It seems like 2K’s NBA series has been eulogising the career of Michael Jordan forever at this point. I say this because the very first game in the series that I bought, NBA 2K11, features his shoeness on the cover and is themed around the aura of everyone’s favourite Chicago Bulls shooting guard from the 90s. Well, it turns out not much has changed, because NBA 2K23 is doing it again.
Despite arriving a couple of years too late to properly capitalise on the surge of interest in Jordan’s career stoked by Netflix’s The Last Dance, a true crime documentary exploring the brutal murder of the NBA title hopes of Karl Malone and John Stockton, the game mode dedicated to re-creating some of number 23’s best on-court moments is probably the first place you’ll want to head when you boot up 2K23.
Number 23 gains possession right from tip-off
In this mode, christened the Jordan Challenge, you’ll find a wonderfully curated selection of scenarios documenting the NBA great’s rise from North Carolina college phenom, to three-time champion deciding to go and play baseball, to the returning hero decimating Mormon playoff dreams. All of these career highlights, which sit in a menu where The Alan Parsons Project’s Sirius plays on repeat, are brought to you veiled in an old-school layer of presentation that’s truly as accurate as it really could hope to be, right down to making it look like you’re playing a VHS tape.
That said, while the ex-player talking heads that greet you in the loading screens before you get into each moment and a commentary team acting as though it really is 1990 do a serviceable job of providing context to what’s transpiring, there are some occasions that could have been executed a little better. Take, for instance, Jordan’s iconic shot that eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers from the 1989 playoffs. While the decision to re-create this moment using a quick time event does allow it to play out exactly as it did in real life, by only getting to play the final possession of the game, you’re robbed of having it come as the culmination of a titanic struggle between two rival teams biting and clawing to advance.
In a similar manner, the matchup against the infamous ‘bad boys’, a Detroit Pistons team known for playing a brutally physical style that certainly wouldn’t fly in today’s tightly-officiated game, feels a little vanilla. Rather than facing a wall of bodies every time you drive and having foul calls go unheard as the likes of Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas try and get Jordan off his game, you’re able to play exactly as you normally would, relying on systems that weren’t there to come to the Bulls’ aid back in 1990.
Such minor quibbles go alongside more general immersion-breaking occurrences, such as the commentary team seeming to go from saying Jordan’s having a terrible game to relentlessly singing his praises in an instant at times, to bring the Jordan Challenge, one of 2K23’s fresh selling points, down from an A+ to about an A-.
One member of the team goes missing for an entire season
Sadly, when it comes to the game’s PC version, MyNBA Eras, the other new mode that this year’s edition of the game is being sold on fares much less well. That’s because it simply isn’t present. At all. Well, technically it is, but not in the form you might expect. You see, if they fire up the first episode of 2KTV, the in-game show that’s been a feature of the series for a while now, PC players of 2K23 can watch a teaser for Eras, explaining that its central premise is to let you play out what-if scenarios from the last few decades of the league. Will you keep Kobe and Shaq together on the Lakers, stop the big three from coming together in Miami or form a super-team good enough to stop Jordan’s Bulls?
Well, on PC, the answer is simple. You can do none of that. This is the first time in all my years of gaming that I’ve been able to watch a video about a game mode in a game, but not actually play it. This was rather surreal, to say the least. I tried searching for it, wondering if it might just be hidden somewhere within the menus, but to no avail. This is because, bizarrely, during a console generation which has seen next-gen hardware be harder to come by than ever before, the PC version of NBA 2K only bears the features of the version available on Xbox One and PS4. This is nothing new and could arguably be justified in the past, but it increasingly feels like something that should be rectified as soon as possible if 2K wants to maximise its revenue.
The remaining players try to pick up the slack
The lack of next-gen console exclusive features like MyNBA Eras is particularly galling because the rest of the package offered by 2K23 in terms of game modes is as strong as ever. A long-time personal favourite mode of mine, MyLeague, is a great example of this. Existing separately to MyGM, the mode designed to provide a similar experience to Madden’s franchise mode or FIFA’s manager mode, MyLeague offers easily the most customisable experience you can have in a modern sports game without the aid of mods. As someone who often prefers being able to play God and lord over a league in a commissioner-esque role, rather than being tied down to managing one specific team, it’s still tons of fun to mess around in, even if it might be lagging behind Madden in certain areas like free agency nowadays.
As is its aforementioned sibling, MyGM, which gives you the kind of business management experience that should be used as a challenge on The Apprentice. You’ve got an owner above you, a coach, team staff and player below you and by God do they take some managing. Choosing to take charge of rebuilding a terrible Detroit Pistons team probably wasn’t the most savvy choice on my part, but I certainly didn’t expect coach Dwayne Casey to simultaneously demand that I put together a roster good enough to be in the top half of the league, beg me to fire half of his players into the sun and eventually resign about three games before the end of the season.
Surprisingly, team owner Lee Oliver was relatively easy to pacify, possibly because I made a point of picking a franchise where the owner’s personality meant I had a chance of lasting at least a season no matter how things went. The players, to be honest, scared me. One of the options given to raise the morale of them and the team staff is to spend one of your limited daily action points on a little one-on-one chat, which sounds benign enough but trust me, you’ll never be the same again. From a pancakes vs waffles debate to a lecture on carpentry and even finding out that your shooting guard has never read a book, these conversations all belong in a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book and will have you questioning whether the rigours of management are starting to warp your perception of reality.
A new star emerges, flanked by some interesting characters
If this leaves you wanting to try and work out how on Earth NBA players tick, the ever-popular MyPlayer mode should probably be your next stop. As always, this mode tasks you with building a superstar player from scratch, choosing playstyles, upgrading attributes and guiding your chosen team to glory on the court. This year’s version casts you as a mid-first-round pick who gets booed on draft night, giving you a chip on your shoulder right off the bat and a fierce rival in Shep Owens, a fellow prospect who believes he should have been drafted ahead of you. As you start your journey in the league and desperately try to get the fans to stop hating your guts, Owens looms over things like a nasty hangover, insulting you at every opportunity and generally acting so cartoonishly evil it feels like you’re in Space Jam 3.
Though, Owens isn’t my favourite character from the mode. This honour goes to Ashley, your publicist, who constantly exudes the energy of someone tired of dealing with everyone else’s problems and exhibits a level of passive aggression usually reserved for experienced secondary school teachers. If, like Ashley, you end up yearning for a break from the grind of life in the league, 2K23 also offers you a massive open-world environment filled with other players to roam around in between games. Filled with all kinds of multiplayer activities, ranging from traditional pickup games to workout facilities and even trampoline basketball, this year’s destination of choice is a cruise ship dubbed ‘The G.O.A.T Boat’, which sounds a little better than ‘The Basketboat’, I suppose.
Acting as a sort of hub world for the entire game, as you can access all of the aforementioned modes through it as well as via the traditional main menu, this ship was a constantly buzzing hive of activity. Running, walking and jogging around its expansive bowels were huge throngs of players, all dressed in a variety of different outfits and sporting a range of overall ratings. Given what the hardcore audience of any big game is like in terms of dedication, I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised to see as many people with 99 overall ratings so early into the life of the game, but, as always, I was.
The stat sheet stuffers try to pad out their numbers
This brings me to the game’s final big mode, MyTeam, the obligatory Ultimate Team-esque card collecting mode present in all sports titles nowadays and aimed squarely at those with the drive/free time to hit 99 overall less than a month after release. I’ve never been one to get too heavily into MyTeam, given the level of grinding or spending involved that inevitably gets reset to zero with every new entry in the series, but this year’s version seems fine.
For those aiming to earn the VC or packs required to assemble a great squad, there are a bunch of different minigames through which to do so, from the familiar domination to the fresh clutch time, the latter of which splices up the rules to create more fast-paced and frenetic games than usual. Unfortunately, the rewards you’ll win will still be bequeathed to you via roulette wheels and animated vaults, meaning the casino-inspired look that got 2K20 into hot water hasn’t been wholly discarded.
A well-equipped team slumps to a disappointing defeat
At the end of the day, there are parts of NBA 2K23 that I’ll spend just as many hours in as I usually do on a yearly basis. MyLeague alone will probably command at least a month's worth of daily drop-ins. That said, the decision to exclude one of this year’s game’s flagship elements from players on a major platform that’s only risen in prominence so far this decade stops me from rating the game too highly as a full package. Cutting out the 2KTV segment about MyNBA Eras in the versions of the game not lucky enough to contain it might have made the omission irk me a little less, but that option simply wasn’t taken.
As a result, NBA 2K23 on PC is a paradoxical game that purports to be channelling the spirit of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, doing so quite well at times, only to end up more accurately mirroring the puzzling and discordant energy of his sidekick Scottie Pippen’s tenure with the Houston Rockets.