The evolution of the NBA 2K series over the past two decades has been incredibly strange to watch. From its humble beginnings on Sega Dreamcast with Allen Iverson on the cover to dethroning EA Sports’ NBA Live, there’s been a ton of success on the virtual court while microtransaction controversy occurred off it. NBA 2K23 doesn’t break away from the more disgusting aspects that have come to be associated with the series, but the stellar on-the-court gameplay and an engrossing Jordan Challenge mode make it a great entry in the long-running series.
The biggest feature this year is the fantastic Jordan Challenge mode, a collection of 15 games from Michael Jordan’s career, which has been expanded upon since its debut in 2K11. From winning the NCAA championship with North Carolina to establishing the Chicago Bulls as a dynasty, these are some of the defining moments in basketball and ones players get to take part in. Each game is prefaced with excellent video packages featuring players and pundits discussing the significance of the game, which is a slick way to teach younger players about how great “MJ” was and further reinforce his legendary status.
The Jordan Challenge also has some replayability as there are three objectives to complete in each game, such as racking up a number of rebounds or winning by a certain spread. It’s a truly special and well-produced mode and the type of history lesson that other sports games should be looking to emulate. We might not be able to watch Jordan perform anymore, but getting to relive those moments and have that legacy live on virtually is still a thrill to behold.
Playing these games is also a great way to be reminded of just how fantastic NBA 2K23‘s gameplay is. When you’re just purely focusing on the actual on-the-court basketball, you have one of the smoothest playing sports games ever developed. Using advanced dribbling maneuvers to break your opponent’s ankles and then draining a jump shot with a perfectly-timed button press feels incredible. It’s a level of smoothness that NBA 2K games have that few sports titles can match given the decades of polish and top-notch presentation and commentary that it still continues to build on.
While the Jordan Challenge mode is a breath of fresh air, the utterly bizarre MyCareer and the grindy player collecting in the MyTeam modes leave a mixed taste that waters down what could be a genre-defining product. Watching the MyCareer mode morph from a great create-a-player mode that was sometimes paired with compelling stories to a bizarre metaverse-type hub filled with rideable skateboards (that have hilariously terrible controls) has been disheartening and this is the most dystopian one yet. There are ad-filled missions where you meet with Jake from State Farm for additional experience, ones with weird cameos from awful influencers with fake personalities like Dr Disrespect, and others with a whole lot of bloat that gets in the way of actually playing basketball, which makes sense as it wants you to spend in-game currency and then buy more like a true whale.
However, there are worthwhile alternatives away from the MyCareer mode, such as the MyNBA Eras mode, which contains four different starting points for players to experience: the ’80s of Magic versus Bird, the ’90s that Jordan reigned over, the incredible draft class of 2002 that saw LeBron James enter the league, and the current NBA. Even as a semi-lapsed basketball fan, it was a blast being able to play with legendary players that I was more familiar with and reliving (or rewriting) these moments in a fleshed-out franchise mode with all the options that players have come to expect, such as offseason moves and managing the morale of players. This is an incredible mode that significantly boosts the replayability of the game to incredible heights and, because of the history infused within it, authenticity to the eras it is imitating, and the “What if?” scenarios it allows, is simply a new high point for sports campaigns.
NBA 2K23 is certainly a game of highs and lows, although nearly none of the bummers have to do with the actual gameplay on the court. The advertisements for partners and pushes toward microtransactions are obnoxious at best and scuzzy at worst, but the actual basketball is stellar. With a fantastic career mode and the Jordan Challenge showcasing the greatest basketball player ever, there are meaningful modes that are away from those dirtier elements that let the heavily polished basketball gameplay shine.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8.5 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.