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NBA 2K19 - LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers backing down Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics

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NBA 2K19 recovers from past slips on a thoughtful Way Back

2K Sports delivers a stronger sequel, but wait times still bother online play

Visual Concepts/2K Sports

Last year, thanks to a flashy trailer and new promises, NBA 2K18 was again hyped by 2K Sports as the most complete game in its award-winning series. Instead, fans received a disappointing user experience that became stale after only a few months of the game’s existence.

The high gameplay expectations were met with overpowered animations and glitches that players could take advantage of. Players felt betrayed by the invasive microtransactions and annoyed by an inescapable story mode. Lacking much post-release support, players got the impression that 2K Sports threw in the towel and let the game die.

This summer, with NBA 2K18 in limbo and NBA 2K19 on the horizon, the question facing both the game and its fans was, “How will the game bounce back?”

NBA 2K19 - talking to a friend in MyCareer
A more intriguing prologue helps NBA 2K19’s MyCareer — and its cinematics may be skipped altogether for players who just want to get on with it.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports via Polygon

The Story

For NBA 2K19, there was nowhere to go but up.

This year, developer Visual Concepts seems eager to correct some of the problems that befell last year’s edition. It makes sense that the title of this year’s story mode is “The Way Back.” That’s what 2K seems to be doing here: taking NBA 2K back to a place where players are neither bored nor betrayed.

In The Way Back, your player left college early for the NBA draft, only to go undrafted. He must play in China to keep his basketball dreams alive.

NBA 2K19 - first NBA game in MyCareer
NBA 2K19’s MyCareer remains as deep and customizable as any sports fantasy served by a video game.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports via Polygon

The Way Back gives players more of a reason to be invested than the lackluster story of NBA 2K18, where their character went from basketball to DJing and back to basketball again. The dynamic between the character’s goal of making it to the NBA and changing his mindset makes for a surprisingly good character arc. Your player starts out as a self-centered, entitled brat. Over time, he matures and realizes the world doesn’t revolve around him. When you finish The Prelude, the story mode’s first chapter, it feels like your player has accomplished something tangible and grown into a better person.

These details make NBA 2K19’s story mode feel like a revelation compared to last year’s. Some quality-of-life changes help the mode, too. You’re able to skip the cutscenes, an option that almost made me cry with happiness as I remembered NBA 2K18’s interminable scenes. Subsequent playthroughs with new characters allow you to skip The Prelude altogether and join an NBA team immediately as a free agent. You then negotiate a deal with the club, and that makes it seem like you have direct control over your NBA destiny — you, the player, not the game.

NBA 2K19 - GIF of MyCareer intro
This year’s MyCareer introduction can be skipped, taking the player straight to contract negotiations and their NBA career.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports via Polygon

The Gameplay

NBA 2K19 shines on the court, too. Those who wanted to see more differentiation in player skills should celebrate the new mechanics. In NBA 2K18, games often turned into a battle of who could pull off a scoring move more efficiently. NBA 2K19 prevents you from simply blowing by your opponent thanks to a much-needed buff to defense.

This forces users to be smart with the ball and with dribble moves, as spamming the right thumbstick will decrease your stamina. Cross-court passes are more risky, and defenders shuffle their feet and anticipate your every move. This makes offense seem challenging at first, but getting accustomed to the advanced controls and basketball strategy make every bucket feel like a reward for smart play. NBA 2K19 has one of the highest learning curves in recent memory, making it easier to determine who is good and who relies on exploits to win.

GIF comparison of drives in NBA 2K18 versus NBA 2K19
Gameplay improvements to NBA 2K19 have addressed last year’s blow-by drives and weak one-on-one defense.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports via Polygon

The Neighborhood

But NBA 2K19’s broader off-court content remains a series of works in progress. While the more centralized, interactive Neighborhood (the online mode’s hub) has the ingredients to be a huge improvement over last year’s environment, wait times still continue to be a nagging inconvenience.

NBA 2K19’s Neighborhood is improved over last year’s but wait times to get into a multiplayer game are still a disappointment.

The time spent waiting to play basketball versus playing basketball is nothing new in 2K games, but in NBA 2K19 it seems more pronounced. It’s finally a Neighborhood worth exploring, at least. Still, a considerable fraction of your time in NBA 2K19’s MyCareer will be spent watching other players, or waiting for the servers to find enough people for a game.

Frustrations with NBA 2K19’s online features go beyond the Neighborhood. Spotty servers have been a problem for years, and NBA 2K19 carries on that tradition. It’s still annoying to run around the Neighborhood trying to get into a game, only to see an error code and be forced to try again.

NBA 2K19 - tier system in online Play Now
A new tiered system in the online Play Now mode requires players to compete in tiers to advance and unlock certain teams. It’s an unnecessary change.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports via Polygon

The online Play Now mode may not have the same connectivity errors, but it’s still the victim of an update no one wanted. This year’s mode requires players to win a certain number of games in each team tier to advance and unlock classic teams. Instead of the user choosing the team they want and the game finding a fair matchup in that tier, users are forced to play in another tier they may not be interested in. This is an unnecessary change to a game mode that didn’t need fixing in the first place.

It’s true that NBA 2K19 launched just last week, and games with this much online content often need tweaking and troubleshooting early on. How often this happens, and how effective those updates are, will tell the story of NBA 2K19 — just as it did for last year’s game. But there seems to be a stronger foundation in place this time around, and for fans, that may be enough to keep their basketball season from ending early.

NBA 2K19 was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by 2K Sports. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.