‘NBA 2K22’ Review: Slightly Better Than Last Year’s Game, But It’s Hard To Care

The latest release in 2K Sports’ longtime basketball franchise, NBA 2K22, came out earlier this month. Three of our writers — Chris Barnewall, Bill DiFilippo, and Ryan Nagelhout — spent some time playing the game and came to a near-unanimous conclusion that, while this year’s release is better than 2K21, there are fundamental problems with the game that need to be remedied.

Game: NBA 2K22
Available On: Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Publisher: 2K Sports
Price: Standard Edition ($69.99 on next-gen consoles, $59.99 on all others), WNBA 75th Anniversary edition ($69.99, next-gen consoles only), Cross-Gen Edition ($79.99), 75th Anniversary Edition ($99.99)

NBA 2K as a franchise has the benefit and misfortune of being considered one of the best sports simulation games out there. When comparing this series to Madden or WWE, it’s hard to complain too much. The gameplay around 2K has always, for the most part, worked as intended at launch. In 2K22, that is no different. When buttons are pushed, the character does what they are supposed to do. Character models don’t morph. The basketball doesn’t randomly turn into a medicine ball. The video game works the way it should.

The problem is that the video game is no longer fun. Basketball as a sport is something that is supposed to be fast, fluid, and beautiful. This fights against that with individual defenders that are godlike in their on-ball defense. Breaking someone down with dribble moves just isn’t an option and moving the ball around the perimeter does not force the defense to react. They’re able to stand there, firm as ever. Getting them to react to what you are doing with the ball is extremely challenging.

For some players, that might be part of the fun. A lot of the actual basketball part of the game is about breaking the defense down and making the right play, but it creates a learning curve that is going to turn newer players of the series away. It also drastically reduces the ability to just have fun playing a quick game against a friend.

One of the less fun aspects of the game is that it still feels so heavily designed towards playing as three classes of player: Guards, post-up bigs, or super athletic wings. Anyone that’s ever wanted to be one of those tweener, Jerami Grant-type of players need not apply, because they aren’t really sure what to do about someone that isn’t elite at one particular skill.

So much of the gameplay feels like it’s still a result of corrections from previous games. There was a time where someone could put in any athletic wing and dominate a game. As such, they made dribble drives harder, but then everyone started dominating with shooters, so now it’s harder to be a jump shooter. While these short-term fixes got results, it’s really just created a game that does not feel like a fun basketball game to play or a realistic simulation. It’s stuck in the middle, unsure of which it wants to be.

When 2K was beginning its rise as one of the top-tier sports simulation games out there, it wasn’t rising because it perfectly created the feeling of playing basketball. No, it did so because the game was really fun to play and future changes to the game always made it feel better. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the gameplay changed course, or maybe it was just a slow decline, but there is little joy in playing 2K besides grinding out VC to get a super character.

Maybe that grind is where the issues all began in the first place. It used to be possible to work a player up to a respectable star through the grind. Playing games, picking the right stats, and a good AI balance created a sense of progression that was rewarding, even if it was sometimes slow. That sense of progression is gone. This feels like a game where purchasing VC is no longer optional. To avoid dozens of hours of grinding to maybe reach the point the game becomes fun, it is essential to pay beyond the — at the bare minimum — $59.99 price tag. That ruins a game that has the potential to be something better.

It only gets worse when we consider that everything around the gameplay is deteriorating alongside it. The cinematic prologues are not good. Humans do not interact with each other the way they do in 2K22. We aren’t expecting lifelike realism, but two “best friends” consistently gaslighting each other for entertainment is neither entertaining nor funny. It just leads to mashing past cutscenes to get back to the unfulfilling basketball.

This game should be better. It deserves to be better, but the inability to get out of its own way takes a franchise that is supposed to be among the best and hurts its ability to clear that bar. Unfortunately, there is no incentive to stop any of this. The money keeps coming in. 2K continues to sell incredibly well. Brands flock to them. Maybe this franchise is just no longer for me. — CB

It took about five minutes for me to get bored with NBA 2K22. This is not to say the game is horrific, or unplayable, or any of the other collection of knocks that you hear whenever a sports game drops and everyone races to the internet to post videos of whatever misfortunes befall them. If anything, I think this is probably a better game than last year’s edition.

The big thing is I just cannot muster the energy to care about 2K anymore. One complaint that pops up every single year, without fail, is that the people behind the game seem to care exponentially more about getting you to acquire VC so you can head into The Neighborhood — decked out in gear from brands most regular folks can’t afford, or in a throwback uniform with a pair of Jordan XIs that you’ve always wanted but can never get because the SNKRS app doesn’t pick you, or with video game-y haircuts and tattoos, while riding a bike or something — and play games of 3-on-3 against folks who spam the right joystick with dribble moves than actually creating a fun, well thought out game. The experience is not fun. It is also one of the most lucrative things in gaming. It makes all the sense in the world that this is the focus, and it is going to continue to be the focus of the gigantic, multi-billion dollar corporation that gives us 2K games.

I had to get that out of the way first because it’s impossible to ignore. Any advances in gameplay feel like they are second to this. I do not think that this is going to lead to 2K Sports changing its priorities or anything — I am simply an internet doofus — but perhaps this will add some clarity to your decision to pick up the game or not based on what is and is not prioritized.

Having said all of that, I do think this version of 2K is a step forward from the rest in terms of gameplay. While the game will always have the inherent issue that many sports games have regarding spacing — there’s just never going to be enough to make things feel anywhere near as fluid as real basketball, and the approach its designers take is “real basketball” instead of “slightly more realistic NBA Jam” — things feel more smooth than last year’s edition of the game, which felt far more choppy and sluggish in the never-ending (and, one can argue, poorly prioritized) attempt to make a video game feel realistic. The people who put this game together on an annual basis, particularly amid our current landscape where timelines have been all thrown off by the COVID-19 pandemic, work incredibly hard, and I want to be clear: Their efforts deserve to be commended, because having to make a brand new sports game every single year that feels different is not easy at all.

The problem I have here is, again, it does not feel like any of this is overhauled to the point that it’s worth everything else that comes with spending $60 or $70 or $80 or $100 on the game and [INSERT MORE MONEY HERE] on VC. Yes, you can tell that the act of moving on the court feels better (at least on my Xbox One), and you can tell that they emphasized taking a step forward with dribbling by making the stuff you can do with the right stick more comprehensive, while shooting is nowhere near as ghastly as last year’s game and there’s an emphasis on defense so you’re not constantly lost on that end of the floor, even if that means the AI is much better and things like “you will be thrown into the depths of hell by TJ McConnell” happens.

My hunch is that if I had never played a 2K game before, or my last 2K game was back during Barack Obama’s first term in the White House, I’d find this game fun and exciting, with all of these marginal increases in changing up the gameplay from prior editions I had never touched being cool. I know this because that is exactly what I did with NBA 2K20. With NBA 2K21, I thought the games felt ever so slightly different, so whenever it came time for me address an itch to play a 2K game, I’d just fire up 2K20, because I had sunk enough time and effort into MyCareer that it just did not seem worth deviating away from that, and I did not care enough about having a totally up-to-date roster.

Now? I am fairly sure I will rarely (if ever) fire up NBA 2K22 again, and odds are I won’t spend much time playing NBA 2K20, either. The franchise needs a break to change things up, because things have grown stale. Perhaps no video game series in the world needs to just not be a thing for a year and release a big roster update instead of a brand new game in 2022 more than 2K, so it has ample time to figure out what it is and how it can make a product that won’t receive reviews like this one from Luke Plunkett of Kotaku that I agreed with wholeheartedly.

If you spend money on this series as something of a social exercise where you and all your friends get the new 2K and enjoy the communal experience, I earnestly hope you enjoy it. But if you want to know if it’s worth dropping cash on this game for the updated rosters, or the gameplay experience, or the latest editions of MyCareer and MyTeam, or anything else, I cannot in good conscious recommend spending that money. — BD

Let’s get this out of the way: The Xbox Series X version of this game is better than the last-gen version. It’s prettier and smoother, while the gameplay generally flows better. The Series X controller is great for sports sims and shines here. There are little things about this game that make it an improvement over last year’s 2K — small animations and graphical bits that reward you for upgrading your Xbox. But the juice of the game itself was never going to be worth the squeeze for all of the reasons Bill and Chris already covered above.

The heartbreaking thing about a game like NBA 2K22 is that it’s a miracle it even exists. Making a game at the scale of a sports simulation on a yearly schedule is insanely difficult, let alone to do it during a pandemic year. And yet despite that hard work and time to make this game beautiful, there’s something utterly lifeless about it. Maybe it’s the soul-reaping microtransactions for high-end fashion or Jake from State Farm making his way into everything from replays to The Neighborhood, but it all feels fairly hollow. Behind the very sleek sheen of next-gen processing is a synthetic Krabby Patty decaying ever-so slightly with each virtual possession.

There are diminishing returns all over the place in this franchise, and no real indication that anyone will ever make meaningful, positive changes. Because despite all that effort to make it lifelike and perfect, NBA 2K22 still so often struggles most to achieve the thing that all games should aim to be: fun to play. — RN