NBA 2K23 review: A basketball fan’s (expensive) dream

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NBA 2K23 developer Visual Concepts delivers a slam dunk of a basketball sim for both newcomers and dedicated NBA fans, even if some of the game’s key features are still locked behind an egregious paywall.

Being a fan of sports games is often more frustrating than fun. Each year, just before each game’s release, fans everywhere, including myself, must perform a Jedi-mind trick on ourselves in order to believe that this is the year Madden, NHL, or FIFA will turn it around and deliver an actual quality entry into the franchises that have desperately needed it for so long.

In a sports gaming landscape that is dominated by games that simply do not justify their existence beyond a $70 roster update, NBA 2K stands alone among them as the one series that doesn’t make it a habit of disappointing its player base like groundhog day.

With NBA 2K23, developers Visuals Concepts go above and beyond to deliver a truly great game that has something for everybody, both old and new.

NBA 2K23 key details

Developer: Visual ConceptsPrice: $59.99/$69.99Release Date: September 9, 2022Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, Steam

Smooth jazz

No matter how much Visual Concepts tinker and update NBA 2K’s various game modes, gameplay will always be king. With NBA 2K23, the devs have done a great job balancing fun with delivering a realistic basketball experience, even if it still needs some tinkering.

The biggest alteration with this year’s installment is the new adrenaline boosts each player now has along with their stamina bar. Each player has three adrenaline boosts that fuel actions on the court like attempting a steal, crossing up a defender, or jumping for a rebound. This addition was made in order to limit players’ ability to dribble around with the ball infinitely and pump fake under the hoop dozens of times to guarantee a free basket. 

While this change certainly is a welcome addition, it’s hard to see why the devs made each player across the board have three adrenaline boosts, as it balances the playing field too much. Why would LeBron James have the same amount of boosts as a bench player on the Kings? It’s hard to understand why every player in the game would have the same amount of adrenaline.

Beyond that, moment-to-moment gameplay feels much more fluid than in years past. NBA 2K23 sports a handful of new contact layups and shooting animations that make driving to the hoop more exciting, even for lesser-skilled players. More dynamic players now have additional animations when shooting with the left stick, letting the creativity of basketball shine through more than ever before.

Jump shots have been completely reworked, and gone are the generic animations of the past. Now, jump shots have ratings of their own with release height, release speed, defensive immunity, and timing impact, which give real value to the more coveted jumpers like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. For MyPlayer, each jump shot is locked behind height and rating requirements, meaning no random seven-footer can pull a Curry jumper out of their pocket.

Improvements to AI mean the computer now doubles your best player more often, and makes more mid-game adjustments depending on the state of the game. After playing most of my time offline for this review, it feels like the subtle changes to how AI plays the game makes playing offline way more enjoyable than in years past.

MyNBA Eras shines

Every NBA 2K player has one mode they delve countless hours into, and that one mode for me is MyNBA. As a complete sports geek and stats nerd, I’ve long been obsessed with taking over the reins of each team, making all the decisions for the team, and playing out the games for them. And, as a Knicks fan, it’s liberating to give owner James Dolan the boot. 

In this year’s installment, Visual Concepts have delivered a love letter to longtime NBA fans with the new MyNBA Eras. The mode introduces four different starting points in the past players can choose from The Magic vs. Bird era, The Jordan era, The Kobe era, and The Modern era. Each Era starts from an important moment in basketball history and transports players to that exact moment to take over a franchise of their will.

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NBA 2K23 with the vintage filter on.

Eras deliver completely realistic retro NBA courts and commentary, along with vintage logos and uniforms. There’s even a filter that slightly blurs gameplay to resemble older broadcasts, which can be turned on and off. Rosters have been accurately reconstructed along with player salaries. The gameplay also turns back the clock, as 80’s basketball was dominated by big men with their back to the hoop, and three-pointers were a rarity. The pace of the game slows down, which’s a welcome change of pace from the modern game that is played at lightning speed in transition.

Each Eras playthrough begins by showing notable changes that place in that time period. In the Magic vs. Bird Era, the San Diego Clippers moved to Los Angeles, the Kansas City Kings moved to Sacramento. Over time, players can veto these kinds of changes to see what the league would be like, and playing God of the NBA proves to be unbelievably addicting.

I took over the now-defunct Seattle Supersonics during the Magic vs Bird time period and played out the 1983 season to middling results. I simulated ahead to the 1984 NBA Draft, potentially the most loaded in history with Michael Jordan, Akeem Olajuwon (sans the ‘H’), Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. Then, I shipped off all my picks to grab Jordan first, then dumped All-Star big man Jack Sikma and more players for Olajuwon with the second pick. 

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NBA 2K23’s MyNBA Eras mode allows for all sorts of crazy scenarios to play out.

Eras was implemented to MyNBA to answer basketball’s biggest what-ifs from history, and it delivers in every sense. I haven’t stopped playing Eras since the game launched, and I certainly won’t be stopping any time soon.

Jordan Challenges return

To celebrate the 23rd year of the century, NBA 2K23 celebrates Michael Jordan’s storied career and brings back the beloved Jordan Challenges mode which debuted back in NBA 2K11. Playing through 15 huge moments from Jordan’s career is engrossing and fun, even if it’s mostly the same as it was when it originally was released. 

For new basketball fans, it serves as a fantastic history lesson for MJ’s biggest accomplishments, starting with winning the NCAA Championship game for North Carolina in 1982 all the way to hitting the game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. For basketball junkies, it’s a great trip down memory lane playing through each moment and appreciating the attention to detail. 

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Michael Jordan’s most iconic moments are recreated in NBA 2K23.

The challenges involved with each mode aren’t a cakewalk either, as grabbing tons of rebounds and scoring a bunch while piloting Jordan is harder than it may seem, and is a testament to how unbelievably skilled he truly was.

The cash grab continues

For many, NBA 2K is played mostly to discover the best MyPlayer build and take it online and compete in ProAMs, pick up games, and more. While that experience is here once again, it continues to be paywalled. Progressing your MyPlayer by collecting VC via playing games goes at a snail’s pace, completely trumped by simply buying VC and boosting your player up to a higher rating. 

It would take an absolutely absurd amount of time to play your way into all the VC you need to get your player to their maximum rating. Paying the full retail price for a game shouldn’t lock you out of any mode the game offers.

The same goes for the MyTeam mode, which returns in identical form to the previous year. MyTeam is 2K’s version of Ultimate Team and plays exactly the same way: Play your way into a mediocre team, only to mostly get crushed under the weight of other players who put their credit cards down. 

MyCareer feat. J. Cole

MyCareer returns, this year completely revamped with a story mode centered around befriending star rapper J. Cole. The story mode involved is much more tolerable than its sports game counterparts, as the writing and voice acting actually had me engaged with my player’s backstory and relationships.

Considering every other sports game has me instantly skipping through cutscenes, and I opted to not do that in NBA 2K23, I’d say that’s a major success, albeit not necessarily a highlight of the game as a whole for me.

Verdict: 8.5/10

NBA 2K23 is worth the price of admission almost entirely because of how good the new MyNBA Eras mode is. What makes NBA 2K23 the best installment in years is the well-needed gameplay changes, as well as the return of the enthralling Jordan Challenge mode. Sadly, 2K keeps much of the fun locked behind an expensive paywall that simply cannot be justified.

Reviewed on PlayStation 5.

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