NBA 2K19 Review

By Mark Delaney, 3 months ago
While football gets most of the September sports hype in the US, basketball fans still eagerly await the ninth month of every year as preseason basketball warms up and the annual video game sims hit stores. NBA 2K has consistently been the best sports sim, pound for pound, for many years now, and on the court that remains true with 2K19. No other game replicates the experience as well as 2K, but this year's game refuses to back down from increasingly intrusive microtransactions and a pay-to-win model that deflates the experience to a degree some will find inexcusable.

Giannis Cover

Like all sports games of this type, a review really addresses two main crowds: those that tend to buy it annually anyway and want to know what's new, and those who maybe are on the fence about getting into (or back into) the series. In the case of NBA 2K19, both groups can really be spoken to at once. No one in the business, not EA's NBA Live, nor FIFA, nor even 2K Sports' own WWE series, rise to the level of actually simulating the sport at the forefront of the experience better than Visual Concepts does with basketball. On its surface, that's probably worth buying into alone for anyone who likes the NBA.

Annual players may be spoiled by now to see the remarkable level of detail that goes into making each player look exactly like his real-life counterpart, and the broadcast presentation is simply unrivaled in the sports gaming world. While other series such as Madden seem to toy with finding a good way to present the game every year, NBA 2K mastered the at-home TV broadcast of the sport years ago and has just made it look prettier with each passing year. Pre-game intros and commentary are often hilarious, the in-game color commentary and play-by-play is the best in the overarching umbrella of sports games, and players move better than ever thanks to some detailed adjustments that tend to last year's trouble spots.

Those who played 2K18 will recall the way defending quick and speedy players often ended in those defenders looking foolish. That element was unbalanced and tuned improperly, but thankfully it's been resolved with a smarter strength versus speed relationship that allows you to body these smaller players now should you have the more towering defender in place. You can't just spam the close defend button either — it's more about knowing what your opponent is trying to do and being there to prevent it. Last year it was a race, and the big guys always lost. In 2K19, it's more of a chess match. Other needed fixes from last year's game show up too, like how the new animation system last year caused lots of clipping problems. That's resolved now, and in turn, the best playing NBA game in the market looks that much better.

Across the board, every mode is tended to in some way, either big or small. MyGM continues its story experience with an all-new narrative angle that builds on last year's, and while the cutscenes here still get little love (and no voice acting) compared to MyCareer, it adds a welcome layer to its front office mode that no one else is doing. If you didn't play 2K18, you can even get a recap of the story you missed and make the decisions as it unfolds, so you inherit the story you want. For those that want to make more choices in their NBA story mode, they're found here mostly, not in the largely linear MyCareer.

The Way Back

In MyTeam, the game's card collecting mode akin to EA's ubiquitous Ultimate Team, a great new 3v3 mode is introduced that combines the fun of the street ball game modes popular in the Neighborhood with the chasing-the-dragon allure of MyTeam. The mode still weirdly insists on short-lived items like contracts long after players have seen them disappear in analogous modes in the sports gaming world. That same Neighborhood is streamlined in 2K19, with the whole experience now taking place in a large, easier to navigate rectangle, with the courts in the middle. New game modes like the trampoline-infused Under Armour Cages and timed event mini-games like dodgeball and trivia go a long way to fleshing out this Neighborhood and making it feel like there's a lot more to do than just tend to your player's appearance or queue up for a game, but it's here where most of the game's problems come into focus.

The legacy issue of laggy lobbies and long queues to get into games is back again. For a game this popular, it's weird how long it takes matchmaking to do its job. This is exacerbated by the way the game still clings to the "I got next" system of claiming a court, where players then have to stand and watch the current game unfold. Locking you into this spot is really weird, especially since the game otherwise keeps adding more and more to do in the Neighborhood, but to take part in its central attraction of actually playing basketball, you have to forego it all and literally wait in line like an arena bathroom at halftime.

As MyCareer is still the clear focal point of the series, it's a real shame the pay-to-win tactics remain intact for another year. Although Visual Concepts has made it somewhat easier to earn more virtual currency (VC) in 2K19 thanks to daily goals and the aforementioned mini-games, it remains true that basically everything is monetized, and this still painfully includes your player's stats. That creates an online world where the best players are often those with the deepest pockets, and just days into the game's full release, already seeing plenty of people boasting overall ratings upwards of 90 is disheartening. If so much else wasn't so good about NBA 2K19, this would be a backbreaking component of the game. For whatever reason, it seems to fly in sports games more than other genres, and sadly that may mean these tactics aren't going away anytime soon. When your multiplayer hub features a casino where players can risk their VC to earn even more, it's a sign the creators feel as though they can get away with anything.

It hurts especially because the story mode built around 2K19's MyCareer is the best it's ever been. With a legitimately good script, solid voice work, and a few funny casting decisions like Rob Huebel as a G League coach with anger issues, the story puts others to shame. A strong central character arc makes for a story with actual heart, and if you're looking for a sports game to deliver narrative with a high degree of quality, look no further. It will always sting that, following the story, you go into the world of MyCareer and the Neighborhood constantly teases you to pay up to stay competitive, but the journey up to that point is well worth playing. For those who love MyCareer mode but not the actual story content, you can even skip cutscenes this year, although it's recommended you don't as the story is so impressive.

Ben Simmons

The achievement list is a standard one for the series, with a few even returning from the last few years of entries. You'll need to split time across all major modes, including Play Now, MyTeam, MyGM, and MyCareer to earn various achievements in each of them, and you'll need to worry about a few online-only achievements too, which should be given some precedence as the creators notoriously shut down servers so soon after the next year's game. For those looking for a completion, there are no surprises this year so long as you've played before, know what to expect, and can play pretty well. If it's your first time in a while on the court, consider it many dozens of hours for the full 1,000G.

Summary

NBA 2K19 continues the series' decade-long trajectory of becoming the very best sports sim in the world. That's certainly still true on the court thanks to improved gameplay mechanics that fix trouble spots, a genuinely interesting and well-written story mode, and quality of life additions across the board. Sadly, the series still feels like something less than it should be thanks to predatory and invasive pay-to-win tactics that make their shameful return. Hopefully the day will come when this player base revolts and gets the game at least down to cosmetics-only buying options. For at least another season, what should consistently be one of the year's greatest games ends up being only very good and comes with one major caveat; it's fitting that the year Lebron is on the cover of the Anniversary Edition that 2K is still king, but you may have to pay a king's ransom to compete.
4 / 5
NBA 2K19
Positives
  • Quality of life changes and fixes across the board
  • 3v3 mode in MyTeam is a fun twist on the mode
  • The storytelling in MyCareer is the best it's ever been and legitimately well-written
Negatives
  • Pay-to-win microtransactions return and remain ugly
  • Long queues and load times online with some server problems
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 15 hours across all modes of the game, scoring 15 of 50 achievements for 225 gamerscore. A review copy was provided by the publisher and the game was played on an Xbox One S.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.