Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
A new year, a new sports game. Last year was a strange year for the world, and it was reflected in both the sporting and video game world. The good news is, just like in sports, every new year brings new hope and promise. By and large, NBA 2K22 capitalizes on that, delivering a robust, entertaining brand of basketball that may well be my favorite in the series over the last few years.
As I mentioned, 2021 was an odd year, and it hurt the NBA 2K21 franchise. Development teams were still trying to cope with the pandemic, three was a new generation of consoles coming out, and that led to a weird end result. NBA 2K21 on the prior generation of consoles felt underwhelming, and the comparatively later release of the game on the new generation of consoles combined with the weird real life schedule of the NBA season just made for a strange, jarring overall experience.
Let’s start with the overall framework of this year’s game. We are reviewing this for the PlayStation 5, and the hardware improvements feel better than ever. Games and scenes load with far more snap than the last generation, and while the 2K games have always had excellent presentations, the visuals in this year’s game continue to impress. The face scans are always just a little hit and miss as there are a ton of players to try and get right, but by and large they are plenty good, with players immediately recognizable. As a sport that doesn’t use helmets or face masks of any kind, and a lower number of players on the court when compared to other sports, that individuality is key to the visuals and NBA 2K22 gets it right the majority of the time.
Sure, there are still some odd collisions and moments out there with the graphics, but there are far more impressive ‘wow’ moments too. I recall one dunk in particular early on that I pulled off where there was mid-air contact, with the defender’s body hitting the deck and my player finishing with authority. It just looked and felt good. The one semi-consistent hiccup on the graphics front comes with wandering the city, where the framerate can dip pretty hard due to all of the players and activities taking place. It’s to be expected given the size of the City, but I find myself hoping that this gets polished up as the developers begin to make better use of the hardware in future years.
It helps that the haptic feedback on the PlayStation 5 just feels good in my hands and also seems a bit more refined than last season. The feedback through the triggers really brings full-bodied defense or collisions to the forefront. All of this is capped off with a strong soundtrack and the usual polish of the commentary. Certainly when you play a title like this as often as I do (I mean, you will play about 100 games in a season with playoffs and such), there will be repetition in the audio and even many of the player animations, but the whole things has an impressive layer of polish to it.
However, all of the bells and whistles in the world wouldn’t mean much if the gameplay itself doesn’t back it up. The usual bevy of modes are here with the card collecting MyTeam, another round of even more detailed WNBA options and of course the primary mode – MyCareer. This is where the 2K titles have been hanging their hat for years now, and the 2021 iteration continues to deliver on that front. It’s got plenty of lightweight RPG elements such as progressing your stats, making decisions and interacting with people. Last year on the new generation of consoles this mode introduced the City versus the prior, smaller neighborhoods of the prior generation of consoles. I do think there’s room to grow the WNBA options further, maybe even into a career mode that parallels the men but with a different set of options along the way.
The idea of the City was an interesting one last year, but it felt a bit rough around the edges. There were numerous things to do, but it still felt very empty at times and it was so large that getting around was rather cumbersome. But the potential was there, and dwhile I don’t think it’s completely realized yet in NBA 2K22, it’s a lot closer. I would appreciate more fast travel options (right now you simply have one – to zip back to your apartment), and if your internet is not strong it can lead to some frustration (I’m up at my cabin where my connection speeds can be a bit sketchy at times and there are certain events like skateboard races that can glitch our or outright disconnect you as a result), but the numerous quests and things to do certainly make the experience more interesting than last year. I do wish however, that quests were a bit cleaner.
Often you’re presented with two options to choose from, but it’s not always clear where those are at. You see two quest makers, but they don’t show up any differently on your screen. In one instance, I took the option I was not planning to, simply because I walked into the wrong building and it triggered that as my choice. But there was no indicator as to which person I was visiting before that. Either tagging the name of the person on the marker icons, or perhaps putting the distance you are in the upper left corner of the screen where your options were listed would provide some much-appreciated clarity on that front.
This all ties into the story in MyCareer as well. It feels considerably less linear, as you kick off with your best friend Ricky in your apartment and make decisions about your future. Sure, you can play your next college / G-League / NBA game or… you can go play some pick-up ball at a variety of different venues. Or you can go skateboard around the city doing timed trials or taking pictures. The way your character progresses is a bit different too, and ties into the story nicely as there is a great focus on a reality of our world today that many people either love or hate: social media.
Your story is less about some tough upbringing or living in your father’s shadow or standing up to your college coach, but more about how you and your best friend are also interested in being social influencers. Your character’s gotten popular via social media for their abilities, and it plus a successful high school career open the door to a variety of opportunities. You still earn VC (the virtual currency that is the backbone of the NBA 2K series, for better or for worse – as you use it for things like buying packs of cards in MyTeam or improving your stats in MyCareer. As one would expect, it’s a microtransaction currency that can be earned through gameplay – but also purchased as an accelerator) by playing games, and your play on the court enables you to unlock badges and other perks along the way, but your style of play trickles into some categories of your player as well.
Admittedly, I wish this was a bit better explained, but it feels like something that could be fleshed out in the years to come to really have an impact on things like conversations, or even on-court interactions with other players. There is some very cool RPG-like potential to this system, though currently it’s primary focus is a means of gatekeeping endorsement opportunities for things like shoe companies. Simply put: the progression was a lot of fun this year, though the grind is real for those who don’t want to spend real life money on VC.
The actual gameplay itself has gotten a kick in the pants this year too. I enjoyed the PS5 version of NBA 2K21, but the AI was incredibly sketchy at times – especially in pick and roll scenarios. I was easily abusing the AI time and time again. Shooting never quite felt right to me either. Also an over-reliance on sprinting had me in the old Madden mindset where you hold the sprint trigger far more often than I should have been. A lot of that is cleaned up this year.
For one, the AI is definitely peskier on defense. Also relying on sprinting too much has a notable impact on things like shot accuracy and your ability to handle the ball. This slows the pace down from last year’s game, but I am okay with it. I tend to lean towards two builds – a three point ace / slick passing point guard and a rugged defensive player with no shooting range but dunking ability for days around the rim. I’ve been building out these two archetypes for a few years now, and did so again this year. I would say that my athletic big man performs similarly to last year, but the gameplay for my point guard is certainly different and requires me to be more thoughtful and strategic than in recent memory. I was happy to see that some of the little tricks I had developed in years past that felt less authentic but more effective are subtly getting worked out of the game.
NBA 2K22 is a successful return to form for the series. An extra year on the hardware has certainly helped, and the developers continue to blend lightweight RPG elements with action-packed basketball for an end result that I have sunk a ton of time into already, and will no doubt continue to play throughout the rest of the year. The focus is still on the Career mode, with minor tweaks to Franchise, WNBA and MyTeam, but that’s okay by me – MyCareer is where I’m usually at. There’s still room to improve, but this year’s iteration of the series is worth playing for hoops fans.Score: 8.25 / 10