It's hard to argue NBA 2K22 isn't one of the most-hyped sports titles ever.
This year's annual installment of the basketball juggernaut from developer Visual Concepts and 2K Sports is the first geared toward next-generation hardware. Leaning into that uptick in horsepower, it promises—as would-be players might expect—upgrades to presentation and, most importantly, the on-court feel.
It's only fitting, then, that Dallas Mavericks up-and-coming superstar Luka Doncic graces the cover. In 2022, it's fair for players to expect the series to follow a similar trajectory to one of the new faces of the league as he continues his ascent.
Going into things, players know 2K22 undoubtedly has droves of massive game modes. Whether the on-court action is truly an upgrade will determine whether this installment is looked back on as the start of something special or a stumble.
This might be the best 2K has ever felt on the digital court.
That sounds hyperbolic, right? But one big hurdle is out of the way—there is no revamped mechanic this year that will get a massive backlash, no hard-to-learn or hard-to-see element of the game that makes it a dramatic, negative shift away from prior entries.
The big changes to gameplay, for the most part, do nothing but improve the simulation feel.
The emphasis this year was clearly seeking out a balancing act. After years of offense running wild and tweaks to the shot meter and timing, it's all about defense in 2K22. Shot contests and paint defense got overhauls that, funnily enough, put a bigger emphasis on the offensive player taking higher-percentage looks.
Defensive positioning matters now more than ever. The game won't phantom-contest shots for the player anymore—if a player is in the wrong spot when an opponent goes up for the shot, it won't be contested well and the chances the offense scores go up.
There's a bigger emphasis on player ratings while defending, too. A star with a bad steal rating is going to feel like he or she moves in slow motion if a player attempts one, leaving the offensive player an avenue to the basket.
This might not be an easy adjustment for all players, though. It's clear defenses are better than ever thanks to some of the power of new consoles and tweaks behind the scenes, but the super-rotations an entire unit can make and one defender's ability to watch over two opponents at once can feel suffocating, even on lesser difficulties.
None of this is to say offense didn't get addressed at all, though. It's blatant that the game has chopped out a ton of pre-canned animations in favor of leaving stops, stutters, cancels and the quickness of dribbles with the pro stick to players. This extends to post play, where fakeouts in one direction and a fade to the other can all be handled with two swings of the stick.
Also of note is that the shot meter is bigger this year, solving a major complaint from recent years. Its actual makeup varies based on ratings, so players will have to pay close attention when putting up shots with everyone.
That shot meter also shifts in response to stamina. More than ever before, proper stamina management is critical to success on offense. Sprinting and dribble moves drain it quickly, which plays right into the hands of defenders with a new arsenal of tools.
More signature styles means more players match up well with their real-world counterparts. It's a nice thing to have not only for authenticity purposes but because it can oftentimes be more impactful on the actual court than something like arbitrary overall ratings.
Stamina is one of two things that makes this feel like a totally improved game. The other is A.I. logic. It's clear that with more horsepower from the new hardware, the team behind the game could expand on A.I.'s on-court behavior. Defenses stand a chance now, and there are fewer loopholes to exploit while forming a "meta" and the stamina makes it more of a chess match.
The game also does some really interesting things with the new haptic feedback on the PlayStation 5's controller, including increased vibration and tension when squaring up with a dominant force in the paint. It's a little thing, but it's the sort of innovation that deepens the immersion on next-generation hardware.
As a whole, this is the best 2K has felt on the court. It's slower, absolutely, but more methodical, thoughtful play will have players lighting up the scoreboard quickly.
Graphics and Presentation
Players have come to expect nothing short of a world-class presentation effort from 2K, and faithful to its reputation, 2K22 largely delivers.
This year's game really takes advantage of the next-generation power in the presentation department. There are notable new halftime shows, for those players who don't just jam the buttons to skip and get back to the action.
More horsepower means more realism, too, as each stadium now has its accurate in-house announcer over the PA. Players will undoubtedly be able to point out certain players who don't look like their real-life selves, but it's mostly nitpicking at this point.
Given the realness factor to almost everything here, even down to details like body proportions, sweat and jersey sway, players could probably fool somebody walking into a living room that it's a live broadcast of a game.
It's worth pointing out two really fun, engaging elements of the overall presentation package. The "First Fridays" feature will keep expanding the game's playlist each week. And a "Producer Series" promises to let players submit verses over beats the game provides.
MyCareer, Features and More
Once again, 2K presents a little bit of something for everyone with a handful of modes that could probably be their own individual releases.
One important note before diving into those: A revamp to the broad-encompassing progression feature simply dubbed "Seasons" is maybe the biggest tweak to the entire 2K formula this year. It offers pleasing, interesting new ways to track progression across multiple game modes.
Long story short, a feature once exclusive to MyTeam now has real estate in a variety of game modes. In MyCareer, for example, it offers more unlocks and progression goals for things tailored to that game mode and is indeed another welcome wrinkle. Earning stuff is entertaining, and Seasons permits it and seems to have enough to benefit even the most dedicated of players in the form of new Grand Prize rewards that change each Season.
MyCareer on its lonesome doesn't go any wild new bold directions that players haven't seen from a sports game in the past. This time players start with a branching path based on whether the player's new character jumps right to the draft or spends time in college or the G-League.
The story itself falls in line with some of the hybrid corny/funny blends of recent years across the sports-game spectrum. The player's character is a standout player (of course) with a big following on social media (of course) with friends in the mix as advisers for some intrigue and drama (also of course).
That undersells some of the underlying mechanics, though. Managing a personal brand and more things than ever off the court is pretty fun, though the grind-level required to actually get good on the court in the pros might be exhausting to players who pick up these games each year. This is especially the case when hopping on as a new player in the 60s and seeing other players with 90s already while the allure of microtransactions hangs in the background.
There's also a lot of almost Grand Theft Auto Online feel to the progression as players work their way through the city and strive to upgrade their living spaces and possessions. Balling out on a cruise ship is a highlight, too. Keep in mind players don't have to gun for the Hall of Fame, but can just chill out forever competing in Pro-Am or in other competitive modes around the city.
The City is the highlight feature of a MyPlayer journey in this regard. It's so big the game actually has a fast travel feature now. That's awesome in a "we wish sports games would get there" sort of way, but the whole thing also feels sort of bloated and tedious. It's fun to chase rewards, but things can start to look pretty wonky visually when a ton of players are in the same city zipping around on skateboards.
In the pursuit of RPG-feeling action, this year's solo narrative gives players more control than ever. It's nice that players aren't merely shuffled from one cutscene to the next to fit the narrative. Instead, they're free to navigate the world and pick and choose from quests found throughout the playable area.
Much of it captures NBA culture really well. But some of it is just corny. As players have surely seen from now because it went viral, there's a "Jake From State Farm" guy in the city, and though it might just be a genuine, funny gag, it feels quite a bit like a straight-up advertisement.
Keep in mind The City is exclusive to next-generation players, with last-gen platforms and PC limited to the Neighborhood.
MyTeam is another mode that could effectively launch as its own title at this point. It's packed to the proverbial brim with content, both in the number of challenges, online game modes and goals and in the sheer number of things to collect.
One of the biggest, oft-asked-for features is the return of a draft system. It's exactly what it sounds like, with players being able to load up a draft mode that has them running through a card-drafting process before actually taking to the court. It's an enjoyable blend of fantasy sports and the card-collecting mode, as it should be—to an extent. Once players use up a limited number of tickets provided, they have to pay real money to enter again. It's a baffling decision that limits what should be a highlight of the entire game, not just MyTeam.
One thing that does really stand out as a cool upgrade for MyTeam is the ability to look at a card and see when and how it was acquired, past owners and more information. Players can also turn in cards to a grading process, adding a real-life wrinkle that creates some added affection to a collection.
That said, last year's game progressed quite a bit too fast for some players, with overpowered cards coming out pretty quickly and making some of the launch stuff feel irrelevant. Tweaks to online game modes, especially, don't seem to help shake the feeling that it would be way too easy to fall behind quickly.
On more of the check-the-boxes front, MyNBA and other basic modes return, though there's nothing overly substantial. The WNBA-focused The W carries over a lot of the deep badge systems and progressions found in other modes and thankfully features great presentation and signature moves specific to that league. It's a welcome addition that will surely keep receiving annual upgrades as it plays catch up with the other modes.
Kudos go to 2K Sports. In the past, other sports games have massively flopped while making the jump to a new console generation, or at best, remained stagnant and used the transition as an excuse.
NBA 2K22 is a clear upgrade on the court. It isn't without faults, but it's only natural a gigantic game with this many modes has some things that feel unchanged while carried over. But it's clearly the best entry in the series, which means it doubles as the perfect entry point, too. The gameplay itself is that good and better balanced than it has been in a long, long time.
Provided future installments add well to this rock-solid, Doncic-esque foundation, hindsight will position 2K22 as a landmark entry in the series.