I’ve been reviewing 2K’s basketball games since 2013, and I’ve seen the series evolve and grow in that time. For the most part those changes have been positive, with the one exception of NBA 2K14. It’s no coincidence that it was around that time 2K began pushing the Virtual Currency, which has been present in every entry since. Over the past few years its presence has grown, but there seemed to be enough of a balance where not paying didn’t mean you were penalised. With NBA 2K18 2K games has thrown that balance out of the court.
It’s difficult to disentangle the business decisions without being in the meetings, but Visual Concepts and 2K Games may not be entirely to blame here. Parent company Take Two Interactive have been seeing a huge return on GTA Online, which could easily be a factor. Whatever the reason, the use of VC throughout NBA 2K18 has taken the system to breaking point, considering you need to use it for pretty much everything in the game.
It’s most obvious in NBA 2K18’s MyCareer mode, which has become a personal favourite of mine through the series. In this mode you aren’t a rookie who gets drafted into the NBA by a team, you’re now scouted on the street and picked up – though you do still get to decide which team to play for. One day your character is playing ball at a small tournament, the next he’s training with a team of your choice. When it comes to the plot, this leap doesn’t make for the strongest in the series, throwing you right into the deep end. Your little rookie player has a lot of work to do, as his base rating is just 60 out of a possible 99.
When playing in MyCareer, you can’t ignore the Road To 99 sign where you upgrade your player attributes and work towards skills. You also can’t ignore the high cost of upgrading a player. Reading around in the community it seems like approximately 200,000 VC is needed to reach an 85 rating, and that’s without opting for the various customisation options in the game which all have a price of their own. You’re looking at a few thousand for a t-shirt, a new tattoo, or a pair of new shoes.
That wouldn’t be too bad if it isn’t wasn’t for the fact that you’ll earn less than 1000 VC from most games, especially when starting out. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out you’ll have to spend either a long time grinding, or use microtransactions to level up quicker. This is essentially the practices of a free to play game in a full priced sports title. Paying to level up your character will also absolutely give you an advantage online in the Neighbourhood section.
The Neighbourhood is a new addition to NBA 2K which adds a hub area where players can mingle, go to the training arena, shop, or play against others. Again, it’s obvious that getting you to spend money on VC is the main aim. You’ll spawn near the training arena, but then have to jog slowly past all the shops where you can spend money before you finally reach the playground area where you can team up with random players to compete against others.
Obviously it is random on who will join your team and who the opposition will be, but it isn’t an uncommon sight to see higher levelled players taking on low level ones, with the former obviously having stat advantages for their character. Of course, if you lose you’ll earn less VC to improve your character, and that is expensive in its own right.
If my player didn’t perform too well, he might earn around 600 VC. When I went to improve two different attribute points it cost approximately 700 VC, and that did next to nothing to improve my player’s overall rating. You’re grinding from the word go and that takes away a lot of the fun that can be found in NBA 2K18. Additionally, you can lose VC from making mistakes in a game. Say you commit a turnover you’ll lose one VC. One coin doesn’t sound like a lot, but the principle here is that even if you spend real cash, 2K can still remove currency from your account. Sure you can make it back up with assists and baskets, but taking money away for mistakes is entering some deeply questionable territory.
Obviously VC isn’t limited to MyCareer. The other obvious place is the MyTeam mode where you buy packs to build a team up to compete against others or take on challenges. It sounds good enough, but when I went to view the auction house for more cards I was informed I needed to complete the silver tier objectives, which includes buying a pack using either VC or MyTeam points. Your VC balance is linked to all aspects of the game, so buying a pack in MyTeam means not improving your player in MyCareer. Imagine if in FIFA you couldn’t view the Ultimate Team transfer market unless you bought a gold pack. There’d be an outcry, but for some reason NBA 2K isn’t called out on this.
The most annoying thing about all of this though is that underneath all of the push to get people invested in VC, this is still a great basketball game. The production values are second to none throughout, with the player and commentator models looking fantastic. Just like in previous games the commentary proves again to be the best in any sports title, with real life soundbites from NBA players and coaches. Even 2KTV continues to be interesting when NBA players are interviewed and game tips are given.
The on court action has been improved a little too, though the shot rating seems to be off. I can throw a good or excellent shot and see it bounce off the rim, while a slightly early or late release will see the ball go through the basket to score some points. It makes the shot rating system almost meaningless. Aside from that and the VC issue NBA 2K18 brings the game when it matters, but is utterly soured by the approach to the rest of the game.
With NBA 2K18 we’ve reached an inevitable crossroad, though the signs should have been seen a while back. The on court action is still the best available, but there is now room for another franchise to come and steal an audience that will be sick of the costs of simply being able to compete in the 2K series. The grind isn’t fun and paying gives advantages over those who won’t or can’t afford to. You absolutely cannot ignore how NBA 2K18 is a full price game that also integrates the business model of a free to play/pay to win title and the way that the enjoyment you get from it suffers because of it.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
Update 4PM BST 21/09: In discussion with 2K Games, we’ve temporarily removed the score pending a statement with regard to our criticisms, at which point it will be reinstated. Additionally, a draft conclusion was posted that incorrectly characterised our score as a protest vote, and has been reworded to reflect that our criticisms are rooted in the effect that VC and microtransactions have on the gameplay.
Update 2 1PM BST 22/09: Our 3/10 score has now been restored to this review, with all but the wording that suggested this was a protest vote also kept intact. You can read our explanation of what happened and why here.