Options at a cost

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By Alexander O. Cuaycong and Anthony L. Cuaycong

SPORTS GAMES are an acquired taste, and even those who hold them in great affection tend to skew purchases toward titles that reflect real-life interests. For example, football fans will gravitate to the FIFA series, while baseball junkies aren’t likely to pick up Madden releases anytime soon. Unlike role-playing or action-centric games, their appeal can be relatively limited. That said, they engender extreme loyalty when they’re well done. The NBA 2K series, for one, has held up quite well over the years and, along with the likes of Borderlands, Civilization, and WWE 2K, counts among Take-Two Interactive’s flagship franchises. It has had in excess of 20 main releases in its lifetime, with NBA 2K18, its latest entry, holding the distinction of being the first to be featured on the Nintendo Switch.

First, the good news. NBA 2K18 looks gorgeous on the PlayStation 4. The audio-visual presentation, already excellent in NBA 2K17, has gone up a notch, with everything from the courts to the players’ faces to the action itself clearly leaning on the latest advances in technology to approximate real life. Meanwhile, the Switch version boasts of unparalleled on-the-go gameplay. While not as stunning graphically and aurally, its capacity to replicate the console and PC experience undocked provides it with more options for mobile gamers. No features are missing, with even the MyLeague and MyPlayer modes kept wholly intact. And, significantly, the Joy-Cons do as well a job as the DS4 in terms of controlling the players and making them execute complex moves.

In terms of the on-court action, NBA 2K18 plays smoothly and runs fairly well. As with previous incarnations, it displays a natural smoothness to the animations, and in-game players control and handle naturally. The programmers’ painstaking level of care and attention are evident in the visceral feast. That said, graphical bugs occasionally manifest themselves, and the feedback can be jarring.

Quick games aside, NBA 2K18’s meat lies in the MyCareer mode. Providing a Create-And-Control-Your-Own-Character system, MyCareer is basically the game’s story track. Your character gets picked up as a prominent member of a basketball team of your choice, and he’s quickly thrust into a series of games, interlaced with stories; in the process, you’re given the freedom to make your character as you please. You’re able to customize his appearance and improve how he plays; over time, you get to up his ability to defend or make mid-range shots or execute dunks. MyCareer even has an online hub called “The Neighborhood,” which allows your character to roam around blocks doing whatever he pleases in semi-open-world fashion.

Via MyCareer, the direction NBA 2K18 takes is uniquely interesting, but nonetheless hampered by its poor progression mechanics. How good your player can become is determined by upgrades, which can be bought only in the game through Virtual Currency (VC). And this is where the problems crop up most; while VCs can be earned, the grinding required to save enough for character improvements is so tedious and time-consuming as to essentially compel you to shell out real money instead. With 16 individual skills that can be improved for your character, you’ll realize in no time that unless you buy the VCs you need, you’ll be progressing very slowly. The fact that upgrades become more expensive over time serves only to underscore the game’s focus on microtransactions.

True, the process allows for customization and is surprisingly in-depth. On the other hand, the middle to upper tiers of the upgrade system are expensive, and ultimately lead you to draw the only conclusion you can: Either you grind to death, or you sidestep the chore and purchase the VCs you need — all in the name of staying competitive. You’re supposed to have options, but when it takes several games just to buy a single point for your character, you wind up with one that’s thrust on you. And with so much of NBA 2K18’s replay value emanating from MyCareer, the poor execution is a bummer.

In a nutshell, NBA 2K18 suffers from ambition. It has the best intentions in mind, offering gamers a ton of options. It presents RPG elements in MyCareer, but at a cost — or, to be more precise, at a considerable cost. It provides a management sim angle via MyGM and MyLeague, but from a detached vantage point, For all its grand intensions, however, it remains at its best when it sticks to its biggest draw: The Play Now option is impressive. Enough said.