Thirty minutes into MyCareer, the single-player story mode of NBA 2K18, I was bored. Not because the on-court action wasn't exciting – 2K's NBA series has always been excellent in that department – but rather due to the deeply flawed storyline I had been thrust into, the pushy micro-transactions plague that is threatening to become all too common among big, expensive titles, and a faux open-world that has the feeling of being a ghost town invaded by baller dudes.
Though it refrains from repeating the mistakes of NBA 2K16 (which pushed players into a narrow experience to accommodate the writing and direction of Spike Lee), NBA 2K18 has a laughable and utterly unconvincing narrative of its own. You play as DJ, a former college basketball star who ditched the opportunity to go pro for a career in music, only to regain interest and pursue the sport again.
It's already clear from that description that DJ is entitled and unpleasant, and the game only contributes to that feeling as it goes on. From your first minutes at the Proving Ground, an amateur street-ball event that NBA scouts frequent, DJ behaves like he's the best player in the world, despite having not played in a while.
After a few performances, mediocre or extraordinary, NBA 2K18 lets you coast into the big leagues with a contract from your favourite team, which you'd already selected at the beginning of MyCareer. It's ludicrous to think that you could simply walk into any NBA team, especially when you've spent the past few years DJ-ing instead of grinding it out on the court.
For what it's worth, the game doesn't directly put you into the starting five, which makes sense given you start as a 60-rated player among better than 80-rated superstars. But there's a way to get around that this year, by simply throwing more money at the game. Unlike previous iterations, NBA 2K18 has a virtual currency of its own – Virtual Coins, labelled VC in-game – which are needed for almost everything.
To encourage spending, 2K has overhauled the front-end of MyCareer to include a faux open-world that consists of two main-streets and alley-ways, with a few shops for all kinds of player customisation, and street-courts for multiplayer play. It's also how you can access your place (including MyCourt), the team's training area, and the neighbourhood gym. 2K has also seen fit to make other players from around the world appear in your world too, but you can't interact with any of them.
Do you want to upgrade your player's abilities? Use VC. Do you want to get a new haircut? Run down to the barber shop, and spend some VC. Do you want to get new shoes at Foot Locker (brand placement, obviously) or new clothes at the NBA store? That'll cost you more VC. Until last year, player upgrades were only based on points you earned in-game, and all haircuts were part of player customisation. Now, you get only 4-5 'free' options. Haircuts, shirts, and initial upgrades all start at 100 VC, and the price goes up quickly, so you're going to need a lot of VC.
You can earn VC for playing well, practising and going to the gym, but all your efforts will combine to give you a maximum of 5,000 per game. And that's if you're really good, which is tough since your player is a rookie in the beginning. Or you can simply buy VC with real money - starting at $1.99 (about Rs. 130) for 5,000 VC, going all the way up to $99.99 (about Rs. 6,490) for 450,000 VC - on top of having spent a minimum of Rs. 2,499/ $60 on NBA 2K18 in the first place. Essentially, you're looking at a long grind if you're not willing to pay. This is a bit odd given that 2K doesn't allow this on its other big sport title, WWE 2K18, though we should probably not be giving them any ideas.
All of this leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and shows that 2K has adopted the worst possible lessons from other video game studios in a bid to increase the cashflow and drive post-release development. The biggest expense is likely 2KTV, which has hours of videos with real-life players talking about basketball or game devs giving tips in-game, and more episodes continue to be produced weekly.
But that still doesn't excuse the lazy writing, including the dozens of cut-scenes involving the team's PR head, team security, and janitor, which can't be skipped and add little to no value to the overall experience. And it's not like 2K doesn't know how to create a better world. NBA 2K17's MyCareer mode not only had a fitting story but even gave you a team-mate to care about, in Michael B. Jordan's Justice Young.
Together, the two of you came up with a silly yet funny signature move: the Orange Juice squeeze, which then had its own gameplay mechanic and allowed you to control Young during a match if your chemistry was really good. But 2K18 has nothing of that sort, with 2K justifying its barebones approach as a way of giving you freedom to skip NBA games in favour of hanging out with other NBA players. Who wants to skip games?
It's not clear what led 2K to think that MyCareer needed to go in this direction, but it likely has a financial aspect to it. 2K is a subsidiary of Take-Two, which has seen massive success with GTA Online's micro-transactions model, that have raked in over $500 million (Rs. 3,245 crores) since launch. Given the obvious benefit at a low cost to developer – player value upgrades, and new clothes and haircuts take no effort to make – it might seem like a stupid move for 2K to not pursue the same thing with NBA.
That also explains the branding that's omnipresent, be it the aforementioned shops, the power-ups, or the sponsors invading your messages with products. Marry that with a pathetic narrative, empty-shell characters, and a push on micro-transactions, and you're left with a 2K NBA title that has no clue on what's good or bad.
Funnily enough, 2K could take some tips from EA's fledgling attempts at single-player story modes, such as The Journey. While the first season in FIFA 17 had its own share of problems, it carried over the characters it created – Alex Hunter and his family, Danny Williams, and their coach – to FIFA 18, which gives them more time to build, and gives the player a friendly feeling, just as with TV shows.
Of course, NBA 2K18 is still king of the court in terms of game presentation and gameplay, but you can find that in other game modes too. MyCareer is buried amidst a cacophony of uninteresting, inexcusable choices that mar what could be, and should be so much better.