NBA 2K23

NBA 2K23 by developer Visual Concepts and publisher 2K GamesMicrosoft Xbox Series X|S review written by Nick with a copy provided by the publisher.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes. 



NBA 2K23 delivers a ton of game modes, a variety of improvements to how it plays and will undoubtedly be one of the most heavily played games in my library over the next year. With Michael Jordan and the past NBA eras a heavy focus in this year’s release, there’s a great deal of love for the history of the NBA while still pushing this gaming franchise forward into the future.

For those who sometimes complain that yearly sports title releases are a quick money grab, I have to say that they usually aren’t looking closely enough. That’s not to say that every annual release is great – in fact many have had a rough time of it, but the 2K series generally gets more right than wrong, and they’ve made the transition to the new generation of consoles more effectively than any of the other sports franchises have.

We’ll begin with a look at this year’s big addition: The Jordan Challenge. When it comes to an NBA game, anything involving Michael Jordan just has a way of catching fans’ attention. Like him or hate him (I am a lifelong Detroit Pistons fan, and I loathed Jordan even as I respected how he was able to take over games in a way few could), he’s arguably the biggest name in basketball. This mode sees you take on fifteen of Jordan’s most notable games, starting with his college career as a North Carolina Tar Heel all of the way through the end of his career. It’s a fascinating approach that might introduce a younger generation to Jordan in a way they only ever saw in blurry YouTube videos, but for me it was a hit of nostalgia having grown up watching many of these games live as they occurred.

This is not the first time that we’ve seen this in the 2K franchise, but it has been several years now and this iteration of the mode adds five more games to the mix. There is a great set of presentational features at play here too, like the filters that get applied depending on the game. The first time I saw the slightly fuzzier, true-to-life look of TV from back then complete with classic broadcast graphics in the lower right corner of the screen… it just hit different. They even recaptured many of the sounds of that era with the commentators and interviews that occur during and around the game and just really took me back in time.

There’s another mode that feels related-ish, called MyNBA Eras. You’re creating a single season play with teams both past and present, and it allows you to really just create interesting scenarios that let you play around with NBA history. What if X player had played for Y team? That there’s an upload / download aspect to this fantasy mode gives it some legs with the 2K community as well. I’d love to see this expanded on in later years to create a more fantastical version of the more heavily nuanced GM / Franchise modes that already exist in the 2K series. And let me tell you – these franchise modes are deep. There’s a ton to do in there, and is compelling for people like me that love the progress and strategy of building up a team in sports games.

It's not just the men’s league getting love this year either though, as the WNBA continues to get a steadily improved offering. That league was first introduced a couple of years ago, and that structure has steadily seen more and more attention. It’s a more fundamentals-based league than athletically exciting. You’re not pulling off crazy high-flying dunks in traffic, but crisp passing and shooting are the focuses here and that’s fine by me. Player progression continues to get more nuanced and while it lacks the overall meat of the MyCareer mode, it’s still a fun diversion.

For those who don’t care for microtransactions, you may want to close your eyes from here on out, because this is where we get to what has become an expected staple of the series. It continues to be one of the most controversial aspects of sports games in general, and NBA 2K in particular. First we have the MyTeam mode, which is a sort of fantasy sports card collecting mashup that has seen some solid improvements over the last few years, but this year it looks pretty similar to last in my eyes. The premise has been unchanged for years: collect cards through packs and game rewards. Use said cards to field the best team you can. Or try to meet certain goals that earn you more cards and currency used to continue upgrading your system. It’s an effective if intentionally grindy gameplay loop, due in large part to the developer’s desire to have you purchase Virtual Currency that you can spend to buy new packs of cards.

The MyTeam mode has seen several improvements over the last few years, with Evolution cards that allow you to upgrade certain players, to shoes and badges that can be applied to players to improve their stats, to a greater variety of modes and objectives to try and keep variety up. Still, outside of the offline version of Clutch, there’s not a lot of shiny new features here this year. I prefer the offline modes to the competitive multiplayer ones that lag and cheap gameplay styles lower my enjoyment of.

Last but hardly least, we have the MyCareer mode. It seems like forever ago that 2K introduced this option, and it’s been far and away the most popular mode for most players, myself included. You create a player with a skillset from five different skill buckets: inside scoring, outside shooting, ball handling, defense and physical attributes. This freedom of creativity has always been one of my favorite aspects of the 2K games, though this will play into a grumble of mine in a few minutes. There is a storyline that you then take part of, and these have varied over the years.

While they are seldom amazing narratives, I do appreciate what goes into them and look forward to playing out the story each year. This year’s is a bit different. Most seasons you’re some sort of prodigy fighting to be the top player in the draft. You might have some high school or college games that help you hone your skills, build some stats and see where you get selected in the draft. This year’s spin is a bit different as your player is seen as a high floor / lower ceiling type of recruit that gets drafted by the team you choose and… everyone seems to hate you. Why? Because there was a flashier player on the board with an exciting skillset but questionable maturity that most fans of your team wanted more, setting up a great rivalry with that player and a bit of a ‘prove it’ arc with the fan base.

Fashion and music were both introduced in prior games as major factors in your player’s development, and I appreciate that the related mechanics are still here, if slightly tweaked, but less in-my-face than it was last season. The sprawling city on the newer generation console has plenty to do, with a wide open world that encourages some exploration and has a very World of Warcraft-like quest system where most of the NPC’s wandering about are just flavor for the city. But those with icons over their heads can be interacted with for a wide variety of quests that yield rewards from currency, clothing and more.

Progression loop is again key here, because you earn the Virtual Currency I mentioned earlier, but it is a bit of a grind. Which again plays into the microtransaction aspect of the game. You spend this on your attribute points, which start cheap but increase in price as your stats go up. Also what you do on the court matters as it plays into a new leadership system that can grant you and your teammates additional temporary bonuses once in-game conditions are met. And they are holding your opponent to under six points for two minutes, or grabbing four consecutive rebounds without a turnover. The badge system is less flexible than years past, forcing badges into three tiers. Tier 1 badges are the cheapest and easiest to meet the requirements for, and those requirements escalate through the next two tiers. I am a big fan of the leadership mechanic, not as sure yet about the badge one. I know it’s meant to provide greater balance as some of the badges are simply more useful than others, but this feels like it grinds everything down to an even slower pace.

This mode is then interwoven with some online modes where you can play against other players in park or special event games. There is a ton to do here, and I can safely say I spent more time on NBA 2K22’s MyCareer mode than any other video game last year, and I suspect that will be the case again this year as well. It’s addicting and it’s a fun way to interact with my other friends who play NBA 2K23. Other sports have tried to copy this recipe with varying degrees of success. With basketball having the least number of players required to play a game, you can really offer a lot of matchup possibilities. You can’t play 1-on-1 baseball, hockey or football in any meaningful way, so MyCareer just seems to work better with the NBA than anything else.

Unfortunately, this mode also is where some of my bigger concerns come into play. Connectivity is always rough around launch, and that’s the case here again this year. It feels like the demands on the fast internet speeds grow every season, even with some of the single player modes. The game is constantly checking in with the game servers, which can lead to midsession disconnect. It can also lead to some things acting weirdly. There was an instance where I had played a game and gone to Brickley’s gym to level up a badge and earned a bunch of leadership points. The game then suddenly disconnected me and when I went back in, it registered that I had played the game and done the Brickley drills, but my points for both were just gone – like they had saved that I completed them but not the stats themselves to my character. A quick search online showed numerous Reddit posts about this issue.

Another Reddit search showed a lot of traffic on the topic of a particularly badly designed quest in the MyCareer mode. Earlier I mentioned that you can craft a player in a variety of ways – but there’s no single perfect build. In order to be really great at one thing, you tend to be deficient in other areas. While I tend to create two or three different builds each season, my favorite has long been what’s often described as a ‘Shaq Build’. Give me a big, bruising, backdown player with a focus on close scoring and some specific defensive and athletic stats and ignore shooting and ballhandling. By no means the most popular build, but a legitimate one based on a Hall of Fame player. This build sacrifices shooting. That seems fine since during the game, I have little interest in free throws or three pointers with this character.

I am used to some of the daily or weekly quest objectives being something unattainable to a build. Your Shaq Build is not going to get you ten three pointers. Your tiny ballhandling point guard is not going to nab you double digit rebounds. That is just the nature of the game. However, someone got the bright idea this season to gate a major storyline goal behind a game of shooting accuracy. In order to continue a major story point, you have to knock down five consecutive free throws. Then if you do that, you need to win a game of ‘free throw golf’ which again, requires good shooting. Last but not least if you beat both of those, you then have to play a game of HORSE, which obviously favors shooting it outside of five feet.

Seriously, whoever decided that was a good idea should probably be in a different line of work that involves torturing people. It took me forty minutes to hit those five free throws. It took almost another forty to win the game of disc golf. I gave up on HORSE and then later read online that those few players with builds like mine who did progress were able to cheese the system with hook shots, many of them reporting that they spent three-plus hours trying to get past this one simple quest. Oh, and if any point you fail to win one of those three stages, you start all over again. I hate to harp on a single thing in a game, and it is clear that some people have managed to get through it, but why in the world someone would put in a required quest that only caters to a specific type of player to advance? Terrible, terrible game design and I hope that quest gets patched or updated in some way down the road. Those kinds of inflexible quests make absolutely no sense in a game that encourages you to try different builds. Have a quest that optionally focuses on rebounding or assists or something, but the way this was set up was truly annoying. I will create another character, and I will get past it with that character, but I feel as though I’ve lost over a dozen of hours of gameplay due to what many people in the 2K community agree is terrible game design.

It is a shame to have to spend so much space on a handful of concerns, because the NBA 2K23 package is an excellent one overall. Beyond those modes and presentation values I discussed earlier, the game itself plays better than ever. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting pretty close. Basketball is kind of a crazy sport to replicate. Player models are not as obscured as in sports like the NFL or NHL. They collide with one another (often mid-air) in ways you don’t see in baseball. There is footwork, jostling, bodies banging up against one another – the only other sport that immediately comes to mind as comparable is soccer, and even that lacks the vertical element of the NBA game. It’s easy to learn the controls and start playing, but there is enough nuance in the mechanics to quickly separate a seasoned player from a rookie.

This review is focused on the latest generation of consoles, but NBA 2K23 lives on in the last generation as well, and the publisher provided me with a chance to play that as well. I have not spent as much time with it as the Xbox Series X version, but the Xbox One version of the game is still fun to play. It’s a narrower experience, with a more streamlined approach – likely largely due to hardware limitations and not wanting to invest a ton of development time into a system that is probably going to be mothballed in the near future.

The result is a game that plays very similarly to the last year or two. The gameplay and character models are good, but nothing has much changed from last year’s release. Instead of a sprawling city, you’re on a ship (like last year) with a much narrower focus, broken up into sections as opposed to being one large, living entity. There are still quests to find, but they are more streamlined and many of them simply spoon-fed into your character or without a lot of travel. Story scenes just play out, versus the Series X version where most of the time, you have to complete a specific goal and go to a predetermined location to trigger them. It works for what the limitations are, and it’s still a good time, if nowhere near as impressive technically and doesn't factor into my score below. I just wanted to share a few words about that version.

Summary

NBA 2K23 gets so many things right, that I hate that there are a handful of small and one (at least to me) large issue that tarnish an otherwise fantastic package. I will move past those issues, and still continue to play the game heavily however, which is an indication of how good I think it is overall.

Hopefully those other wrinkles get ironed out and NBA 2K23 can fully realize its potential, because it is hands-down the best sports game on the market and one that I know I’ll sink dozens (if not hundreds) of hours into over the next year.

Score 8.25 / 10


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