An ambitious career mode and the inclusion of WNBA athletes are the standouts, but they're crossed over by the greed of MyTeam and a host of issues.
It's that time of year again. Like the first fallen leaves signalling the return of autumn, every major licensed sports franchise in gaming is once again duking it out with other titles for access to players' wallets and attention. As always, NBA 2K20 makes a strong argument for itself with streamlined controls, updated visuals, and, of course, the latest league roster. Series steward Visual Concepts has obviously gone to greater lengths than ever before to make every perspiring player, real-world stadium, and nerve-racking play look like the real article. Paradoxically, that dedication to realism makes the feeling of being an NBA all-star even more illusory than in recent entries. Aside from the long-awaited inclusion of a WNBA roster, NBA 2K20 offers very few positive additions or changes that don't exclusively serve MyTeam - a mode so shameless and cynical in its monetization schemes that it single-handedly warps the whole of NBA 2K20 like a shifty funhouse mirror.
Little's changed from last year with NBA 2K20, mechanically speaking. Basic passing, dribbling, and shooting all still work as simply as before, and they can still be modified and chained with small joystick and button-press combinations to allow for a lot of flexibility on both sides of the ball. Unique to NBA 2K20 are small but impactful quality of life changes like simplified pick and roll mechanics and a major upgrade to the series' robust motion engine, which go a long way to visually enhance the the on-court experience. Also new are dozens of athlete-specific animations that add flavor and further fidelity to everything the on-screen avatars do, making every players' behaviors more distinct on top of their under-the-hood differences.
However, streamlined controls and Visual Concepts' endless pursuit of realism do come at a cost. Translating the physicality and dexterous freedom of basketball into something that can be manipulated on a gamepad has never been easy, and the genre has long straddled the line between arcade-y simplification and convoluted simulation. Like its forebears, there's a healthy balance of both while leaning a bit toward the latter option. This makes a process like driving to the basket under pressure, juking a defender after a pump fake, and sinking a bank shot feel more like executing a combo in a competitive fighting game than it could if NBA 2K20 were willing to embrace the fact that it's a video game.
Although it's more or less understandable that advanced play-making works this way, it's much harder to forgive how frequently and unpredictably the game's flashier systems fail. The expanded suite of player animations look great, but they often undermine the real action by regularly being prioritized over player control, causing the simple act of movement to feel viscous and frustrating at times. Ball-handling has also been reworked to look and (sometimes) feel more authentic, but now basic dribbling can result in the ball slipping out of seasoned NBA pros' hands without much, if any, defender coercion. The same goes for rebounding, which is tied to a simple button prompt but all too often ends with the ball inexplicably bouncing off players' fingertips. When it works, it does so fairly spectacularly, but that just makes these low moments feel cheaper.
Both the good and bad stand out more nowhere other than in local and online multiplayer, where players can test their skills against one another in classic one-on-one team affair and five-on-five individual matches . Where the game's opponent AI behave like atomic supermen that err only in predictable, RNG-determined ways while lacking all perception of time beyond the shot clock, multiplayer fills that void with human mistakes and feats of strategic ingenuity that have made sports games a staple since the retro era. Unfortunately, NBA 2K20's servers unfortunately remain in shambles days after launch, with an unacceptable number of matches failing to connect or suddenly disbanding mid-game. Visual Concepts is scrambling to get this sorted out, but if they fail to meet basic expectations soon it may impact lasting player count.
Luckily for online refugees, the franchise's trademark MyCareer is back and better than ever before. Players create their own character and vicariously live out their rags-to-riches NBA fantasies as a college senior fated not just for the NBA draft and super-stardom, but also to become somewhat of an iconoclastic figure. Produced by LeBron James' own SpringHill Entertainment, it seems that no expense was spared in procuring top talent like Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, and Thomas Middleditch to play key characters in the player character's story. It doesn't overstay its welcome in its five-or-so-hour run, and even its amateurish, loading screen-hiding editing and dead-eyed, uncanny valley star power can't detract from the fact that this year's career mode is the most ambitious in franchise history.
Of course, that's not saying much. Even though NBA 2K20's MyCareer does push narrative in a direction that does the sport justice, it still gets a lot wrong. When it isn't insulting player intelligence by pitching bald-faced advertisements guised as sponsorship opportunities, it wastes player time with painfully short bursts of play and some truly horrid one-off mini-games that loosely interpret the NBA Combine. Meanwhile, the story broaches real-world issues like the financial exploitation of college athletes, but it never commits to taking meaningful stances on controversial subjects. This comes across as hollow hypocrisy when considering publisher Take-Two Interactive's place in licensed sports gaming history alongside the likes of EA, both of which would undoubtedly resume unpaid use of college players' likenesses in their retired College Hoops 2K and NCAA Basketball series with glee if they were only still allowed.
Then there's MyTeam. NBA 2K20's ever-evolving answer to FIFA's Ultimate Team cash cow, it invites paying players to take part in the basketball-themed deck-building game of their dreams. At its core, MyTeam is an inherently exciting experience, and most basketball fans won't be able to help but take great joy in uniting an unholy crew of history's greatest basketballers together under one banner. There are few wrenches thrown into the tested formula beyond a slightly steepened grind and the so-so addition of Evolution Cards and Dynamic Goals, so fans of the mode's past iterations are unlikely to be either irritated or blown away this year.
While the core concept is compelling and theoretically harmless, anyone even vaguely familiar with modes like this knows the defining feature is the pay-to-win ecosystem, and MyTeam in NBA 2K20 just might be the worst of its ilk yet. This time around, it throws every type of gambling-reminiscent monetization tactic at players in the hopes that something sticks, thinking so little of its audience to a gag-reflex-triggering degree. From the very start, players are bombarded with card packs, spinning wheels, and limited-time promotions that manipulate poorly animated lights, colors, and sounds in an attempt to trigger an impulsive hook, and the casino treatment really only ends when you return to the main menu. Loading a three-on-three game? Have a go at this slot machine! Open a duplicate-filled pack? Whoops, here's this easy-to-use duplicate liquidation tool! Did a stranger pull a rare card? Read all about it on this persistent scrolling ticker!
It's shameless, it's exhausting, and, above all else, it's incredibly grindy and expensive to stay competitive or accumulate a collection. The game's $100 Legend Edition comes with - among a handful of smaller rewards to sweeten the pot - 100,000 Virtual Currency (VC), "giving" players approximately $30 to play with from the start. Immediately, buyers of this edition will already be priced out of MyTeam's most expensive card pack, conveniently valued a bit higher than 100,000 VC amount in the clear hope that players will buy more VC to close the gap. That's not even to speak of all of the other places VC can be spent in NBA 2K20, encouraging players to engage in a ridiculous grind or spend real money to acquire things as simple as badge modifiers for MyCareer created characters.
But hey, the WNBA's finally in a mainstream basketball title! Women's basketball getting the AAA-budget treatment is one of NBA 2K20's unexpectedly brightest spots. The athletes have been meticulously recreated on the virtual court with as much care and nuance as their better-paid counterparts, and the functional differences of spacing and zone defense introduced by WNBA play may actually make the mode some players' favorite new mode. That is, it could if it weren't beholden to the same buggy physics issues as the rest of the game and, y'know, if it were actually playable online. There's hope those obstacles can be overcome in future updates, but for now the game's arguable best inclusion is artificially hamstrung for reasons unknown.
As for MyLeague and MyGM, it's a mixed bag. They're constantly on the chopping block as the series chases greater revenue streams and visual and mechanical fidelity at any cost, and the biggest cut this year seems to have been straight from the rump of MyGM, whereas MyLeague has thankfully been left more or less feature-complete. Similar to MyCareer, MyGM allows players to step into the wingtips of a general manager and run their own team. To its credit, it does a decent job of selling this experience with daily decisions that carry real weight and lots of calculated elbow-rubbing. However, this year's take on the mode feels unnecessarily restrictive to actually play. It supposedly does things like prohibiting players from using custom rosters or editing existing ones, customizing quarter length, or changing AI difficulty all in the name of realism, but it hardly seems realistic that a GM would need to "level up" just to be able to trade players.
In all, NBA 2K20 is yet another theoretically great basketball sim that undermines its improvements and core gameplay strengths with a realism-at-all-costs mentality and a near-dystopian approach to microtransactions. It's all at once the sort of licensed endeavor that's built gaming into a multi-million dollar industry while interlacing it with a minefield of predatory monetization tactics along the way; it's a safe, design by committee celebration of stagnation that simultaneously funds other Take-Two Studios' more ambitious projects; and it serves as a means of bringing new players to the medium while reintroducing core gamers to the thrills of a great American sport. It brings much-needed changes, cuts beloved content so that it can added back next year, and introduces a host of new problems in the process. Beneath it all, it's fun and mostly rewarding no matter how many hours one sinks into it. It's another one, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
NBA 2K20 is now available for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Screen Rant was provided with an Xbox One code for the purpose of this review.