NBA 2K18 Review
An enjoyable sports title that is starting to rely too much on its former glory
When the NBA 2k series first launched myCAREER mode as we know it today, it certainly got a lot of attention. Players of all sorts were intrigued by having traditional career mode mechanics infused with a narrative, but what really got people interested was the promise that it offered. A lot could be forgiven in the first attempt because nothing like myCAREER had ever been done before. However, with the honeymoon over, the promise of compelling tales of NBA life have all but evaporated in this latest version. It doesn’t help that with other sports games like Madden, MLB The Show, and FIFA releasing their own story-based single player modes, myCAREER is no longer a unique commodity. Luckily, NBA 2k18 still has an impressive myGM mode and a nice visual upgrade to fall back on, but there’s enough weighing the game down technically that the end result is a far cry from the series’ best efforts.
Let’s start with myCAREER mode, the bread-and-butter of the NBA 2k series. Last year, I wrote that the main character of myCAREER was too bland to care about. That’s not the case this year, nope, your protagonist this year (a failed DJ turned streetballer who is, of course, named DJ) is downright awful. I hated this character. While you’re given the occasional opportunity to direct DJ’s dialogue, most of the experience is linear, leaving this hero feeling the least personal in any myCAREER thus far - and he’s insufferable. Everything about DJ screams that it’s been handed to him. His basketball skills seem to have manifested out of thin air, since there’s hardly a mention of his desire to play the sport - a sport he quit to be a DJ, after all.
And being a failed-DJ-turned-streetballer must be a lucrative career because DJ begins the game living in a gigantic loft suite in NBA-ville (more on that in a second), with his own basketball court inside his enormous loft apartment, with its own doorman who basically doubles as your personal assistant. He complains about shoe deals and playing time in his first NBA game when literally days ago he was shooting hoops as a nobody. His incessant whining and complaining make him the only character in the series so far who is more annoying than the agents - and NBA 2k hates sports agents. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but DJ actually made me miss the previous myCAREER characters of Pres and Freq - who barely registered an emotion. When I was hoping that NBA 2k would add variety, I didn’t mean I wanted the character to be an insufferable douche who had everything handed to them - but be careful what you wish for, I guess.
Putting the main character aside, this year’s myCAREER has taken pieces of the previous narratives and reassembled them into something the developers seem to think is a story. It has the underdog tale of NBA 2k15, it has the melodrama and over-the-top characters of NBA 2k16, it has the teammate dynamic of NBA 2k17. But because it never commits to one of these themes, they all end up half-told and uninteresting. The relationships are nonsensical, the dialogue feels improvised (and not in a good way), it’s just a mess. Say what you want about the stories in myCAREER before (and I have), but at least I could tell you what they were about. The streetball aspect, the supposed new element of this year, lasts for a whole three scrimmage games and is never mentioned again.
The whole thing also feels less organic. As opposed to going through the draft or waiting to see what team offers you a contract, 2k18 simply asks at the beginning of myCAREER who your favorite team is and just puts you on that team. There’s no possibility of failing, nothing that makes you feel like you’ve earned a roster spot. Instead the game spends a lot of time in cutscenes talking about how great your skills are and how hard you’ve worked - when nothing could be further from the truth.
What is likely to be most-remembered about NBA 2k18 is The Neighborhood. As opposed to putting its many different modes into a menu this year, developer Visual Concepts has built a digital NBA-ville which houses multiple multiplayer modes (including the Pro-am, myPARK, and Ante-up), customization options for your character, and the aforementioned loft apartment. It’s an interesting concept and it would be really cool if it wasn’t plagued by the NBA 2k’s notoriously awful loading times. It was bad enough when accessing a mode took a few seconds of menu navigation before hitting NBA 2k’s long loading times, but now you have to walk to the venue that houses the mode and then sit through the same equally awful loading screen. Not to mention that this also makes it hard to know where to go and what to do. NBA 2k loves giving you objectives, but rarely takes the time to tell you where you need to go to complete said objectives. Do you need to go to a certain building? Is the option you’re looking for buried in the myCAREER menu? Some options are pretty hard to miss, but others, like myPARK are tucked away in the back of The Neighborhood hidden in a menu.
In previous NBA games, Visual Concept had bogged the experience down in a grind that they were always eager to remind you could be avoided, if you’d only shell out some extra money to purchase the in-game currency that leveled players up. But this year is slightly different; the in-game currency is still there, but it’s not pushed as hard and the game has a series of mini-games that can help with growing your player more naturally. First there’s the Gatorade Training Facility, located night next to your team facility. Here you can participate in a wide selection of mini-games that simulate lifting weights, doing cardio exercise, and agility drills. It feels a lot like the workout mechanics that were included in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - in both the good and bad ways. But if you’re playing NBA 2k18 to experience the joy of being an NBA athlete without needing to hit the gym, there’s ways to do that as well. At the team facility you can always participate in drills. These drills have you play a scrimmage of 2-on-2 or 1-on-1; sometimes you would do a gauntlet run where you try to score against increasingly difficult opponents. The game always asks you to pick a badge to work on, but I never saw it change much. I picked the alley-oop badge, but still played with a shooter on my team who never ran to the basket, making it pretty difficult to do many alley-oops.
It’s all a bit grindy. It’s nice that Visual Concepts has stopped reminding players they can always be spending real money to move things along faster like they did in years prior, but it still doesn’t make this process fun. The drills and workouts are nice to help you improve your player without spending money, but it is still a grind, just a different kind of one.
The multiplayer options in myCAREER can also help you improve your character. However, I found the multiplayer within The Neighborhood to be laggy and difficult. First, there’s not really matchmaking so you have to find other players to play with and hope they’re as good as the talent you're facing (that process can take a while), but once I was in the game the framerate was so terrible it was almost unplayable.
It feels like Visual Concepts is trying to stuff a lot of content into myCAREER mode with all the stores for customization, the multiplayer modes, the story, and the single-player minigames to improve your stats, but just because there’s a lot of content doesn’t make it good. And I don’t think anything in myCAREER qualifies as good. The multiplayer modes were unplayable, the minigames were token, and the story is bad. This feels like a low for this mode - and that’s saying something, being as this has been the hallmark of the series.
Yet, for as lackluster as myCAREER is, the game bounces back with myGM. The newest feature to this franchise mode is the addition of a narrative. The story begins when the player-character becomes the GM of their chosen franchise six years after suffering a career ending injury in the 2011 Conference Finals. Unfortunately, your first job comes at a time of unrest for your team as you’ll have to deal with ownership changes, potentially moving to Seattle, an unsettling amount of nepotism, and deciding the future of your NBA team. The narrative really only lasts for the first year and in some ways it feels like a tutorial. Your owner will strongly suggest you attempt to sign certain players through trades, drafting, and free agency - forcing you to learn the ins and outs of player acquisition. It’s also presented with a lot less flair than myCAREER. There’s no voice over work or motion capture. It’s a little unambitious, but it’s interesting in its own right.
After the first year, myGM goes back to the familiar structure of the last few NBA 2k iterations. Every few days your players or staff will want to talk to you about something that’s bothering them like playing time or roster moves, you choose to take action or not, and the chemistry of the organization is affected by said decision. So the new narrative structure doesn’t change much and that’s a good thing, as this is one of the better franchise modes in sports games. It’s still fun to balance the dynamic of a team, there’s enough customization so that it feels different, but the mode is never a slog. It’s easy to sim through so you don’t have to play 82 full NBA games to get through a season.
Bringing in the changes from the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement has made NBA 2k18 more complex than most series. You’ll have to deal with cap space holds, protected trades, and the luxury tax. To someone who’s been playing the series for a while it took me a bit to fully grasp the consequences of each roster move. To a beginner, I think it would be overwhelming. The real bummer is that I couldn’t find an in-game dictionary to explain some of the terms, which would have been nice for newcomers.
There’s also myLEAGUE, which is a more customizable season mode. This mode basically invites you to make all kinds of changes to the structure of the NBA, then enjoy playing games throughout your customized league. The team builder in the game is still the best one in sports games since NCAA Football was retired. myLEAGUE feels more like a goof than something NBA 2k is taking super seriously, but it is a fun element.
Lastly, there’s myTEAM, NBA 2k’s version of the collectible card trading, progression-based sports mode. It works much like most other versions of this mode. You start with a bunch rubes throughout NBA history and have to earn better cards through completing a series of challenges. To its benefit, I find NBA 2k’s version of this much more varied than other games. There are challenges, online competitive games, and single player games that you can play to build up your team. I actually found the more traditional multiplayer here far more stable and a much better experience. The more arcade-y the game, the more I tend to enjoy these modes, and while NBA 2k is still definitely a simulation, it comes closest to finding the right tone for this kind of mode.
The game itself has been improved on the court. I’ve given the series a hard time in the past for the in-game mechanics and this year it feels like a marked improvement. Using the analog stick to create space is much better than it’s ever been before, and I didn’t find myself going into inadvertent jump shots this year like I had in the past. There’s also a jumpshot feedback feature that always tells you how open you were and how good your timing was, helping you improve your shot. It can feel a little arbitrary at times. When my 6’10” forward is launching a three point shot over a 6’2” guard who hasn’t even left their feet, I hardly call it well-defended, but at least you’ll know why you missed shots this time around.
However, for all the improvements with ball-handling, there are still some glaring issues in NBA 2k18. The AI is pretty atrocious. On offense computer-controlled teammates rarely take much action to get open unless you call a play, unlike when your opponent is on offense. On defense the AI tends to make the worst decisions on who to guard, often leaving players wide open for a three point shot. There are also nagging issues of the game not showing you what’s happening down the court, meaning you’ll be controlling a player blind while the opponent exploits that for an easy two points.
The presentation is still top notch. The color commentary is a little repetitive but well-delivered enough that it’s never grating. The sights and sounds of the game feel authentic, and this is the best-looking crowd in sports video games. When you nail a game-winning shot, the animations that follow are incredible. The characters themselves look great as well. There are no hats or helmets to hide behind in basketball, forcing NBA 2k to go all-out on facial features and animations; the end result is quite good.
Unfortunately, the technical issues continue outside of myCAREER and the online play. While the presentation is still good, it has the tendency to create animation glitches from your nightmares as disembodied eyes and hair will sometimes give post game interviews. I also had the game crash on me multiple times in myGM mode. Once, during free agency, it crashed three times in the same free agency period. I also encountered some framerate drops in matches. With timing such a crucial part of the shooting mechanics, these issues are painful. It only happened a few times, but it is a few too many. These all came after the first few patches of the game had been released.
If you’re looking to buy NBA 2k18 for the myGM mode, and the new intricacies added make you excited to create your own dynasty, then I would recommend giving NBA 2k18 a go. However, if you’re here for the myCAREER mode, I don’t think it’s worth it this time. The mode feels overly stuffed-full of middling content. The visuals are improved, but the game has many technical flaws. myGM mode is great, but myCAREER has never been worse. There are some solid gameplay improvements, but the AI is baffling at times. At its core, NBA 2k18 is still the basketball sim that everyone loves, but it’s wrapped in a blanket of flaws that keeps me from enjoying it as much as I have in the past.