Wearing a jersey with my name on the back, the 76ers player made a darting run toward the baseline as the loose ball trickled out of play. Determined to avoid a turnover, the 6-foot-4 point guard splayed out his arm, swiping the ball back into play moments before it touched the floor. It was the sort of effort you see in a playoff game, but just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the commentators brought me back to my living room, referring to the hero of the moment as "AI."
In a way, this brief sequence sums up the latest entry of 2K's popular basketball game: a brilliant on-court simulation with unparalleled presentation that's nearly spoiled by some frustrating fouls.
If you're coming from NBA 2K18, this latest title will feel familiar. However, gameplay tweaks and improvements to nearly every game mode lift NBA 2K19 above its predecessor, and make it the best basketball video game available.
Presentation: Brilliant but cumbersome
Much like the previous editions, 2K19 leans heavily on presentation, which it has all but perfected over the years. On the court, 2K19 is a master class in basketball simulation.
If you don't look too hard, the game's graphics appear photorealistic; the presentation is so convincing it'll make your parents ask, "Who's playing," only for them to find out that it's you controlling the on-screen action. From the way the lights reflect off the polished court, to the sweat coming off Lebron James' forehead, a sports game has never looked this good.
On the court, 2K19 is a masterclass in basketball simulation.
The 2K games don't get enough credit for their sound effects. The squeaking of sneakers on polished maple transported me from the couch in my small New York City apartment to courtside seats in the Barclays Center. The commentating is also excellent. I rarely heard the same lines twice, and there's a large cast of familiar reporters who bring their own personalities to the table. Yes, there were times when Shaq's deadpan humor hit the wrong notes, but it's the same dialogue you'd suffer through when watching a game on TV.
Adding to the realism is what feels like endless cutscenes, graphics and transitions. You can skip most of it, but I grew impatient and started rapidly tapping buttons to get back into the action. Don't get me wrong, some of these additions, like the Halftime Show and substitution sequences, make you feel as if you're watching a live TV broadcast — I just wish 2K hadn't been so heavy-handed on the glossy finish it painted over every inch of the game.
This delicate balance between re-enacting the on-screen experience and creating a fun, addictive game is a predicament with which other simulators struggle. 2K19 leans a bit too heavily on presentation, which is a shame considering how excellent the gameplay is.
Gameplay: As smooth as ever
2K19's gameplay doesn't shift away from previous additions, but the improvements it brings are felt in force. The various ways to pass, dribble and shoot can be dizzying for first-timers, but once you expand your repertoire of moves, the game really shines. Stringing together passes to find open space felt as rewarding as passing a car in a racing game.
New to the court this year is a system called Takeover, which is intended to imitate a hot streak, when a player catches fire and "takes over" the game. If you complete a string of shots as a point guard or get multiple rebounds as a center, you can activate the Takeover meter, which will increase your probability of making a play in the next sequences. In the same vein, players who are struggling to drain their shots will have to work harder to get out of a funk. The takeover meter is a nice addition to the series because it makes you consider how aggressive or conservative your approach should be.
The various ways to pass, dribble and shoot can be dizzying for first-timers, but once you expand your repertoire of moves, the game really shines.
The physics have also been reworked in 2K19. Now, more than ever, your player's positioning, size and strength play a role. Taller, stronger players have an edge when rebounding, while quicker, more agile ballers can get down the court and weave through tight spaces. Need to hit a 3-pointer? Get the ball out to Steph Curry. Need to make a clutch block? Try Anthony Davis.
2K19 hits a delicate balance with the adjustments it brings to ball movement and positioning. You can no longer frolic into the paint with a point guard, or stand your man up on defense and expect your player to end up with the ball. The AI, both defensive and offensive, is improved, and leaves no margin for error. At times, the game felt frustratingly unforgiving but, just like in the real game, you'll find yourself making the necessary adjustment to stay afloat.
The shot meter is back, but now you'll also use it to time a layup. Several factors determine the speed of the meter, so every shot feels different. It takes a deft touch to land a shot in the narrow "Excellent" range, but there's no better feeling when you do.
Game modes: Swish or airball
Big changes were made to the long-running fan-favorite mode, MyCareer. In it, you generate a player, customize their appearance, pick a position, and choose what attributes you want to optimize (3-point shooting, blocking, passing). You can upload your own likeness or choose one of several preset faces and customize hairstyles and face shape using a new create-a-player tool. A lot of work was put into the overhauled feature, and it's a massive improvement from the one in 2K18.
The story, called "The Way Back," feels more genuine than the DJ story 2K gave us last year. This time around, you follow AI (I know, it's awful) through a roller-coaster career that sees him miss out on the NBA draft, only to get a second chance in China. There, a brief stint with the fictitious Shanghai Bears is followed by a call-up to the G League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (yes, that's a real team), and, eventually, the NBA.
Peppered throughout the story are encounters with celebrities, including Anthony Mackie, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Rapaport and Aldis Hodge. Overall, the story is a huge step forward for MyCareer, even if the pompous lead character gets under your skin.
Making its return is the Neighborhood, an outdoor hub where you access content by walking to different areas. If that sounds a lot like the beleaguered Playstation Home, it's because it very much is. This year, a grid of basketball courts is bordered by a training facility, stores and your own home court. If you're someone who spends hours making changes off the court, you'll appreciate the changes to the Neighborhood. Otherwise, it can feel sluggish and unnecessary. I personally prefer clean menus over an open world.
Unfortunately, the MyGM mode didn't get the same treatment as myCareer. The mode that lets you manage a team to victory is let down by an awful story and endless dialogue. I found myself rapidly clicking buttons trying to get through the cutscenes. There were lengthy blocks of time when I was completely disengaged from the game.
The story mode is a huge step forward for MyCareer, even if the pompous lead character gets under your skin.
Weekly online challenges and a 3-v-3 mode called Triple Thread were added to myTeam, a card-based fantasy mode where you purchase packs to "collect" the best player (think EA Ultimate Team). Regarding pricing, VC packs go anywhere from $3 for 5,000 coins to $100 for 450,000 coins. At the time of writing, packs cost anywhere from 5,600 coins for five cards to 168,000 coins for 20 cards. You can also buy players from the Auction House. The good news is that cards are now based on a tiered system and the rate at which you get good players is supposedly higher.
So far, my favorite mode in 2K19 is MyLeague. I was able to create my own expansion team in Austin, Texas, design their jerseys and logo, and build a stadium from the ground up. This is just a small sample of the massive amounts of customization 2K19 allows, from creating your own shoe to getting the perfect fade. After I built my team, I signed on free agents, drafted top prospects and managed the Austin Aztex to victory. Forget about myGM, this is the career mode you should play.
While the freestyle mode, Blacktop, is fun for casual play, the tutorial, 2KU, badly needs an overhaul. In it, you play a 10-minute game and, based on what skill level you choose, are given tips along the way. Unfortunately, I found myself getting impatient with the instructions, many of which were redundant. Hopefully, 2K20 will take an approach similar to what FIFA has with its helpful and engaging mini games.
Microtransactions: Not quite as pesky
There's no avoiding it, microtransactions are a permanent fixture in sports titles nowadays, but there's a bad way and a worse way to implement them. Transactions in 2K18 were awful because they pressured players to spend hard-earned money to get through the grind of earning enough virtual coins to afford the same luxuries. Hell, you couldn't get your character a decent haircut without taking out your credit card.
Microtransactions are still a big part of 2K19, but they've taken a backseat this year. 2K19 will now reward players with more virtual coins in each game mode so they don't feel as worn out. Only time will tell if it's enough to win people back.
NBA 2K19 is an excellent basketball game with gorgeous visuals and outstanding gameplay. On the court, the game feels more balanced than ever, and improved AI adds to an already realistic presentation. Additionally, the myCareer story is magnitudes better this time around, and myLeague remains an excellent franchise mode.
That said, NBA 2K19 tries to do too much at times, and leaves plenty of areas for improvement. For example, the cutscenes and graphics can feel cumbersome, the myGM storyline is painfully bad and microtransactions make an unwelcome return. Fortunately, those shortcomings aren't enough to spoil this faithful simulation.