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December 2023

NBA 2K23

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Sports
Publisher: 2K Sports
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'NBA 2K23'

by Redmond Carolipio on Sept. 30, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Answer the call to greatness in NBA 2K23, where respect must be earned.

Buy NBA 2K23

If you're interested in NBA 2K23 at all, you probably love basketball … but do you love it this much?

To experience this latest form of 2K basketball is to be baptized into its vision of hoops culture, which dances among the historic, the modern and the completely ridiculous. On one end of this hardwood fantasy, you can relive the iconic moments in the Jordans of … well, Michael Jordan, known by generations as the greatest basketball player of all time. On the other end, you can create a player from near-scratch (a science in itself) and engage in a wild professional odyssey that squeezes making music with J. Cole and aiding a struggling fashion designer into a longform quest to win over a legion of fans who loathe your player's very existence on their beloved team.

I spent most of my time with 2K23 in its MyCareer mode, which is thicker than in previous installments. For those who aren't familiar, MyCareer is the game's equivalent of a single-player RPG campaign. You begin with the aforementioned creation of your upgradeable, customizable player and guide him through a narrative rife with quests and tasks en route to on-court excellence. In the past few seasons, I found the stories behind your player become increasingly more weighty and cinematic, if not occasionally stranger. Two seasons ago, your player's arc bent around the memory and legacy of his late hoop-legend father. Last season, players took a social media star on a quest for a trifecta of success in the NBA, the world of music, and fashion.

However, I probably had the hardest time fully leaning into the backstory behind my avatar in 2K23, even though there's a lot more dialogue, more quests and a much longer path to some kind of satisfying end. This season's campaign features, somewhat tiresomely, yet another underdog beginning. Your player gets drafted and immediately gets showered with boos, as a more popular baller named Shep Owens was still on the board and was the fans' preferred choice. Cinema screens feature fans bellowing their displeasure in the streets, and actual NBA talking heads (J.J. Redick and Kendrick Perkins) debating the merits of the pick, with Perkins playing the role of hater/devil's advocate.

The reason I had a hard time buying this is because your created player and Shep Owens are the 18th and 19th picks, respectively, in the NBA Draft. I've been an NBA fan for most of my life, and I can't remember any time in my fandom where this much discussion and vitriol happened around a player or players in that draft position. If these guys were in the top five? Sure. I remember Kristaps Porzingis being booed as the fourth overall pick by the Knicks in 2015. If these dudes were lottery picks (meaning chosen within the top 14), I could also buy some of the reaction. But after that? People generally care a lot less. Just for the hell of it, check out these lists of players historically picked in 18th and 19th spots in the draft. There are some pretty good players in those lists, but with all due respect, I didn't see anyone wailing and gnashing teeth over these guys. Yet, in the world of 2K23, the fans act like their squad passed up on a chance to draft Jesus with a jumper. It didn't feel right.

It's also strange that a game so in-tune with the fluid essence of hoops could be so rigid and specific in its storytelling. No matter your actual playing skill or attribute level, the game sticks to the narrative mantra that your player is an under-athletic three-year college star who should feel blessed to even be drafted in the first round, while the antagonistic baller/influencer Shep Owens — the 19th pick, mind you — is spoken of with the kind reverence and hype reserved for the likes of LeBron or Kevin Durant. This sticks with you for the whole main quest, even if your player build carries the attributes of Kobe, averages 31-6-6 per game as a rookie, and turns Owens into ashes on the court. Everyone says you suck, the general manager wants to trade you at some point, and that's that, until you engage in a gauntlet of missions to win the city's love. A therapist might dig this mode.

However, I moved past it and appreciate the amount of work to create a hoops fantasy world and missions full of characters and cameos from real NBA players and personalities. My player's personal journey wrapped up in classic fashion: by defeating Owens and his small squad of NBA legends in a streetball tournament. I had help from Tyler Herro of the Miami Heat and Hall-of-Famer Tracy McGrady. I got some personalized shoes from Devin Booker. Kevin Garnett told me to "be a dragon." I helped a hot dog vendor start up his brick-and-mortar location. I starred in a commercial for a local coffee chain trying to go national. And I also got to come out of the tunnel every game. That may sound trivial, but emerging from the tunnel into the light of an arena packed with fans is a beautiful experience, and it's a constant reminder of how 2K mostly nails the on-court product year after year.

Through the MyCareer lens, I noticed a wealth of new animations taking hold on the court, especially when it came to how players can attack the basket. There's a wider variety of layups and creative finishes. This is also apparent when playing in the paint, where contact is constant and adjustments are made to score. This is especially relevant when you consider the two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic) as a couple of the guys trailing him in the MVP voting (Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounpo) do a lot of their work inside. NBA 2K23 remains the gold standard for the representation of hoops, and there's a sense of constant tinkering and refining that, hit or miss, at least keeps players honest as they learn new tweaks, such as full control on rim-hanging dunks or the way skill badges are distributed (a tier-based system that I'm not excited about).

Another gameplay curveball involves the stamina meter; under the regular turbo meter, there's a set of three smaller lines. These represent "adrenaline," and they depleted every time I took a short burst or sprint to the hoop after a dribble move. This took some time to get used to, as this makes one be more efficient with the moves they want to use and when. I imagine this is supposed to address the flow of the game by taxing players who screw around with dribble moves too much. I typically don't like to waste time anyway, but others glean a lot of fun trying to cross people over … and this seems like punishment.

I did, however, enjoy the nod to the basketball geek world through its player build creation system. Players have loved making and tweaking builds in 2K for the sake of either creating themselves, the perfectly styled hooper or even a hallowed hooper from the past. These builds get designations like "2-way player" or "shot creator."

This season, we have Easter egg builds, where if one tweaks the attributes just right, they can unlock a build of an actual NBA legend. There are two Michael Jordan builds called "His Airness" — one reflecting the high-flying rookie Jordan and another emulating Jordan at his cerebral apex. There are Kobe builds called "Mamba." There are builds for Allen Iverson (The Answer), Vince Carter (Half Man, Half Amazing), Tim Duncan (The Big Fundamental) and at least two dozen others. These are very cool to discover and take for a spin on the court. My issue is that some of the builds don't really make sense. For instance, the rookie Jordan "His Airness" build can't shoot to save his life. Not even a little. I'm part of a generation that watched MJ, and he could shoot better than a 68 mid-range coming out of school. His earliest big highlight was a jumper to clinch the national championship. Vince Carter shot close to 76-80 percent from the foul line in Toronto, yet his replica build carries a sorry 71 foul-shooting attribute. Sure, you can make that work, but why should you have to?

A welcome nod to history is the return of the Jordan Challenge from earlier editions, where players can replay and relive key moments of MJ's career. This time, however, 2K went the extra mile and got interviews from various people to support the career highlight you're about to replay. Also, in a brilliant turn of aesthetics, some of the memories and games carry the graphical atmosphere from the time period they represent. For example, if you're playing the memory of Jordan's game against Georgetown for the college title, prepare for an '80s-style TV presentation and fuzzy standard-def grain in your picture. I found it to be a wonderful and challenging distraction that stirred up some great memories of growing up.

I should also pay some proper respect to the game's evolving WNBA mode, which carries its own atmosphere from commentary to the cerebral, below-the-rim style of play that manages to evoke a frenetic pace with all the ball movement. However, I think it's time for a more fleshed-out, single-player campaign comparable to the one the guys get. Creating and guiding the next Jonquel Jones, Kelsey Plum or Sue Bird through a deep quest of her own could offer a wealth of narrative options.

I would recommend NBA 2K23 for its sheer breadth of material and the fact that it really tries to be a basketball universe unto itself (hence the massive file size). It's certainly not perfect, as I still keep running into odd glitches now and then, and even some strange things that carry over from the last game (Do I really have to keep walking through the Dallas Mavericks shootaround to get to my guys? Why is that still a thing?), but it is and shall likely always be the sports game I play almost every day, no matter what time of year it actually is — even when the fans tell me I stink.

Score: 7.8/10

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