NBA 2K18 (Switch) Review
NBA 2K18 is a brilliantly flawed basketball game held back by its blatant product placement and a career mode centred on aggressive microtransactions.
It is widely known that the 2K basketball games have been the best video game adaptations of the sport in recent years. I was initially concerned about what concessions the Switch version of 2K18 would have in comparison to other consoles, but the Nintendo version is no watered-down iteration – all the game modes are intact at the minor expense of slightly lesser graphics. With no disrespect to the serviceable NBA Playgrounds, NBA 2K18 is currently the best basketball game on the Switch, featuring the tight controls, play-calling and tactical elements players have come to expect from the basketball sim series. However, off-court is where 2K18 is less than stellar.
As someone returning to the NBA 2K series after a several-year hiatus, 2K18 gets off to a weak start, making many assumptions of the player, and seldom explaining anything clearly. For example, the (very loosely-defined) “tutorial”, named 2KU, is buried deep in the main menu and is not immediately visible upon booting up the game. Upon starting 2KU, the player is thrown into a practice game between the Cavs and Warriors. Instead of taking players through each of the game’s core gameplay mechanics step-by-step, 2K18 intermittently triggers pop-ups explaining various controls at seemingly random times throughout the scrimmage. This makes it difficult to practice specific shots or dribble moves in a controlled environment.
2K18 is not lacking in practice courts for shootarounds, but it does not make up for the inability to be guided through complex manoeuvres to receive helpful feedback which can then be applied to an in-game scenario. Every shot type, pass variation and the like can be looked up via the in-game glossary, but this would be significantly more helpful if the glossary included interactive practice scenarios specific to each action. Granted, as with real-life sports, it is important to learn things on your own and experiment to see what works, but NBA 2K18’s approach to new and returning lapsed players is daunting.
Once you’ve got your head around the basics, there is no shortage of ways to play NBA 2K18, including full-season modes, streetball, the basketball team owner sim “MyGM”, and the fantasy card-based MyTeam mode. These modes are fully fleshed out and are packed with detail and minute levels of customisation, allowing you to play the way you want. The main mode everyone flocks to year-in-year-out is MyCareer, where players create their own budding NBA star to dominate the boards. It is great to have full control over one athlete during a game, customising their play style and perfecting their skills, but this year’s MyCareer has serious issues.
Billed as the “Road to 99”, referring to the challenge of levelling up your player-created athlete to the maximum statistical rating of 99, MyCareer does everything it can to make said journey an occasionally infuriating slog. Continuing with the narrative-driven experiences of recent 2K Sports games, MyCareer places your athlete as a street-baller who happens to get signed to an NBA team after being scouted at a street tournament. Following this, players are inflicted with painful, unskippable cutscenes featuring characters more obnoxious than the last (your athlete included). For much of the first season with an NBA team, you are subjected to at least one of these utterly delightful cutscenes after each game. If the script and situations the characters were placed in weren’t drowning in cringe-worthy moments and inexplicable advertising, these cutscenes may have been palatable, but when levelling up your character is already a grind, these unskippable messes are torturous.
Just to dazzle you with one such example, one cutscene sees your character hanging out in their townhouse apartment (complete with full basketball court), when they are greeted by the concierge bearing several pallets of Mountain Dew cans. Following a painfully long exchange of banter between the characters, the scene ends, and the stack of Mountain Dew just sits there. It serves no tangible in-game purpose or performance bonus beyond satisfying whatever external sponsorship was drafted up for the game. At least Gatorade (yes, you can buy in-game Gatorade) yields a temporary performance boost for your character, but the bulk of NBA 2K18’s sponsorships are just blatant advertising.
Returning to the crux of MyCareer, progressing from the starting point of a 65 rating is not a smooth journey. Your athlete can only upgrade through spending Virtual Currency (VC), which can be earned by playing games, fulfilling endorsement conditions, various mini-games and challenges, and – you guessed it – microtransactions. Earning VC organically without paying real money is slow, in a deliberate sense to entice players to fork out cash for quick wins. At times, it even feels like your character’s coach is conspiring against you, benching you for lengthy periods of game-time regardless of your on-court form. This is agonising, considering your performance in games is closely linked to VC earnings. It would be great if your athlete could play in training games or play in the Summer League to get decent court time and VC, but the only training drills on offer go towards levelling up special badges which give an unquantified bonus towards a specific aspect of your game, such as defensive pressure.
This makes the early parts of MyCareer a struggle; starting with the 65 rating, nailing a standard pull-up jumper, or even a basic layup is hardly a sure thing. The whole design is counterintuitive – you need more game time to level up basic shooting and passing skills, but you get benched the second you make a mistake due to your low level. NBA 2K18’s encouraged subversion of the grind to 99 can potentially start from day one; pay $140 up-front for the Legend Edition and receive 100,000 VC to spend immediately. Microtransactions are not inherently bad, in fact, there is nothing wrong with paying a little extra money to gain extra enjoyment out of a game you like, but it’s borderline exploitative for a game with an already steep buy-in cost to be so heavily geared towards getting players to spend to avoid unpleasant grinding. I haven’t even covered cosmetic purchases, but I’m sure you get the gist.
In fact, NBA 2K18 reeks of gaming psychology 101, which is increasingly being used across various games to entice the spending of real-life money. These deliberate design choices are to maximise profit, not to offer the player an expanded game experience. Considering EA’s revenue from Ultimate Team is now more than the base sales of FIFA, expect 2K to continue to follow suit.
NBA 2K18 is not without its share of technical issues, either. I experienced severe audio clipping issues throughout MyCareer, with cutscene audio peaking and distorting regularly. The audio and visuals would regularly be out of sync, often leaving characters gesticulating bizarrely long after their lines had been delivered. Environment textures would sometimes take longer to load than character models, meaning my player would sometimes be standing in the infinite void of nothingness until the neighbourhood he resides in loaded. The only performance-related issue I observed was a drop in frame rate during some transitions between cutscenes – the basketball itself is perfect. I am aware many of these issues are not exclusive to the Switch and are usually patched out a while after release.
Thankfully, the telecast presentation of the actual sport was free from these issues, which continue the 2K tradition of providing a sleek package of commentary, visual effects, and an overall quality rivalling real-life sports broadcasts.
The only game-breaking bug I encountered was an infinite loading screen (bringing up war flashbacks of my time with Troll and I) which corrupted my save files. Luckily, it seems like the 2K servers employ some form of cloud saves (a foreign concept to the Switch thus far!), so I could recover my progress and continue.
After reading all of this, you could be forgiven for thinking NBA 2K18 is a bad game. The opposite is true. It is, in fact, a great basketball game, among the best seen on a Nintendo console. The basketball is slick in handheld and docked, with tight controls and all the bells and whistles an NBA fan could want. However, this is one game that tips the scale too far towards favouring microtransactions as opposed to organic progression – I cannot overlook this design choice in a full retail release title.
NBA 2K18 is a great basketball game trapped inside a hulking behemoth of aggressive microtransactions which threaten to derail the sporting spectacle. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but the basketball is good enough to consider overlooking these serious flaws.
+ Basketball handles well and looks great irrespective of docked or handheld play
+ Huge amount of high-quality game modes
+ Yelling out "Kobe" when draining a 3-pointer (applicable to any basketball game)
- Poor tutorial system for new players
- Audio and visual bugs littered throughout MyCareer
- Microtransactions are aggressively invasive on game experience