It Might Be Time For The Next Level

HIGH The best presentation just gets better each year.

LOW Odd clipping during cutscenes takes users out of the moment.

WTF All that Hollywood talent is wasted in the too-short story mode.

Breaking GameCritics tradition, this review will feature the closer right up front — NBA 2K20 earns an excellent score of 8.5 out of 10.

NBA 2K20 warrants this score because it shows a natural progression in gameplay mechanics, several exciting new on-court developments, and arguably the most engaging career story mode to date. It’s the best sports title of the year so far, and helps further cement NBA 2K as the finest sports series in all of gaming.

Readers might now be wondering where the remaining 1.5 points went.

The answer to that question lies in the technology – the Xbox One X and PS4 simply aren’t powerful enough to handle where the NBA 2K series needs to go, and those technical limitations are the only things that scrape points off the final tally.

Even on aging hardware, NBA 2K20 is a fantastic-looking title, featuring some of the most lifelike character models and animations in gaming. New specialty post-up maneuvers and impressive “off the ball” movements from CPU players are highlights that look great and improve realism. From the obligatory beads of brow sweat to authentic muscle contractions during closeup replays, there’s very little that Visual Concepts and 2K Sports didn’t include here.

However, one of the reasons GameCritics waited to review 2K20 is because of the series’ history with bug fixes. Sure enough, as soon as the game booted up the first time, a slew of updates were already waiting for download. However, even after the day-one patch was applied, the game had serious clipping and tearing concerns, especially during heated scrums under the basket.

On top of this, though the player models are fantastic overall, many players simply don’t resemble their real-life counterparts. Obviously, this can be expected for some benchwarmers, but big names like Jimmy Butler and Paul George aren’t captured as well as the promotional stills indicate, killing some of the realism that drives this series. There’s little doubt 2K Sports will have more flexibility developing graphics for the next round of consoles, but one can’t help but wonder what happened to the current roster.

Still, when it comes to authentic look and feel, NBA 2K maintains its annual position at the top. And, in a nice upgrade, both the new and time-honored animations are less “canned” and more within user control this season. Though there are still portions of these moves that remain pre-animated, nothing feels accidental. Instead, users will steadily learn how (and when) to apply button/stick combinations that render them more effective in heated situations.

The game’s cinematic MyCareer returns in 2K20 with a boatload of Hollywood talent — names like Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, Ernie Hudson and Lamorne Morris grace the narrative, along with a special visit from everyone’s favorite Laker, Lebron James. In terms of storytelling, the mode remains as tight as ever, delivering users another enjoyable tale replete with some mild decision-making elements to keep them on their toes.

While the story is done well, MyCareer suffers from notable flaws. For starters, there’s just not enough of it. There are several story arcs and subtexts introduced early that should have been revisited, but are instead unceremoniously dropped to move the central plotline forward. Likewise, there are gaps in character development that simply don’t make sense. No spoilers here, but users will probably find themselves wondering why an actor of Idris Elba’s caliber isn’t more of a presence.

Though fans may never enjoy another story as enjoyable as 2K17’s “Orange Juice” buddy movie, this year’s narrative was stronger and more relevant to current events. That alone shows the kind of maturation the series needs, even if the phoenix rising/overcoming the odds tropes are getting a little long in the tooth.

Back on the court, things display NBA 2K’s normal levels of polish and precision. The in-game commentary, pregame analysis and visual presentation are second to none, while the controls and gameplay have several improvements worth noting.

First, the off-ball movements by AI-controlled players are far better than in past editions, with the game accurately representing true-to-life offense and defense, meaning slower players don’t always get back in time to stop a fast break while speedy players take advantage of mismatches. Likewise, NPCs also space themselves more realistically, putting themselves in better position for rebounds and defending baseline drives.

User controls are also more realistic, which means the “spam the sprint button” to blow past defenders is now (finally!) a poor tactic. Realistic stamina depletion encourages players to use the sprint more sparingly, or lose minutes on the court as a result. Not only does this make games more authentic, but also allows for better parity during online matchups.

To bring this review full circle, there are still a handful of complaints to be had here. For starters, CPU teams seem to randomly forget how to play the game, even with the sliders set to default/pro levels. For every amazing dunk patiently set up in the lane, there’s a CPU player forgetting how much time is on the clock, or even little things like the 3-second rule in the paint.

Secondly, the WNBA mode – a welcome and overdue addition – is still undercooked compared to the men’s game, and more attention is needed for unique animations, different playcalling styles, and even crowd reactions. The modern WNBA has evolved into a unique entity, and until 2K nails its defining elements, it’s not going to be fully represented in this series.

Finally, NBA 2K20 is far too dependent on microtransactions to hasten MyPlayer development, to improve progress in the MyTeam card-collection mode, and even just to buy digital clothing. Gamers have come to expect these things each year, but it feels more blatant than in past iterations. 

With new console hardware expected to arrive by late 2020, there’s a good chance much of 2K Sports’ design and programming teams are hard at work making the most of new technology. However, that doesn’t excuse the visual and gameplay gaps that shouldn’t be here. That said, NBA 2K20 is still a fantastic basketball sim with enough modes and features to keep fans busy until those revolutionary next steps start to come in over the next few years.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Games. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player story mode and it was completed. Another 12 hours of play were devoted to other single-player modes, and 10 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Other than some adult themes and dialogue, there’s nothing inappropriate for young audiences. The on-court action is realistic, but there’s nothing overtly violent or graphic. Still, parents may want to review before allowing younger children to play unsupervised.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: NBA 2K20 features subtitles and numerous tactile feedback features in the controller, in all modes. The game is fully playable without sound. (Subtitle pic courtesy of Moe Notkin, GamerTag: Sin City Dabber)

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

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