It’s no coincidence that this NBA 2K19’s MyCareer story is called ‘The Way Back’. Following on from the issues that dogged last year’s entry on every platform - namely the heavy-reliance on microtransactions and glacial pace of progression for those not willing to sink extra money into it - developer Visual Concepts is clearly looking to win back fan confidence, especially with EA’s NBA Live series finally starting to look and play like a proper contender.
It’s also the second instalment on Nintendo Switch, and while NBA 2K18 had its own issues at launch (namely significant performance issues that effectively broke it for a while), the game was eventually patched into a decent state and went on to prove a sports sim can work on a hybrid console with the right tweaks. It was, however, missing some key elements so it always felt like you weren’t playing the full NBA 2K experience. So the big question is, does this year’s entry find a way back into the Hall of Fame?
For a start, NBA 2K19 isn’t launching with the vipers’ nest of technical issues that effectively made last year’s entry unplayable for the first couple of weeks. Visual Concepts has been hard at work optimising the Switch port so it runs without any crashes or game-breaking faults. Of course, there’s still the visual downgrade to contend with when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One versions - player models are detailed but lack that extra layer of polish found elsewhere, and there’s a noticeable amount of slowdown when navigating the menus - but it’s proof that Switch is powerful enough to run a fully-fledged sports sim without compromising where it really matters.
MyCareer, one of the crown jewels in NBA 2K19’s impressive selection of modes, returns once more and boasts one of the best storylines in recent years. As we mentioned earlier, ‘The Way Back’ follows a young player who fails to make the cut in the NBA Draft and finds himself playing far from home in Shanghai. Taking your custom player from a Chinese league to the G League (the NBA’s developmental division) all the way to a shot in the NBA itself is paced just right, and offers a significant step up from the rushed effort featured in last year’s instalment.
Access to the Neighborhood has been gated behind the MyCareer story mode, so you’ll need to finish the whole thing before you can enter the series’ revamped social hub. It’s worth the effort though, with a real attention to detail (such as having custom Chinese and G League announcers for your games in those respective divisions) and a sense of dramatic flair (thanks to a decent cast of stars including Anthony ‘Falcon from the MCU’ Mackie, actor-turned-sports motormouth Michael Rapaport, and Haley Joel 'I see dead people' Osment). You can skim through it in less than three hours, or play the full thing for a good six to seven hours of storyline.
Those changes to the Neighborhood make a big difference as this is likely where you’ll spend most of your time over the next year. There are now far more courts to access, so you and some mates can squad up and join a court against another team. You can even squad up with other players you meet by pressing in the right analog stick. There are now games of dodgeball and trampoline-based dunking to help pass the time between matches, as well as the ability to buy a skateboard or scooter to help you get around its interactive hub with a little more speed. Matchmaking still doesn't match players by skill, so expect to eat some losses when you start grinding from 60 OVR onwards.
Progression has been adjusted, although it's not as significant as we’d hoped considering the reliance on VC (Virtual Currency - the in-game credits needed to improve your player’s stats) that held dedicated ballers in a chokehold if you didn’t sink real-world cash into microtransactions in the previous game. The heavy presence of in-game purchases still hangs heavy on the game’s online modes, but VC is earned at a noticeably faster rate this year and there are more chances to earn extra coins here and there in mini-games, daily challenges and beyond. It’s not the fix we’d like, but it’s moving in the right direction at least.
This year’s animations have been overhauled, with a great emphasis on footwork, dribble lines and set-piece manoeuvres. It’s a system that makes every fade-away and step-back jump shot look and feel that bit more authentic, but it comes at a price. The room for error is significantly smaller than it's been in previous years, making the learning curve for something as simple as taking a three-pointer far steeper. For seasoned players, these changes will add the right amount of extra challenge both against AI and when competing online, but for newcomers, it means sinking a lot of time into the tutorial modes.
NBA 2K19 also boasts a bounty of modes to keep you playing long into 2019. If you’re looking for something a little closer to the real-life world of professional basketball, there’s the deep and even more nuanced franchise simulation of MyLeague, the return of the brilliant MyGM mode (which can be played in both a basic version and one driven by a MyCareer-style story) and the FIFA Ultimate Team-aping MyTeam. The latter is easily the biggest disappointment of the whole package, mainly because it’s received the least amount of overall changes and the fact it’s so heavily weighted towards buying packs via microtransactions.
Performance-wise, NBA 2K19 runs at a stable 30fps (compared to the 60fps of the other console versions), but you rarely notice it unless you’re switching between one iteration of the game and another. Much of this is down to the slower pace of play the NBA 2K series has been peddling for years, and while we’ve long hoped for something with NBA Live’s pace, it helps create a sense of fluid gameplay parity between Switch and other platforms. It runs smoothly in both docked and handheld mode, and it’s impossible to not enjoy the sheer level of authenticity Visual Concepts continues to pack into the series. From the anecdotal stories that help break up mid-game slumps to the pre and post-game shows, it’s a masterclass in how to frame a sports sim.
While the heavy emphasis on microtransactions is still front and centre in NBA 2K19, progression has been improved enough to make this a far more attractive prospect for both rookies and seasoned vets. With a vastly superior MyCareer story, a revamped social hub, a suitably tweaked MyGM mode and all the presentation-focused bells and whistles you expect from the premiere basketball sim, NBA 2K19 continues to cement itself as one of the Switch’s strongest sports offerings. If you needed any more proof that Madden, NHL and the like can work on Nintendo’s hardware, this is it.