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On The Road To 99 In NBA 2K18

Welcome to the Neighbourhood.

For many people, the NBA 2K series of basketball games are the best in the business, edging ahead of the likes of FIFA, Madden and PES in many people’s eyes. They’re beautiful to look at, with excellent TV-like presentation and commentary, they play well with tons of nuance for advanced players to exploit, and they look to wrap players up in a deep and engaging single player career, as well as providing a wealth of options online.

NBA 2K18 looks to be the next big step forward for the series, and a big part of that is in how realistic it looks. Visual Concepts have gone to great lengths to improve the player models, making sure that they all now properly match the proportions of their real world counterparts, instead of being slightly out of shape and unusual looking. Not only that, but they’ve taken the opportunity with this season’s new kit maker, Nike, to go in depth on recreating the colours and lighting, the actual weave of socks, and improve the way that the jerseys and shorts hang off and crumple on a player’s body. Putting screenshots from the game side by side, it’s a remarkable difference just how much more realistic these characters look.

Of course, a huge part of the game is actually creating your own basketball player, and you now have much more flexibility in picking your play style, as you blend primary and secondary archetypes – you can preview this in the Prelude demo that is out today. Since Visual Concepts added the MyCareer story mode back in 2014, a number of other sports series have followed in its footsteps, to bring a more cinematic and personal experience to the single player games. They’re really embracing player choice in a manner that allows your story to unfold the way that you want it to.

Every match you play blends the TV-style intros from commentators sat behind a big desk in the studio, across to the bombastic stadiums where you can do a little warming up, before delving into the match. Depending on how well you play, characters will act differently in the following cutscene, and it all affects your career. Coming off court, the head of security effectively blanked me when he’d given fist bumps to the players ahead of me, it was only when a teammate introduced me to “Boo-Boo” that he opened up, and there was some nicely written banter surrounding the character’s name – it’s because he believe and claims to have seen ghosts, if you were wondering!

At the centre of this is the journey on the Road to 99. Winning titles simply isn’t enough as a career goal, and your rags to riches story now only stops when you manage to max out your character, becoming the most accomplished basketball player in the league, the kind that could effectively move to any team and expect to then be in the running for championships.

It’s an interesting concept, and it’s one that also spills over into the online play with the Neighbourhood social hub that you can run around in, visiting various shops in a manner that merges the almost cinematic presentation with, well, with dozens of other players fooling around in the same space. Head into your MyCourt apartment, and you’ll have a little discussion with the smartly dressed doorman, visit the barber to find your new hair style, and it’s like old friends meeting again and messing around, with your rising stardom and social media presence pushing the barbers into the limelight. Even buying new shoes or clothes has you wander into the shops, and then once you’ve picked something to try on, has your character call on the staff to ask them to bring out some shoes, or whatever. The one folly here is that these aren’t skippable segments for those starved of attention spans.

However, there’s also a more playful side to the Neighbourhood. The 2K Zone is full of minigames like mini basketball (obviously), trivia challenges, Daily Pick ’em, Blacktop in-game and you can even work your way up to DJing in this area, all of which will earn you VC to buy in-game items –  VC remains a controversial and sometimes detrimental part to the game, as it’s tied to microtransactions. A handful of half court mini-games are present that you can queue up for and play, testing your skills at shooting from different parts of the court, and you’ll also visit the public courts for some quick pick up matches. You’ll want to perform well to boost your stats and skill level, working your way up from the lowest courts to those filled with the most elite players.

Of course, this is only one side of the game. If you’re all about a managerial career, MyGM, this has been redesigned with the same kind of emphasis on story as MyCareer with cutscenes and player management coming through. On a simple game design level, you can now draft and stash players, there’s the new Free Agent moratorium, and other real world rules implemented. There’s also been some major changes to the MyTeam card collecting mode, with coaches now being a card you can use in the new Pack & Playoffs mode, where you try to build a team around that coach’s strengths, or the SuperMax mode, with a player salary cap keeping your dream team in check.

And if you simply want to pick up and play, there’s more options here as well, with a bunch of new classic teams, as well as new All Time teams that pick and choose the best players across a franchise’s history. The AI has been improved with what is being calling Flow Tech, so that it will understand and react to your repeated plays better, trying to evolve through a match so that you don’t just have a single go-to method of scoring.

When 2K and Visual Concepts say that this is their most ambitious NBA game yet, I’m tempted to believe them. You can get a glimpse for yourself, with The Prelude demo having released on Friday, but they’re pushing things forward on all fronts, with the broad scope of the Neighbourhood alongside the story-driven MyGM career, new modes within MyTeam, and through to the improved graphics and evolving AI. From my brief hands on, it even looks and plays great on Nintendo Switch!

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