NBA 2K23 review

NBA 2K23 is a dreamlike pro sports sim

NBA 2K23 screen shot
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Visual Concepts)

Tom's Guide Verdict

Bothersome microtransactions aside, NBA 2K23 delivers a nearly flawless sports sim

Pros

  • +

    Sublime throwback franchise mode

  • +

    Exquisite presentation

  • +

    Well-written career story

Cons

  • -

    Absurd microtransactions

  • -

    The City is still just an elaborate menu

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As an authentic pro basketball simulation, NBA 2K23 allows anyone to be an NBA star, using fancy dribble moves, jukes and dunks. This is possible in a variety of game modes, each one of which portrays a different aspect of the sport. These range from team play, to a personal career storyline with a custom-made player, to a fantasy mode where you can form teams from virtual collectible packs of trading cards. It’s too much at times, but in general, this NBA 2K23 review doesn't hold back on the praise.

NBA 2K23 review: Gameplay

Since its inception as NBA 2K back in 1999, this yearly series continues to make advances in simulating basketball. Authenticity in all aspects is the game's main draw. This means picking your favorite team, then replicating individual players, right down to their individual jump shot styles. Every player has ratings based on their real-life skills, which determine how well they play. These stats even account for their favorite spots on court to shoot from. 

NBA 2K23 screen shot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

NBA 2K23 uses the right analog stick as a key input. With it, you can enhance moves at the rim, change shot styles or deke out defenders. Various up-and-under layups, dunk combos and euro-steps bring added strategy on the court. These features can be imposing for series newcomers, but once you learn them, the system feels like a natural extension of an NBA star’s move set.

NBA 2K23 screen shot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

For a basic shot, NBA 2K23 uses a meter system. Begin the shot, and a meter fills up. When it's full, you release the stick for the best chance to make the basket. The closer to the peak you release the shot, the better the chance to score. NBA 2K23 offers multiple options for meters, meaning you can choose the one you find the most comfortable. Keep in mind that each shot factors in whether defenders are close, your distance from the basket, player stats and more. This can even affect animation timing, so knowing a team’s individual style factors into whether you score.

NBA 2K23 review: Modes

Franchise mode in NBA 2K23 follows the current (and future) NBA season, but it does more than that, too. The game goes all the way back to the Lakers/Celtics rivalry from the early ‘80s. Starting there — or during the Chicago Bulls’ ‘90s run, or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers period of the ‘00s — it’s possible to change history, alongside startlingly real avatars of these players. 

NBA 2K23 screen shot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

This means that every player from 40 years ago up through the present day is included in the game. You have total freedom to trade, draft and tinker with your chosen team as needed over multiple seasons. The thrill of beating that generation’s iconic teams through strategic trades or contract negotiations is sublime. Or, maybe you can draft a LeBron James, since each year’s rookies are accounted for, with the benefit of historical hindsight. It’s enough content that this mode could have been an entirely separate release on its own. Of course, starting your session in the ‘22-’23 season is still an option, too, with all the same functionality (minus the hindsight).

To augment the nostalgic player roster, NBA 2K23’s AI also plays differently. In the ‘80s era, for example, computer opponents shoot fewer three-point shots. The game becomes increasingly fast-paced as years pass. In the mid-‘90s, my personal all-time favorite and dunk champion (and NBA 2K23 color commentator) Brent Barry enters the league. The game is relentlessly authentic, no matter what time period you choose.

NBA 2K23 screen shot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

For players who don't feel nostalgic, the MyCareer story mode — where you play as a customized up and coming star — follows MP, a newly drafted rookie. MP finds himself in a rivalry with the fictional player Shep Owens, who was drafted behind MP, much to the fans' dismay. While this mode has the usual satirical quirks and humor endemic to MyCareer, NBA 2K23 tells a genuine story about the pressures that modern social media places on these young players. Heated responses to Owens’ personal barbs can earn you fans, who live for the drama. But these replies also lessen the bonds with your teammates, who see only selfishness and brand-making headlines.

MyCareer is still contained in The City, an online meeting space that the series has experimented with in the past. No matter how 2K sells this feature, it's nothing more than a pace-clogging, open-world menu system. It’s fine for players who are looking to mingle, find pick-up games or just explore. But you can't simply jump to the next story segment instead of wandering through this digital space, and that remains an issue.

There’s also the Jordan Challenge as a side mode, which is another opportunity to drop back into the cover star’s journey to earn six NBA titles. You'll play through multiple key games in Jordan’s career (beginning in North Carolina), sandwiched between gorgeously photographed interviews with various rivals. The goal is to match or better Jordan’s iconic moments, such as his 63-point playoff performance against the Celtics.

Then there's MyTeam, which is still a predatory, clumsy and irritating card collecting/team building addition. You earn points in nearly all game modes, and you can spend them to open digital packs. These packs represent the players on your team, whom you can take into competition with other user teams.

Even if you ignore it, MyTeam still influences other modes, such as MyCareer. The points you use to open packs can also increase your MyCareer stats, or buy items such as clothing for your player. Having to earn and use virtual currency stunts both modes, since the pressure is to purchase more currency using real-world dollars — and those currency packs can cost up to $99 apiece.

NBA 2K23 review: Presentation

Running at full 4K, NBA 2K23 is a stunning technical showcase, as the series has been for years. However, when the game shifts back in time, NBA 2K23 employs a convincing SD filter to mimic broadcasts of old. Fuzzy edges, bleeding colors and reduced detail help sell the '80s/'90s segments. The old-school filters are optional, but seeing Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 4K HDR feels wrong. The only mistake in this mode is the widescreen aspect ratio. 

NBA 2K23 screen shot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

There are other filters, too. The on-screen score and various production graphics mimic network airings, such as those on NBC. Mike Fratello enters the commentary booth, and although his recording quality is audibly mismatched, it's still a nice touch. Looking around the arenas (and yes, every era’s court designs are accounted for), bulky CRT monitors sit on press row instead of LCDs. Vintage video clips even introduce each city as the virtual show begins.

NBA 2K23 screenshot

(Image credit: Visual Concepts)

The planning, consideration, details and depth that went into NBA 2K23's presentation show an admirable level of commitment. 2K has created a tribute not only to Michael Jordan, but the league’s history. For longtime NBA fans, playing alongside the legends who once starred in EA’s Bulls vs Blazers, NBA Live or Konami’s NBA In the Zone is surreal. The experience feels like going back in time.

NBA 2K23 review: Verdict

For someone who grew up during the Jordan era, celebrated the Bulls' six titles, and mourned the team’s recent history, NBA 2K23 is effectively a dream game. It’s a basketball sim that doesn’t seem real, considering how difficult it must have been to license older star players. The game's presentation is also sublime.

A wonderfully told career story joins the beautiful Jordan Challenge, full WNBA roster, deep franchise mode and smooth gameplay adjustments. Even the pesky, needy MyTeam mode offers more things to do. As an unforgiving 150GB download, NBA 2K23 uses every bit of that space. That makes NBA 2K23 an enormous value, especially when compared to other sports games.