Just minutes into my first game in NBA 2K23, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in my hundreds (if not thousands) of hours across the NBA 2K franchise: the ball bounced on both sides of the rim, popped out, and both teams spent the next five seconds battling for a loose ball. In my second or third game, I was given a foul for hanging on the rim too long – an error I made while messing with the new dunk controls. On their own, these obviously don’t mean a whole lot; taken together, though, they begin to paint a picture of NBA 2K23‘s focus on detail. There is a love for the game of basketball that is evident by these subtle flourishes, which makes it all the more lamentable that it’s mired with a lot of the usual problems reviews have complained about for many years now. Microtransactions still lie in wait around every corner, and the AI, while admittedly improved, still doesn’t quite emulate the human elegance that is so important to the look and feel of a basketball game. As a result, my early impressions aren’t as enthusiastic as I’d have liked – it’s very much as if 2K has bounced the ball off the back of the rim instead of scoring what should’ve been an easy basket.
My first dozen or so hours with NBA 2K23 (played on Xbox Series X) have largely been spent exploring the on-court experience. And while it’s early, I feel like I can affirm that the fundamental basketball gameplay is better than it has ever been. Everything feels like it has an abundance of weight, from the players on the court to the ball bouncing around the rim and wood floor. As a result, I found spacing to be a lot better too – there were fewer instances of animation warping, where players would glitch from one spot to the next (though it does still happen occasionally) and it no longer feels like players are able to instantly change directions. Everything just feels a little slower than in the more hyperactive NBA 2K22, which mostly works to NBA 2K23’s benefit.
Speaking of slowing the pace down, NBA 2K23 adds a new feature called adrenaline boosts that are meant to limit over-dribbling and makes aggressive play a limited resource. Every time you make a quick cut or an attempt to drive toward the rim, you use up one of that player’s three adrenaline boosts; when they’re gone your ball-handler immediately loses a lot of speed. I can understand the impact this will have in online play (which I haven’t tested yet) in curtailing players who like to frantically move all over the court, but offline it feels needlessly gimmicky and not tailored to individual players. Why would a star point guard like Steph Curry have the same amount of adrenaline boosts as a slower, heavier center like Nikola Jokic? Considering that NBA 2K23 is filled with nuanced features, the adrenaline boost sticks out like a sore thumb.
Compare that with one of my favorites among those nuanced features: the new unique jump-shot ratings. I spent an hour or so in practice mode just taking jumpers from around the court with various players, and the difference in release time between elite scorers like James Harden and clunky bigs such as Steven Adams is visually noticeable and seems to have a marked impact on the court. The inclusion of more intangible ratings like “defensive immunity” help players like Luka Doncic have an elite shot release without having a quick trigger. Hopefully this will help balance the kinds of signature jump shots I see in MyPlayer mode – those have always felt too uniform in the past.
Not that it should come as a surprise to anybody who’s played NBA 2K in the past decade, but just about everything involving MyPlayer comes with a cost. As always, virtual currency can be earned painfully slowly over time, so the quickest and easiest way to level up your custom player’s skills, looks, and animations is to buy them via microtransactions. At a quick glance, it seems like it would take well over $ 100 to max out my character’s stats – and that’s before I included things like new gear or animations, such as emotes you can use in The City, NBA 2K23’s open-world hub for everything involving MyPlayer. To state the obvious, this gives people who pay an inherent advantage; especially during the early days and weeks after launch it’s literally impossible for someone who isn’t paying for stat boosts to keep the playing field level with someone who does because not enough hours have elapsed to earn that much by playing. Later on it will become merely impractical for anyone who isn’t playing for hours every day. Once again, it’s a discouraging aspect of NBA 2K’s online experience.
I’ve also noticed a handful of significant changes that I’ll need to sink in more time with before I can get my head around how I feel about them. For instance, Visual Concepts, the developers behind NBA 2K23, promised big changes to the way the AI adapts in the middle of games – so far, I’ve found this to be at least partially true. The CPU ball-handlers definitely attack with a little more strategy than before, and I’ve had a harder time stopping elite players (particularly strong ball-handlers) than I had in the past. I also found that, after throwing the pick-and-roll at the AI for a handful of possessions in a row, they started using help defense to cover it. If these adaptations hold up under more scrutiny, it would be a huge positive change for this series when it comes to playing solo.
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At the same time, I’ve noticed several legacy issues that still seem present. The AI still really struggles with time management, often waiting until the last second before frantically throwing up a covered shot. I also get really bothered every time a pass whips right past a defender without them making any effort to stop the ball. In general, passing has needed an overhaul for a while now, and it didn’t get one in NBA 2K23.
One last thing I’ve made a note to dive into more before the official review is the Jordan Challenge included in NBA 2K23. This is one of the best love-letters to the game of basketball I’ve ever seen. If you’re a basketball history geek like I am, some of the subtleties like the fuzzy 1980s retro filter are nostalgic heaven. Getting to relive some of basketball’s most iconic battles, especially with this level of attention to sports storytelling, is surely going to be one of the modes I spend the most time with this year.
NBA 2K23 – Jordan Challenge screenshots
While I certainly need more time to make a proper assessment (check back after the weekend for the full review), I find myself enjoying most of the changes that’ve been made. I don’t think, however, that any level of improvement to the on-court game can make up for the depressing fact that NBA 2K23 is so thoroughly riddled with microtransactions that favor those willing to drop double or triple the cash to get an advantage . So for now, as I said at the beginning, my initial reactions are severely hamstrung by off-court aggravations.