I adore the NBA 2K series. Of any series in the past decade, I’ve put more hours into this series than any other. A lot of that started with NBA 2K11 and the introduction of a Michael Jordan mode. It continued with NBA 2K16 and their first full-fledged story mode, written and directed by Spike Lee. This year 2K Sports took, in my opinion, their riskiest move yet. They’ve abandoned the fully scripted story mode and instead made a living breathing online world that they call “the Neighborhood.”
But before we get into that, I want to first talk about the moment to moment gameplay. This is where NBA 2K historically has just done it so much better than any other sports game out there. This year’s game only makes slight tweaks to the core gameplay, the majority of which are on the offensive side, allowing for a lot more control over dribbling and movement of the ball. Your teammates react more naturally to your movement as well, giving you the ability to orchestrate more offensive plays. The downside to this new-found control is that both AI and human controlled defense don’t seem to be able to keep up. I cannot tell you how much easier it is in this year’s game to drive to the hoop even with less than stellar players. NBA 2K has always been a more offensive focused franchise, but this year, the ball seems to have tipped even further in that direction.
The rest of the action on the court will feel very familiar with some new features. The game introduces a new shot meter that will take some time to get used to for those who’ve put a lot of time into previous game. The only other noticeable change on the court is the insanely fantastic opening moments of each game. The first game I played was at Staples Center with the Lakers and it opened with the last few words of the National Anthem followed by a really well-orchestrated introduction of the players. Having been to Staples Center many times, it felt true to life. That continues through NBA 2K18 with not only the best commentary in sports (it's not even close), but the best sideline reporters and pregame analysis. I don't know how the developers are able to do all of this, but it never ceases to impress me.
The big change/addition to NBA 2K18 is the career mode which now takes place in the neighborhood, an open-world online environment where you can see hundreds of My Player creations running around. The mode has you create your own player who runs through a pretty light story. No matter what you name your player, his nickname will be DJ because he quit basketball during college to pursue his passion of, you guessed it, DJ’ing. He decides to hit up a street basketball tournament, in which he'll get noticed by an NBA team who asks him to join their team. From there you hit up the Neighborhood, which is the “hub world” for the game. Here you can run to the practice gym, the actual gym (more on that later), a bunch of stores, barber shop, street basketball courts and the like. Unlike in previous years where you would do all this in the game's menus, you instead run to these places.
The idea is sound and the execution, for the most part, is actually pretty compelling, although it does take some time for it to really sink its teeth into you. You can’t talk about this mode without talking about the game's progression. Over the past couple of years, NBA 2K has become more and more of a grind. But nothing has reached the levels of grind that come in NBA 2K18. You need points for everything, and they’re doled out for doing actions in the game. Whether you're playing an NBA game, a pickup game, or literally running on a treadmill (that’s a thing in the game), you will earn virtual currency. These points/currency can be used not only to upgrade your player but also to buy items, move sets, and the like. That’s nothing new for NBA 2K, but the number of points needed to upgrade skills along with the cosmetic items has increased across the board. It’s gotten to the point where the mode has started to feel like a free-to-play mode rather than a full retail game. For example completing a full game with near perfect performance will give you enough points to either add 1 new skill on your skill tree or potentially buy half a pair of shoes at Foot Locker.
Want more points? You have the option to either grind them out or buy them. Speaking of buying, I’ve had the game for a couple of weeks and notice that players are either rated in the mid to low 60’s or in the mid to high 80’s. That’s because there are more expensive versions of the game that will let you skip up to 80 overall. There is a $150 version of this game that will give you a starting point of 200,000 VC points, basically allowing you to skip over a lot of the early game grind. Long time players of NBA 2K are familiar with the grind for VC points, but it’s never been as apparent or brash as it is in this year’s game.
It’s far and away my least favorite part of this years’ experience. Because outside of the pay for points model, I really like what 2K has done with the neighborhood. Going to a street game by waiting your turn feels natural. Going to the barber and having fun banter about current basketball is great. Heck, even going to the gym and playing the many minigames that come along with running on a treadmill or lifting weights is actually pretty enjoyable. Had this game come out ten years ago, I can almost guarantee that I’d feel compelled to put the time into grinding my way up as quickly as possible. Now, I'm fine with taking my high 60’s player and slowly but surely making my way up the ranks while enjoying the ride.
The other big change in this year’s game is that the MyGM mode is a new text story mode. This is the first time we’ve seen a story in this mode and I have to say I like it. In the past, I’ve put so much time into MyCareer that I’ve often overlooked MyGM. But given the new level of grind within this year’s game, I spent a lot more time with MyGM and loved it. It’s a text-based mode, and it does a great job of keeping the otherwise mundane parts of seasons a little more interesting.
At the end of the day whether you jump in for the grind or not, NBA 2K18 is an amazing game of basketball. I know the microtransactions are going to drive some nuts, but for me personally, I found a ton of enjoyment without ever once thinking about spending money. I believe that the foundation that 2K has laid with the neighborhood could revolutionize not only this franchise but others out there. It’s a compelling way to extend the life of a sports game far past the initial season. If 2K is able to soften the grind without having to pay to win, NBA 2K should have no problem remaining the king of sports games.
I'm the Owner & Editor in Chief of Darkstation.com. After spending seven years as the reviews editor I took over the site in 2010. The rest is history. Now I work with our amazing staff to bring you the best possible video game coverage. Oh and I really like sports games.