I have been playing the NBA 2K games pretty much every year since NBA 2K7. It’s been a mixed bag. Not much and everything has changed. Much like the iPhone, these kinds of annual sports games have improvements in waves. Last year the look, engine and MyCareer was overhauled, mostly in ways I don’t appreciate. In this year’s NBA 2K23, the developers have tightened that up, fixed some gameplay issues and brought back a classic mode.
The Jordan Challenge
I’m old enough to remember the first time The Jordan Challenge was introduced in NBA 2K11, so it felt a bit like déjà vu. But, as I’ve said before, everything is always remastered in your memories, and The Jordan Challenge plays just how I remember it, which is to say about 5 times better than it actually was. I do wish we could have experienced a different kind of challenge, gone into a different player’s career, because Jordan feels a bit played out. There have been other incredible players. Sure, none that have the branding and mythologising to the same level as Jordan, but players whose careers and paths are worth exploring.
However, just because I’ve had the pleasure of playing this game for a bajillion years doesn’t mean everyone has, and after Save The Last Dance was the doco of 2021, it makes sense to bring back The Jordan Challenge.
The mode takes you to some of the iconic games of Jordan’s career, with graphics and TV presentations to match (but always with the same commentary team, which does break the illusion somewhat). Your challenge is to get Jordan to the same stats (or better) that the actual man achieved in the real game. It really brings home the skill of a player who has been more myth than man, with the focus obviously being on how good he was as a single player, and not properly looking at how, by all accounts, he was an atrocious teammate.
It’s interesting to go back to these historic basketball moments, even if it is frustrating to control the whole team, and not just the player you need two more rebounds with to get all three stars. If you’re controlling the wrong player when you get the rebound, you don’t get the point. If I were the one remastering this, I would have made it so you just played as Jordan, rather than the whole team, which would make more sense. This is probably an argument I made back in 2010, too.
Still, the interviews with real people between each challenge provide interesting insight into a player most young fans will know best for his shoes, and don’t remember the sheer Bulls hype of the early 90s.
NBA 2K23 MyCareer
Most years, MyCareer is the main mode I play, sinking a couple of hours a week into it. But with each passing year, 2K’s desire to bleed the player dry through microtransactions after they’ve already dropped $100+ on the premium, AAA title that’s barely changed from last year, makes that a less appealing challenge.
NBA 2K is a premium game, which charges a premium price. You shouldn’t have to decide whether to pay real money or grind unhappily for one million years to make the core career mode fun. VC needs to be earned at a faster rate, so it becomes a matter of people choosing to pay to skip reasonable progression, not paying to skip progression at a glacial pace designed to make you spend more money. A game should be premium or freemium, not both.
On top of that, the career mode has also become less and less about playing NBA basketball and more about branding opportunities in an unnecessary open world.
To start with the good, I like that you can now choose your team. Somehow, in years where you can’t choose your team, I always end up drafted to the 76ers and spend the next 60 games trying to get traded to the Clippers. This year I could start with the Clippers, which was great.
There are plenty of gameplay improvements across the whole game, too. The animations have more weight, and after last year’s improvements to defence, this year was all about building up offence. Sure, the game has now been heavily weighted towards bigs, and it’s almost comically easy to land a 3-point-shot. But I like getting easy 3-pointers and I don’t play multiplayer (mostly because there usually isn’t anyone available to play with when I go to The Theatre), so it’s fine.
The story also seems interesting. I like the characters, and the rivalry with Shep (who is an amalgamation of the least attractive qualities of young, cocky athletes and the worst influencer you’ve ever seen) has promise.
The problem is that I can’t force myself to suffer through The City any time I want to progress. If you haven’t played NBA 2K for a couple of years, The City is basically the answer to the question “what if a menu was an open world you had to move slowly through?”
Developer Vicarious Visions has included fast travel subway stations this year, but it still can’t compete with the ease and speed of a traditional menu. Maybe have the city as an option for people who want to spend 5-10 minutes going from one thing to the next to waste time, so they can pass more billboards and be tempted to spend VC on haircuts and animations or whatever. But let those of us who just want to play basketball and maybe do workouts in the gym for boosts between cutscenes, actually play the game instead of wandering around a glorified menu.
My leisure time is limited, and I would like NBA 2K23 to respect that, and just let me play the game.
The W improved for NBA 2K23 (a bit)
Of course, when reviewing a game as sprawling as NBA 2K23, you have to pick a mode to focus on, and the mode I keep coming back to is The W.
The W’s career mode isn’t that different to what it was last year, which is to say it isn’t that different to what the career mode of NBA 2K10 was, before VC was an issue.
Yes, The W still feels more like an afterthought than an actual game mode, there is no real story in the career mode, there are no animated cutscenes, very few of the players actually have their signature play styles, and there’s very minimal customisation of your MyPlayer stats.
But there’s no city, no VC spend required, and instead of working out at some ridiculous Gatorade sponsorship opportunity, you get boosts by playing 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and 3-on-3 games with the greats of the sport. The W also benefits from all the gameplay improvements of the men’s game, making the basketball feel more natural (even if it still doesn’t quite feel like a WNBA game, but instead an NBA game with shorter players).
What I’m saying is that The W is the game mode for people who just love basketball, and come to the basketball game to play basketball. It’s glorious. The best part of the game. The thing that makes NBA 2K23 worth the price of admission.
In the same way that I fell in love with the LA Clippers in NBA 2K7, I have finally settled on the Seattle Storm as my WNBA team, even if their jersey is hideous. I’m learning about these players and franchises through the commentary. In The W, basketball and NBA 2K feels exciting again.
I’m torn between wanting The W to get more developer attention to make it less of an afterthought token gesture towards remembering women exist, and wanting it to stay unruined by the greed that consumes the rest of the game.
I want a full story that takes my player from college as she goes through the trials of dating a girl on the soccer team and getting drafted to teams based on opposite ends of the country. I want the excitement of draft night. I want WNBA players to voice their cutscenes mentoring this new player. I want to see the camaraderie in the locker room. I want all the excitement, highs, lows, and bad writing the men’s career mode gets, but without the ridiculous micro-transactions.
Because, while I am loving the pure basketball experience, I am missing a little bit of the excitement that surrounds it.
But, with these improvements to offensive play, the beautifully stripped back experience of The W has finally gotten me to come back to including an NBA 2K game in my weekly “play for fun” rotation, and it feels so good to be home.
So, is NBA 2K23 worth it?
That is a big question, and depends entirely on what you want from an NBA 2K game. For me, I would say absolutely. I really love The W, as well as the inclusion of classic and greatest teams, because I finally have my Jump City Clippers back in quick play.
If you’re just coming to play the men’s MyCareer mode, and already own next-gen (now current-gen, but then next-gen) 2K21 or 2K22, and were frustrated by The City then I’m not sure NBA 2K23 adds much to the experience. However, if you liked The City and just wished there were a couple more fast-travel opportunities, then it’ll be ok.
This is only a minor iteration on last year’s game, and much like phones, you don’t need the new one every year. But if you do pick up NBA 2K23, I strongly encourage you to invest some time in The W mode, even if you’re not already a WNBA fan. As this week’s FIBA women’s basketball world cup has shown, women’s basketball is thrilling, and the more time players spend in The W, the more attention it’ll get from the developers (but hopefully not so much they ruin it).