3-underscored nba 2k20
CNN  — 

When it comes to virtual basketball, there aren’t many choices — it’s either NBA Live or NBA 2K. Both can typically be relied on for some serious action, though as any Madden fan can attest, yearly releases often yield few updates or improvements on a familiar formula. Luckily, this time around, 2K Games’ NBA 2K franchise returns with a slam dunk of an installment, just in time for the upcoming season.

For $59.99, you get NBA 2K20, the latest iteration of one of the most popular sports games on the market, with a host of improvements on last year’s release. This includes the addition of WNBA players for the first time, a brand new system with a twist on the MyTeam mode, and more. With EA Sports’ yearly basketball title still pending release, this is the only new basketball title on the market, but it’s good enough that you’d likely reach for it anyway.

I’ve played through several full-length games, enjoyed the cinematic qualities of MyCareer mode, and hopped online for some seriously outrageous games.

Here’s the lowdown on NBA 2K20.

A meaningful career mode with cinematic qualities

Whether you’re a series vet or eager newbie, when you jump into NBA 2K20 you’ll undoubtedly want to take the game’s story mode for a spin. The MyCareer cinematic experience is an aesthetically stunning tale that unfolds across several basketball games. With stars like Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson lending their voice talents to the intriguing, socially conscious story, it’s easy to get sucked right in – and even forget that you were playing a basketball game in the first place.

After creating a player, you’ll take on the role of a college basketball player named Che who makes the decision to sit out an important game after a teammate’s scholarship is revoked due to a torn ligament. Che is standing up for what he believes in, but his career is shaken in addition to his friend’s, as he finds himself dealing with immediate and negative celebrity status with criticism from all sides. It’s a power move that mirrors real-world events such as Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem, and one that’s compelling to watch.

Che is eventually drafted into the NBA Summer League, after dealing with his sudden rise to fame following the incident, and more of the drama unfolds there. With input from LeBron James to bring the story to life, it’s an eye-opening story that highlights some of the lesser-known areas of professional sports, and a mode that’s on par with something you might see from Rockstar Games’ camp. In this, MyCareer mode (despite the lack of choice between players and its linearity) is a great way to get started, learn the basics of the game, and enjoy a great story all while getting a few games of ball in.

With that said, the cinematic opening does bring you to the same MyCareer mode that’s been standard in the series for quite some time. Much of the story tends to play out as it’s woven through a set of games, where you work to improve your custom character and rise through the ranks.

Build your own crew with the improved MyTeam

3-underscored nba 2k20

After jumping into MyCareer, which does act as something of a tutorial if you’re unfamiliar with how things work, you’ll want to start dabbling with building a team and getting into the nitty gritty of the game. One such mode to fully explore is MyTeam, a stalwart option in the NBA 2K series that lets you create your own team, with a wide variety of current and former NBA players as well as custom players. You can design the look of their jerseys and more. To add players, you can earn or purchase packs of virtual “cards” with optional premium currency. It’s a pretty straightforward system that’s more akin to a deck-building game than anything else, except this year the card evolution mechanic changes things significantly.

The goal is obviously to create the best possible team, whether that’s just to finish out single-player missions or to trounce your online competition. You’ll have to grind it out or spend real-world cash if you want to make any quick progress in this mode, but it’s possible to enjoy it even if you don’t want to spend any extra money – you’ll get random card packs you can sift through to see if you received what you were looking for. It can move slowly if you don’t purchase anything, which is the main criticism I’d levy at MyTeam, but that’s an issue I’ve had with the series (and other similar sports titles) for some time.

Fortunately, the card evolution mechanic lets you “level up” a card by completing challenges that can eventually make it even more powerful. In order to get the most powerful version of a card, however, you’ll need to earn a different form of currency. That makes a couple of currencies to keep track of, and the grinding nature of MyTeam can seem a bit frustrating because of it – but for anyone looking to spend a lot of time finishing off missions, painstakingly arranging and rearranging team members, and opening up packs of cards, there’s a ton to sift through here, even more than last year. You’ll never be bored, even if it sometimes feels as though things are moving at a glacial pace in the beginning.

Kick things up a notch with a variety of awesome game modes

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Beyond MyTeam, you can check out MyLeague mode, which offers a solid franchise option that features several ways you can approach running your own franchise in the NBA. This means you’re responsible for setting salaries, negotiating trades and even scouting players. Not only that, but you have to guide your players through the actual games they’ll be competing in, which makes it a daunting mode for anyone. This, coupled with the fact that it can be complicated for newcomers, means you might not reach for it first when selecting how you want to play NBA 2K20. Luckily, it’s a ton of fun as well, even if it is a less flashy affair than MyCareer, with less engaging cutscenes. You can, however, play online with friends as well, which lends some much-needed excitement to some of its duller moments.

Meanwhile, MyPlayer gives you many of the same options as MyCareer, except you’re simply creating and training your own NBA player and raising his or her star, whether that comes from training and running around the block, or earning currency to improve your stats. It’s deceptively deep, capping off the variety of modes you’re afforded in-game with more options and cool additions that make the game feel more like a role-playing game, with perks and branching story paths, than a simple sports game.

That’s not even including the single, simple basketball game options you can engage in, solo or with friends online in multiplayer modes, which I found quite solid after I was finally able to jump online and engage with others. Lag was minimal, and plenty of players were online ready to challenge me on the court. Seeing that it’s 2019’s only new basketball game for the time being, that’s to be expected.

Tearing up the court feels fantastic, no matter the mode

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Ideally, it would be a given that the latest basketball game in a line that pumps out a new one every year should have overall improved mechanics, but you can truly see it and feel it in NBA 2K20. Everything feels much tighter, more cohesive and overall far smoother than last year’s game. The aesthetic appeal is important when it comes to presenting players with some of their favorite team members in the virtual space, and 2K Games has absolutely nailed it. Players look exactly like their real-world selves, they move in a realistic fashion, and the arenas themselves are dazzling. There’s a real sense that, once again, the game has been totally revamped for the better, and this can be seen and felt throughout nearly every facet of the game, from single-player options to online modes.

The game does a solid job of ensuring that its core mechanics are accessible yet complex enough to pull off for veteran ballers. Passing, shooting, dribbling and defense are all mapped to both thumbtacks, the left and right triggers, and a few of the face buttons. You might have to memorize a few maneuvers here and there. There aren’t any huge new additions with this entry (last year’s Takeover made a splash that hasn’t yet been matched), but with an improved motion system that feels this fluid, that can certainly be forgiven. Free-throws seem more in line with a player’s skill, for example, than blind luck after pressing a button. A well-timed flick of the stick means you’ll be hitting three-pointers one after another. It can take some getting used to, but it’s well worth it when it means you’ll start bagging well-deserved victories.

There’s also an excellent soundtrack, with a wide variety of artists for players with just about any musical taste to appreciate: Ariana Grande, Lil Wayne, Billie Eilish, Katy Perry and Drake are only a few of the headliners pulled in for one of the most phenomenal musical setlists in the history of the franchise, making it an absolute pleasure to navigate menus and bop to them while you’re hustling down the court. There’s a satisfying mix of rock, pop, EDM and hip-hop to go around, which means basketball fans of every stripe have something to nod their heads to.

Bottom line

For basketball enthusiasts and sports fans alike, NBA 2K20 is a fantastic choice. It’s an excellent yearly update with a great story mode, a series of solid improvements over last year’s release, and plenty of tweaks to keep fans invested, even those who continue to buy in annually. As a casual basketball fan who’s only truly capable of pulling off alley-oops or three-pointers in the digital world, I’ve got to declare NBA 2K20 a legitimate slam dunk.

Note: The price above reflects the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.