Thank the gods for basketball, eh? Without that sport to keep extraordinarily tall people occupied, they might realise that if they banded together, they could take over the world. The fact that it’s entertaining to watch, and playable by people of a normal height (to an extent), are just nice bonuses. That great unifier, the videogame, allows anybody of any height to pretend that they’re really good at basketball. NBA 2K18 is such a game. But how well does it do the job?
Shall we talk about slick presentation? Because it sure seems the developers would like us to. The presentation here is slicker than the Fonz on a butter snowboard sliding down an oily slope. Spinning logos! Funky soundtrack! Exclusive interviews with basketball stars! Real-life commentators doing the commentating! Full NBA licensing! Advertising! Lots of other things that warrant the use of an exclamation mark! There is both razzle and dazzle to be seen here. !!!!!
Although the character models are slightly off (the girls that perform in the intervals are particularly scary), it can’t be denied that a game of NBA 2K18 basketball looks and sounds just about as close to the real thing as can reasonably be expected. Ball bounces and trainer squeaks sound spot on. The attention to detail in player animations and reactions should be applauded; dunks are slammed with conviction, players are convincingly frustrated at decisions they disagree with, and the brief but important backslapping after a great play really adds to the atmosphere. You just missed a free throw. Hey, was that a teammate you heard in the background, telling you not to worry about it?
The mission for authenticity extends to the flow of the game, which may surprise those whose knowledge of basketball doesn’t extend beyond NBA Jam. It’s an American sport, so regular interruptions, pauses, and rests are the norm; and I’m not even talking about the fact that the game is of course split into four quarters. Both teams can (and will) call time outs, temporarily halting proceedings with no warning. There are shows between quarters with dancing girls and mascots with t shirt cannons (sadly, this does not mean a battle). 2K18 even has its own pre-game and halftime discussion, with one of the pundits being the one and only Shaq.
The in-game commentary team includes Kevin Harlan, Doris Burke, Steve Smith, and Greg Anthony. If you’re not familiar enough with the NBA for any of those names to mean anything, all you really need to know is that the commentary works absolutely brilliantly. With rare exceptions, the timing and relevance of comments is perfect, and the speech patterns completely natural. I’ve never before played a sports game with such a superb and natural-sounding commentary system.
Start drilling down into specific modes, and the praise starts to dissipate slightly. MyCareer, the story mode, is a bit wobbly for various reasons. Firstly, the multitude of lengthy cutscenes means that the aforementioned iffiness of the character models is thrust front and centre. Secondly, the script – played out in very long and very unskippable scenes – is a bit… hmm, what’s the word… rubbish? Boring? You get the idea. You know how a lot of movies have brief downtime where characters joke with or aggravate one another, in an attempt to build character and prevent the pace from being nonstop breackneck? This is like that. As in, it’s only like the slow and drawn-out bits.
A much less pleasant criticism, and one reverberating throughout the community, is the role that virtual currency has in development of your player. Do you think that repeatedly playing games, and practicing, will make your player better? Ha! Well, okay, it does; very, very slowly. It’s a bit of a grind, as is earning a decent amount of in-game cash, with which you can strengthen your player. You see where this is going, right?
The game logic seems a little messed up, too. My character, Bobby Lasagna (yes, I named him), got picked up by his favourite team, Orlando Magic. We lost our first few games, and my performance was criticised. Something I might have been able to accept had I not been kept on the bench for the entirety of both matches. Was my posture on the bench slightly off? Did my taut backside leave dents in the wood?
Elsewhere we have MyTeam. Create your dream team lineup for both offline and online play! Sounds great, right? It sorta is, but you can only get players and contract extensions from the publisher’s friend Player Packs. Needless to say, contents are randomised, and those packs ain’t free. You can earn packs, and the currency to buy them; but if you haven’t shelled out the big bucks for a pre-order edition with a stack of currency, or bought some currency separately, you’re going to need a hell of a lot of luck to get the team you want in a hurry. That said, you can draw random players for free to take online and win packs, a great idea that’s a lot of fun.
In more general terms, play is (mostly) great. Dunks never fail to be satisfying, a speedy counter will put a grin on your face, and a successful alley-oop makes you feel like a basketball god (while a failed one is unerringly hilarious). When on the defensive, you quickly learn that fouls are very easily drawn, with careful observation and timing needed for a successful steal. Shooting, however – especially three point shooting – is, as the young people of today might say, something of a dumpster fire.
I’m pretty sure 2K have snuck in a minor fix in one of the many updates issued since release, but we still have a problem here. Each player’s stats have been carefully calculated so, for example, one might be great at slam dunks but a bit rubbish at three-pointers; fine. Your chances of success when shooting are ostensibly dictated by how well you time the release, and how open the shot is (i.e. how successfully you’re being harassed/blocked). Also fine. However, the reality is that no matter who has the ball, if they’re being controlled by a human then their chances of success with a less than perfect release always appears to be less than 50%. Particularly frustrating when up against AI, this is a needlessly ugly fly in the otherwise smooth and soothing ointment.
What’s the bottom line? A mostly great basketball game but, despite repeated patching, it still needs a little work.
Review by the one and only Luke Kemp and thanks to Xbox for the review code!