive years. If this is simply how far development has progressed and more is planned, that’s fine, but perhaps it’s not enough for anyone to get a real experience in this year’s game. If Live continues to struggle, it doesn’t bode well for people who want something more fleshed-out for the women’s league.
If there’s a bright spot here, it’s the revamped MyGM mode, though that brightness may be intermittent. In an attempt to make it more of a strategy game than an anything-goes sim, “MyGM 2.0” introduces an action point system, limiting what you can do to make each action count. It’s clearly meant to simulate the limited time you’d have as a general manager, and in that way, it succeeds. Having to spend your only action point of the day to even look at another team’s trade offer seems a bit much, and that will need to be adjusted in patches or next year’s installment. Still, this feels different than the everything-at-your-fingertips MyLeague franchise mode, and that’s nice. The developers should still drop a lot of its “load into a business meeting” segments, though, as they’re still as tedious as ever.
It’s a shame that the surrounding structures don’t hold up, because the in-game experience of NBA 2K20 remains top-class. Another year of refinements has smoothed out some rough edges of the basketball gameplay that was already worth seeking out. The level of control you have over shot types is both useful and entertaining. Defensive assignments feel like they work more consistently. The commentary repeats itself less. They’re great moves forward. But if you engage with the modes 2K seems to want to push most, you’ll have to deal with baggage that weighs down the experience.