Once upon a time, the thought of a handheld device getting a fully-featured sports simulator seemed like an impossible goal. NBA 2K18 almost scuppered that dream with a disastrous launch in 2017, but a raft of support post-launch and a (mostly) issue-free follow up in NBA 2K19 proved the franchise can run on Switch, and do so with full confidence in its technical capabilities. But we’re past the point of novelty, and now on its third iteration, Visual Concepts has had to step things up a notch for NBA 2K20.

The changes made for this year’s release might seem subtle, but you feel their impact both on and off the ball. Whether you’re playing in Pro-Am, in MyCareer of any of the other game modes in this year’s package, a player’s specific physical characteristics and skill-set now play a fundamental role in their on-court performance. Lanky centres can no longer outrun speedy power forwards, and shorter point guards can no longer confidently block shots from players that far exceed them in height. That physicality affects speed – enabling you to peel around screens and move in for the lay-up – but it also drastically changes how you defend, with your ability to sprint now serving as far more of a limited resource.

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It makes 2K20 a little harder to control, and new players might find the learning curve a little steep to begin with as more experienced ballers use ‘ZL’ to smother you as a defender and ‘ZL’ to leave you for dust as they sprint away to the paint. In the long run, it makes all the difference as it forces you to play to your strengths and understand the limitations of each position. New dribble animations and refined off-ball collisions also add extra depth. Visual Concepts is really pushing the use of ‘builds’ this year, urging you to create multiple character slots based off different roles. 50 more badges to spend your VC (Virtual Currency) on – with each one representing a key trait – that focus on contextual physicality means you can really see the difference of investing more in finishing, playmaking, shooting or defending.

As a result, the ‘Road to 99’ is far less of a grind. Fans have always had a contentious relationship with NBA 2K’s approach to progression, and both previous iterations suffered from a slow and painful journey from level 60 onwards. In order to galvanise players into building multiple builds, VC is now far more plentiful through natural play, and it’s possible to reach the mid to high 90s in a couple of weeks. Of course, you can still buy VC to speed this process up, but you no longer need to so obviously. There’s also a lot more rewarded for scoring, assists and great positional awareness, which makes sense when you’re aiming to soup up your build to that final level.

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That attention to speed, movement and size also extends to the debut of the WNBA in the 2K series. Far more than a token nod to the elite women’s basketball league, the players of the WNBA aren’t different character models with the same coding as their male counterparts. The flow of play feels intrinsically different, with a greater emphasis on precision, spacing and positioning. With scans of all the players from the league – and some impressive character animations – their inclusion doesn’t come off as some cheap cash-in. You can play a full season with your favourite all-female team, and there’s even a bespoke presentation package complete with commentary from a new team. It’s frustrating that you can’t edit any of the players or use a female character in MyCareer, but as a start, it’s a strong one.

MyCareer and its regular narrative story mode is one of the NBA 2K series’ centrepieces, so it’s no surprise to see it return here. ‘Where the Lights are Brightest’ has been hyped to be the best ‘story mode’ yet, and while it’s the most grounded in terms of story beats, it doesn’t introduce anything we haven’t seen before. Your created character will still meet currently in-vogue players from across the league (some putting in painfully stilted performances) and endure a predictably rocky road from college level to the bright lights of the NBA. There are narrative choices to be made, but you soon realise those choices are quite shallow and do little to impact the story. However well you perform in games, you’ll still get to choose your favourite team and score a big contract.

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Considering how strong some of EA Canada’s recent offerings have been in terms of ‘story modes’ – especially the concluding instalment to FIFA’s The Journey included in FIFA 19 (something that was sadly omitted from the Switch version) – the latest MyCareer narrative component is enjoyable but ultimately a little hollow. It’s a slick production though, and most facial animations are impressively realistic. Idris Elba brings plenty of depth and gravitas when he’s on-screen, but much like Rosario Dawson, he’s criminally underused. For better or for worse, the story is relatively short (we wrapped it up in around four and a half hours) so reaching The Neighborhood is less of a grind than it was in 2K18.

The Neighborhood itself has also been retooled to make its layout a little easier to navigate, so there’s less need to run for miles between the training facility and the local courts. There are more side-activities and mini-games than ever, ranging from mini F1 karts all the way to ultimate frisbee. None of these are essential, but they’re a silly addition that makes the social hub more like a playground than ever. And with plans to roll out seasonal changes to The Neighborhood (similar to those featured in Call of Duty: WWII’s similar social hub), there’s hope it won’t be as barren as the one in last year’s release.

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All the other major modes return. Pro-Am is back, as expected, although it’s now bolstered by a new 3v3 mode. Its inclusion makes sense as it enables teams playing on the casual courts of The Neighborhood’s PARK to take their power trio into the more competitive ranked games of Pro-Am. Should Switch continue to foster a dedicated community, this new setup could become one of the game’s most popular features (especially off the back of this new focus on player positioning).

MyTeam – NBA 2K’s answer to EA’s Ultimate Team – is still here, and while it’s still full to the brim with microtransactions (including an actual virtual casino, because subtlety is dead) the changes to VC and player progression elsewhere have had a positive effect. MyTeam points are a little more plentiful, and it’s now possible to build a decent team from naturally unlocked packs – and play them competitively. Getting beaten unfairly by overstacked teams is also less of an issue thanks to a new Position Lock feature that stops less scrupulous players from using high stat cards out of position. It’s still an exploitable system, but one that doesn’t feel quite so lopsided.

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The franchise modes – a feature NBA 2K does better than any other sports simulator – haven’t been overhauled that much, but then again, they don’t need to be. MyGM now has leaderboards, but considering this is one of the few modes where competing with others isn’t essential, it feels like an attempt to add something new for the sake of it. Pleasingly, MyLeague Online actually works now, although with a smaller online community on Switch compared to other platforms, it’s hard to know just how stable it is just yet.

From a technical standpoint, 2K20 is gorgeous-looking game. Quite how Visual Concepts has managed to maintain reflective court floorings, realistic character models that sweat so profusely and full-on presentation packages worthy of a cable subscription is anyone’s guess. There is some screen and asset tearing here and there – we noticed a few instances where chair textures would pop in and out intermittently during a cutscene or character models would simply appear out of nowhere when the camera zoomed close enough – but with a solid 30fps in both handheld and docked mode, it’s an issue we can live with.

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Overall, NBA 2K20 on Switch is a very fine game that ranks alongside versions available on other platforms. However, there is a trade off in this handheld version: loading times are very long. Expect to be waiting for minutes at a time to load a quick game, reach The Neighborhood or load up MyTeam. It’s clearly one of the concessions that have been made to load so much detail onto Switch – and ultimately it’s bearable considering the hugely impressive results – but it can start to grate. Thankfully, there are very few delays when a game or mode is actually loaded, and we encountered very little slowdown throughout our review playthrough. Considering the Switch version is very much on par with the other versions of the game in terms of content and feature parity, it’s an understandable and arguably fair concession.

Conclusion

On the surface, NBA 2K20’s changes to its own formula might seem less substantial, but spend more than a few hours with its laser accurate recreation of modern b-ball and you’ll soon realise how refined it has become. Changes to Virtual Currency earning and progression take the edge off grinding, new additions to The Neighborhood and Pro-Am help bridge the gap between the two and a few welcome changes to MyTeam help facilitate move space for natural growth (even with the ever-present microtransactions). It’s not faultless, but those looking to play the full NBA experience on a handheld platform can do so with confidence and Visual Concept’s approach to Switch is truly laudable. Simply put, there’s no better basketball game out there.

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