There's a moment, about six hours into wetting your feet in all that NBA 2K23 has to offer – and there is a lot of content, from climbing the ranks in the WNBA to building a monster squad in MyTeam – that you realize you're not just playing any other sports sim. What 2K Games and Visual Concepts have presented you with is an interactive museum, an anthology of the NBA's greatest players, eras, and moments to go along with its standard offerings of sports video game modernity.
NBA 2K has always been a game for basketball fans both hardcore and casual – but NBA 2K23 also caters to basketball savants, and the pair of newest additions to this year's installment pays tribute to that.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
Release date: September 9, 2022
Platform(s): Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
2K clearly have an affinity for The Last Dance docuseries as The Jordan Challenge, which returns for the first time since 2K11, is laid out like a playable version of 10-part TV spectacular. Interviews with the likes of Dennis Rodman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Phil Jackson are peppered throughout and combine beautifully with 15 playable challenges recreating some of the greatest moments of Michael Jordan's storied career.
Jump right in as the man who would become the GOAT when he is nothing but a kid playing for the North Carolina Tar Heels, trying to knock off a young Patrick Ewing leading the Georgetown Hoyas, and go all the way to his game winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals which marked MJ's final appearance as a Chicago Bull. Each challenge has three stars on offer for completing certain objectives which Jordan himself accomplished in real life (like getting 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs in 1986).
If reliving some of Jordan's iconic scenes doesn't scratch that nostalgic itch, switch over to MyEra mode and start an NBA franchise save with a twist. In a bid to spice up the tried and tested format of franchise mode, you can now select one of four eras to start in – the Magic and Bird era, the Jordan era, the Kobe era, and the modern era.
What's most pleasing about these modes is that Visual Concepts has paid careful attention to detail to each generation of basketball. This ranges from rules that weren't in place at the time, to teams that were yet to be born – and some which were yet to be defunct (Seattle Supersonics) – to the retro graphics which display the team, lineups, and score. Uniforms are accurate to the period in question, and a neat filter lends a certain grainy quality to the action – adding to the authenticity of the gameplay, and further immersing you in the experience.
In The Zone
The play itself is rock solid as we've come to expect from an NBA 2K game, and 'solid' is the operative word at times. NBA 2K23 makes you work for every defensive stop and every step-back three. Trying to rein in Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo gashing you in the paint is hellish and, at the other end, scoring from beyond the arc is anything but routine. More than ever it feels like each player has been fine-tuned to not all handle the same, which lends itself to strategic thinking when drawing up plays.
Yet the difficulty is also part of the charm. One cannot simply run the length of the court and shoot over a defender and knock down an easy bucket time and again. Nor can you just hope to get in the way of an oncoming ball handler and hope he mishandles for the turnover. The AI gets smart to your tendencies and adjusts accordingly.
It can feel punishing and a touch unfair at times. But once you begin to master your play calling, get good looks and a smattering of stardust from Curry, Booker or Doncic you can almost feel a surge coming from the controller and into your body as you find the zone and begin to roll.
Back To The Grind
Story modes in sports games have always been by the numbers. They are perfectly inoffensive, but the journey always has to center around playing the sport in some way which handcuffs the potential for storytelling. That is the case with MyCareer where you star as 'MP', a budding franchise player drafted by whichever team you wish but is not met with a warm reception as he is booed while posing for pictures with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Thus the stage is set for a story of winning over a fanbase, taking down your rival draft star, controlling the media narrative, and So. Much. Grinding. Working your way up from a 60 overall role player, desperate for a simple layup or easy assist to the point where your player is more than competent on the floor, requires a full time commitment.
Thankfully, the microtransactions which can accelerate the process but made NBA 2K22 feel pay-to-win are largely kept to the background, and there are plentiful side quests to assist with the boosting of ratings. 2K has also widened out the RPG elements with decisions to make which impact leadership traits and boosts which can be activated. There is a plethora of activities to engage with but it is a slow burner at first until you're contributing more than six points, two assists and three turnovers per game in the 10 minutes you're allowed to get off the bench.
MyCity – where you live throughout your career – looks like a sprawling metropolis of stadiums, gyms, apparel shops, high-rise apartments, and tube stations. But rarely does the city feel truly alive. It feels like a place where people just are rather than where they live, play basketball, do other leisure activities. But that may be expected of a game which is a sports sim and not a sandbox.
MyTeam can also be a grind when the loan players acquired in the early formation of your team disappear and you're forced to build the squad almost from scratch again – though there is a glut of single player and multiplayer challenges to help accumulate virtual currency (VC) and restock your team. And on that note, the microtransactions have taken a huge step back in all of the game modes. Their presence is still felt – especially when the grind builds up to such a degree that one may wonder if there is an easier way, but exchanging real money for VC is largely kept to the background and instead 2K have offered players in game activities to help boost your career stats and MyTeam squad.
Further frustrations can be found in the loading times. Sometimes I would reboot the entire game thinking it had frozen on the loading screen, other times it could take up to two minutes to load. Sometimes it would just flat out freeze – a particular irritation in MyTeam when closing the game and rebooting it would result in a loss on your record and the loan players contracts expiring. But those creases which need ironing out should not sully what is otherwise a formidable sports sim, stuffed with content that pays homage to basketball's star-studded past.
NBA 2K23 was reviewed on Xbox Series X, with a code provided by the publisher