NBA 2K18 might play brilliantly, but its off-the-court issues get in the way of its success. The game delivers a tremendous simulation of the sport, with sparkling presentation to match and a renewed focus on the inner-city origins that many NBA athletes share. Then developer Visual Concepts takes this otherwise stellar game on a detour toward microtransactions.
The NBA 2K series has been on this path for years, but its emphasis on microtransactions reaches a new peak in NBA 2K18. It often feels like the better pieces of the game — of which there are plenty — get lost in its obsession with squeezing more money out of its players.
The rise of microtransactions in the NBA 2K series parallels the increasing tumult of the real-life NBA offseason. This year, 2K Sports had to change NBA 2K18’s cover after a blockbuster trade put its cover athlete in a different uniform. To better capture that growing disarray in the league’s offices, NBA 2K18 introduces a story to its franchise mode, MyGM. A player — your created MyPlayer, specifically — suffers a career-ending knee injury and later takes up the reins as general manager. Trade Kyrie Irving away or put him at a different position; that’s the crux of a team GM gig, with a hint of occasional internal team drama involved. It’s a stretch to call it a story mode as the menu does, but minor expansions to MyGM include dialogue exchanges and player interactions new to NBA 2K18.
Not only is there a story in MyGM, there’s still a bevy of MyPlayer options. Rather than invite Spike Lee to direct MyCareer (as he did back in NBA 2K16), NBA 2K18’s approach settles down, focusing on the turbulent rookie year of former street baller DJ. It’s mostly satirical toward locker room culture, a reprieve from the thick drama of Madden NFL 18’s Longshot or even previous years of NBA 2K. For instance, DJ’s agent isn’t much of one, but he does have a catchphrase: “Eat what you kill.” The characters don’t seem to understand what that means (and they say so), but NBA 2K18 runs with it for the humor.
When playing as DJ, you’ll encounter NBA 2K18’s “The Neighborhood.” Consider it a hub of activity for DJ’s career. In a MMO-lite twist, it’s possible to walk around with numerous (hundreds, maybe, if servers fill up) of other player-controlled DJs, playing pickup games, trading scores in minigames or socializing. The presence of other players is generally pointless outside of light competition, however; I ended up just ignoring the crowd.
I soon realized The Neighborhood just replaces NBA 2K18’s core menu. In that sense, it’s merely a clumsy way to navigate. Want a haircut? Walk the block to the barbershop. Want to change clothes? Go home first. Need new shoes? Jog down to Foot Locker. Looking to catch a quick pickup game? The court is down the street on your left.
Plodding as this navigation is, there’s a touch of personality and culture inside. At the barbershop, DJ is served like a local celebrity while they chat about general gossip. The friendly (if sleepy) attendant of a food cart brings in some laughs. These spaces are also nicely decorated, cramped and flush with old brick buildings circa 1930s New York. It’s a strong representation of the impoverished to lower-middle-class upbringing of NBA stars who got their start in places like Harlem’s Rucker Park.
However, The Neighborhood is also sullied by corporate sponsors. A bit of gentrification in the old neighborhood? Maybe. But it’s not only a Foot Locker location sitting on a corner or Gatorade-sponsored gyms. The owners of the barbershop present DJ with a gift, JBL headphones, of which DJ chimes in, “Are these the new JBLs?” Gatorade is a central piece of the story, called out by the broadcast team during games as much as it is advertised during gym training sessions (buying virtual bottles of Gatorade for stamina includes a spiel about electrolytes).
Selling a bit of ad space — even overdone ad space — isn’t inherently problematic. It’s emblematic of an online-connected era. There’s an authenticity in rotating courtside banners and between-play chatter by the announcers, changing as the year moves on with new sponsors cycling in. The insistence on using Virtual Currency (VC) for everything compounds the issue, though. NBA 2K18 wants you to drink Gatorade, but it’s also interested in getting you to spend more real money in the game.
VC has exploded into an infestation over the years, and it’s a powerful lure. Buying special editions of NBA 2K18 grants bonus VC, an attractive proposition considering that player upgrades, new hairstyles, clothes and shoes require currency. Spending VC on shoes means less VC to upgrade DJ, and less opportunity to hold your own in pickup or Pro-Am modes against real-world competition.
The slog to earn currency without spending real money is inexcusable; shoes run 1,500 VC and one player category upgrade asks for 1,200 VC, but you only earn about 600 VC in the average game. The poking and prodding from VC-related pop-up offers when booting up a new 2K18 session irritates further. The microtransactions can be ignored, at least, when in franchise mode, one of the few parts of NBA 2K18 where VC is not available.
On the court, various tweaks continue to improve NBA 2K’s simulation of basketball. Shots use a sharp new timing meter, and in NBA 2K18, the difference between open and contested shots is appropriately significant. Any defender’s hand in the vicinity is likely to send a jumper off course.
At default settings, new AI tweaks allow the opposing offense to maintain possession organically, using the shot clock to work the ball around. Not only does this look natural, but the days of playing only six-minute quarters for realistic results have passed. I stuck to nine to 10 minutes per quarter to produce realistic scores at default settings, inching closer to the full 12 minutes of a real game.
To further add to the sense of realism, NBA 2K18 is absolutely gorgeous in motion. Even excluding the stellar HDR support, tweaks to character models and textures bring out myriad small details. Beards look better than anywhere else. Plus, a new production package is in place this year, from pregame national anthems to hilarious bits from the studio team of Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith. The group’s character models need a do-over, but their interactions remain natural. Game commentary brings over some familiar lines (Kevin Harlan returns) yet continues to progress with guest commentators (from Kobe Bryant to ’96 dunk contest champ Brent Barry).
Of course, it’s no surprise that NBA 2K18 looks good; the series has looked the part since its advent on the Dreamcast, staying relevant visually and staking out its own part of basketball culture. NBA 2K18 continues the trend, capturing the feel of basketball’s urban centers in The Neighborhood.
It’s too bad, then, that The Neighborhood is covered in ads and persistent microtransaction begging. The growing push to spend real dollars on VC impacts those looking to build even the most basic of player avatars. It’s too much in NBA 2K18, holding back nearly every mode and customization option. VC is an unavoidable truth. But on the court — especially in the excellent franchise mode, free from the grasp of microtransactions — NBA 2K18 lives up to its predecessors and at times even bests them.
NBA 2K18 was reviewed using a final “retail” downloadable PlayStation 4 code provided by 2K Sports. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.