NBA season is almost upon us. Ahead of the official start of the 2019-2020 season on October 22nd, 2K has tapped Visual Concepts to develop the latest iteration of the venerable basketball simulation series. Have there been enough improvements to justify a yearly plunk of cash? Or is this just a re-skinned NBA 2K19 with a roster update?
King of the Court
The world of sports video games features what some might call monopolies in each sport. EA owns American Football with Madden (regulation footy is more of a mixed bag depending upon where you live). Sony has baseball on lock with MLB The Show. And 2K has basketball with its NBA 2K series. When you’re at the top of the heap, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. So, the base game of NBA 2K20 remains much the same as last year. That is to say, if you know your way around the court from even a few years ago, you should feel right at home this year.
However, you might want to spend some time in 2KU, the training section of NBA 2K games. The right stick has more nuanced usage this year. For instance, when posted up against a defender, spinning the right stick clockwise will have your player perform a spin towards the basket, and holding the stick will prepare them for taking a shot. Most moves can be canceled for a good number of animation frames, are able to be performed with either the main or off-hand, or turned into a pump fake towards the start of the shooting animation. A lot of this sort of sounds like a fighting game, with timing and direction being incredibly important. There is strategy in remembering which combination of moves to perform for a given situation. The result is that players react to what is going on more realistically than ever before, and this will result in some impressive replays.
Speaking of replays, the presentation in NBA 2K20 has gotten so incredibly lifelike throughout the years, that it can be easy to take for granted how awkward and obviously fake commentary was maybe a decade ago or so. Commentators are quick to point out when you took a risky action, moved the ball well, or are behaving selfishly. Despite the generally polished presentation available in NBA 2K20, something is off with the sideline cameras. This issue is especially prevalent during the My Career games. In between plays, the camera will shift perspective to court-level, where it attempts to highlight ball movement and other action on the court. The problem is that oftentimes, players who have nothing to do with the current action, or even currently benched players, will be zoomed in on for seemingly no reason. It makes for some measure of immersion breaking, especially when nothing notable is going on in the game.
Plenty of Modes
Outside of the odd camera behavior, though, there isn’t much to fault with NBA 2K20. There are four main game modes, with many options to choose from in each. You can get right to the action in Play Now, which is also where you can find options to play with others locally (up to four players on one console). My Team is the card-centric mode where you build the best team you can with the cards you are dealt. Naturally, packs of cards are available for purchase using MyTeam or VC tokens, which can at least be earned on their own by playing the game, or purchased outright.
The My Career mode features an entertaining story, and it all starts with face-mapping. Using a smartphone, players can insert their own likeness right on to the player model. We had best results when using a proper camera lighting rig, because ambient lighting in the average gaming room is hardly sufficient. Even then, the results were sub-par. Still, the face mapping did bring up face presets that were relatively close to real life, and this helped to speed through character creation. Facial animations are awkward in NBA 2K20, and that’s for both the pros and custom player models. Something isn’t quite right when characters speak or attempt to emote–it seems to be something about the eyes that is lacking.
NBA 2K20 still looks and plays great. There is even a more pronounced difference in how players feel when running around on the court. The typically shorter and quicker point guards have a lightness to them that the typically larger center players lack. On the other hand, centers can stop plays from the smaller players with relative ease, and in the hands of a skilled player can be quite the stopping force.
Stacking the Deck
Looking a bit more at the MyTeam mode, there are many different modes to take your favorite players to the court. There’s a standard five-on-five, either against the CPU or other players, but also a quicker three-vs-three mode which is a first to 21 affair. There are rewards for everyone, even the loser of a given match. Rewards tend to be in 2K’s premium currency, VC (which creatively stands for Virtual Currency!).
Most sports games have some sort of monetization these days. NBA 2K20 is no different. There is a LOT of monetization going on here. Some of it even spills into the otherwise offline mode of My Career. Sure, you can increase your player’s skills for free by performing well in scrimmages or training. But there is also the option of upgrading skills by spending those VC tokens. A full upgrade can cost upwards of 150,000 tokens – that’s somewhere around $40. It’s not a mandatory purchase by any means, as the game can certainly be completed without the boost, but the fact that it’s available means that someone, somewhere, will likely be suckered into such a purchase.
NBA 2K20 is the best basketball game around. Granted, thus far, the competition hasn’t shown up. But if and when it does, the bar has been set very high for the basketball sim genre. Facial animations are still odd, and monetization rears its head in practically every mode. But the core ball play, plethora of gameplay modes, and a great presentation all combine to make NBA 2K20 the basketball game to beat this year.
NBA 2K20 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.