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NBA 2K22 is a great game but the microtransactions are disgusting

GameCentral offers a belated review of NBA 2K22, including its excellent gameplay and awful microtransactions.

NBA 2K22 might be the best instalment 2K Sports has published, but despite well-balanced gameplay and some genuinely useful new features across its various game modes, you’ll probably still be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

The issues are a mix of the familiar and the brand new but all intertwined with the seemingly never-ending squeeze on player’s wallets. Somehow we’ve sleepwalked into a generation of sports games defined by microtransactions, rather than just pockmarked by them.

For those unfamiliar with the ecosystem in 2K’s hugely popular basketball sim this is the state of play: there are two main game modes, MyCareer and MyTeam; with the later being the equivalent of FIFA Ultimate Team.

MyNBA is the franchise mode and while it still has hardcore fans, these days the main NBA 2K experience is either working on your character’s skills in MyCareer or building your fantasy team of historic and current players in MyTeam. 

Both modes are wildly popular and have been honed to such a point that they have become serious money-making endeavours for 2K Sports. 

The MyCareer storyline was once the biggest draw in the franchise (Spike Lee was recruited for NBA 2K16 to write the story, such was its importance) but these days it feels increasingly diluted and more like a vehicle to escort players to the real main event: The City – a next gen exclusive experience.

The City is the evolution of the Neighbourhood, from previous games, which in itself was an extension of MyPark and whilst those just about felt like an enjoyable experience, the City’s introduction in NBA 2K21 paved the way for the bloated world of empty buildings we now have. 

The City open world hub is enormous and full of the sort of excesses you might expect an up-and-coming NBA star to be interested in. You’ve got barbers, tattoo parlours, an entire shopping precinct home to around 20 fictional and real brands (American Eagle, Adidas, and State Farm are all open for business) and a shop called Wheels which we’ll get into shortly.

The idea 2K has been working towards since the early days of a few courts in MyPark was simple: to create a role-playing world within its basketball sim that would act as a living breathing world for your avatar to explore and thrive in, and ultimately star in. 

Yet what we have in NBA 2K22 feels like the nadir for the series. Everything is dictated by money, or VC (Virtual Currency), in 2K’s world. You’re given a skateboard upon entering The City, which is a minor upgrade on using your two feet to walk around but crossing one corner of the map to the other takes two minutes 58 seconds (we timed it) and is every bit of a chore as it sounds (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on the PS1 had better physics).

And yet a big part of existing in The City is taking part in fetch quests – meeting one character at one side of the map and being told to head to another to take part in a side game which helps you grow your character’s reputation and ability. 

Now, unless we missed a memo somewhere along the way, basketball fans didn’t ask for this. No-one paid £60 to play a basketball RPG. Whilst you can commend 2K for innovating and trying something no-one has tried before, all that goodwill is erased by the insulting manner in which you’re forced to navigate their world. 

Want to get around faster? Well you could head to Wheels and buy a BMX bike for 65,000 VC or, in real money, £21. The sales pitch is as obvious as it is gross. Want to go from one tiresome quest to another in this world we’ve created for you? It’ll cost you. 

You can unlock custom spawn locations as well, though this requires you to travel 26.2 miles in The City. Crossing the map is 0.6 miles and takes three minutes to do so you’re looking at 131 minutes of navigating the map on a skateboard before that option opens up to you. 

Then of course, when you hit 1 million MyPoints (you get these for accomplishing various tasks in The City and for your performance on the courts) your swanky new apartment has a zipline for you to essentially fast travel to the four major points on the map.

At this point we considered the possibility that as mid-30s gamers perhaps we’re not the target audience. Maybe the aspirational journey in MyCareer is something that appeals to Gen Z gamers. 

The prospect of starting with nothing, working and grinding away for days on end just to afford a pair of trainers (5,000 VC, or £1.30 – and yes you can earn VC through playing the game) before ultimately starting a record label and becoming one of the City’s legends… maybe that’s what it’s all about now? Living a life vicariously through your screen, dealing with hardships, knowing that through either your grit or your wallet anyone can make it to the big time. How romantic.

And maybe as birthdays roll around faster, the value we place on time increases. Real life brings about other responsibilities and unless you can earn a living creating content on Twitch or YouTube, time is precious. And that’s what makes the laborious nature of navigating The City the surest signifier of 2K’s disdain for its fanbase. It’s all just so odious.

Even from the off it will take around six hours before you can even play a meaningful game of NBA basketball. You could skip College and the G League games of course, but you’d be sacrificing rewards. You’ll miss out on four additional badges for winning the College Championship and skip an attribute unlock multiplier by avoiding the G League too. 

If you’re serious about online play and enjoy the Rec or the many tournament events 2K promotes throughout the lifespan of its games these are boosts you just can’t miss out on.

For the uninitiated, when you first create your character your stats amount to 60 (out of 99) and you’re dressed in a plain brown T-shirt and grey joggers with 2K trainers. Your look matches your ability on the court: you’re worthless. 

It costs roughly 230,000 VC to bring your character up to an overall score of 85, which you can do immediately if your wallet stretches that far. A special 200,000 VC pack will set you back £39.99, which on top of the base cost of the game will see a new player £100 in the hole. 

Once you’ve unlocked enough MyPoints to be able to upgrade to a 99 player, that’s another 200,000 VC or £39.99, taking your total spend to £140. 

If you’re fed up with the brown T-shirt look and enticed by the story branch that sees your character get into the world of fashion, you’ll no doubt be tempted to purchase clothes from one of the many outlets available in the shopping precinct.  

Drop into Swags and you can deck your player out in Black Lives Matter clothing for free (one of the very few freebies available in-game) or if you’re feeling exotic buy a pair of Just Don Islander Boxing shorts for 15,000 VC (£3.99). 

From a commercial perspective this is a goldmine for 2K. Brands want to be featured in the stores (part of the reason there are so many empty buildings around The City at launch – it’s ad space) and players want to buy the very best clothing to look as elite as possible on the courts. It’s a smart financial ecosystem that clearly sees the player losing out. 

MyCareer feels like a social experiment – how far are customers willing to be exploited until they push back? The unfortunate truth is that for as long as 2K is making money they’ll continue creeping up the cost to play. These incremental changes should damage the brand and yet somehow it seems impervious. Gen Z doesn’t seem to care but did none of them take an economics class when they were 12-years-old?

Even moving to MyTeam, 2K22’s other moneyspinner, these flagrant assaults on the wallet are evident. For starters the MT (the currency you earn from playing games, completing challenges, etc.) has been reduced without any form of reasoning behind it. 

Amazingly, contracts still exist (EA Sports removed them from FIFA 21) – meaning you have to use the MT you earned just to keep your team going. If you’re a below average player you’re going to struggle to be able to even afford to run your team… which is a roundabout way of saying you need to pay more real money just to play the base game. 

Contracts, as well as many other consumables, are found in purchasable (and sometimes earnable) packs. Packs, simultaneously the driving force behind Ultimate Team modes like MyTeam, as well as the scourge of them, continue to be a major talking point. Efforts have been made over the years to encourage publishers to provide more transparency. So for example, before buying a pack, you can see the odds of pulling a high-rated card.

You’d think this would be enough to dissuade people from purchasing them but that just isn’t the case. At the time of this article, you can pay 135,000 VC (roughly £28) to buy 20 Primetime packs. These packs offer you the chance of landing one of six players recently added to the game with overall ability on a range. The two best players are rated 92 overall and the pack odds tell you there is a less than 2% chance of pulling one from your pack opening.  

So for the price of £1.40 you have a <2% chance of pulling the best card in the pack.

With such a young and impressionable user base you’d think there would be more due diligence. As things stand, displaying the pack odds is pretty much the extent of protection afforded to consumers, and whilst some nations have banned them (Belgium in 2018) the practice still continues across much of the world.

Once you’ve digested how the system works, it’s worth wondering where the profits go. 2K has prided itself on link-ups with real world celebrities and NBA stars and undoubtedly market their games better than rivals EA do. The cross-community collaboration is the best in the business and #2KDay gets bigger every year. 

And yet the servers remain temperamental at best. In the week since release we have experienced a multitude of issues in all the online game modes, something widely reported by other users too.

Failing servers will surely end up being the last great unanswered question in gaming. 2K Sports certainly isn’t alone in its problems and perhaps there are legitimate reasons why every release is plagued by them but as it stands we can’t offer a reason for the shoddy stability and nor, seemingly, can 2K.

In a game that relies on timing the press of a button to score points, input lag is unacceptable; it changes the game. The difference between playing offline and online is marked and you wonder how they have got away with this for so long. Sadly, even in this next gen world, there seems little evidence that this will ever change – it makes you wonder what the point of playing online is at all.

All of this is to say: what a shame. Whilst 2K21 missed the mark and was launched with a ton of problems (understandable mid-pandemic), this year’s release, particularly offline, is a superb achievement. The gameplay has never felt so smooth and the balancing between offence and defence provides just the right level of difficulty.

The controversial shot aiming system has been removed and a new skill dunk meter added to make those spectacular, insulting slams feel like you really meant them. The addition of every NBA team’s announcer felt like a spurious new feature when it was revealed but it adds another layer of immersion to a broadcast production that is head and shoulders above the likes of Madden and FIFA.

The WNBA continues to come on leaps and bounds with Candace Parker its first ever cover athlete and new half-time shows bring more glitz and glamour to 2K than ever before. 

Draft mode shows 2K Sports does listen to its userbase and surely cements it as the deepest sports sim on the market, whilst The Old Gym in The City gives solo online players a home, finally.

And yet all that good work is all but ruined by the cynically manipulative microtransactions.

Fundamentally you’re paying £60 for a very good game, perhaps the best in the history of the 2K series, but for all the commendable work on gameplay, production and new features, 2K22 should be considered one of the most egregious exploitations of a player base in the history of gaming. 

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £59.99
Publisher: 2K
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: 10th September 2021
Age Rating: 3

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