For as much as fans complain about annual sports games playing the same, NBA 2K22 genuinely does feel dramatically different. A complete rewrite to the defensive gameplay means no longer can you ghost past 7-foot interior beasts like they’re made of paper, as you’ll have to actually work to engineer open looks and lanes to the basket. This increase in difficulty is offset by much more manageable shooting when you’re wide open, meaning it’s easier to get the ball to fall – but only if you’ve successfully carved your opponent apart.

It makes for a much more rewarding experience overall, where intelligent playmaking and a good understanding of the court is reflected in results. Even online, where demigod MyPlayer builds once ruled supreme in MyCareer, you can now effectively stonewall tricky slashers who try to dribble you into submission, forcing them to change their approach. There are times where it does feel like 2K Sports has gone a little too far: the AI can give the impression it’s equipped with force fields at times, but it is penetrable if you learn how to leverage your playbook and effectively incorporate the pick-and-roll.

The best part about these fundamental gameplay alterations – which also include a new dynamically adjusting shot meter – is that they expand to each of the core modes in the game, meaning that regardless of whether you enjoy collecting cards in MyTeam or creating your own WNBA superstar in The W, the action feels tighter and more demanding. There are still some collision issues and instances of warping where players are finessed into the position their animation cycle demands, but the overall pace of the game is snappier, and thus this is the best playing basketball sim from 2K Sports in some time.

But the changes don’t end there: the City, which was first introduced in last year’s next-gen version of NBA 2K21, has undergone a makeover – and MyCareer incorporated within it. While the sandbox still has the symmetrical format of its predecessor, divided between four different player affiliations, it’s much busier overall – with NPCs added to formerly abandoned streets, incorporating much-needed visual interest that makes the location feel more alive. As in previous games, you can join impromptu basketball matches on courts all over the open world, and there’s even matchmaking this time.

While the storyline mimics past releases, plotting the exploits of your own personal avatar as he tries to break into the NBA, it’s presented differently. Instead of sitting through cut-scenes with basketball matches in between, you’ll be taking on Quests all over the aforementioned City, meeting with agents and PR executives as you forge your campaign. Along the way, you’ll interact with a cast of colourful characters – including your live-in ally Ricky, who spends almost the entirety of his time working from a laptop on your kitchen counter. Unsurprisingly, the plot’s not going to win any Oscars.

Perhaps most noteworthy is how the game attempts to incorporate side-activities in order to complement your performance on the court. Inspired by real-world stars like LeBron James – who’s made a play at cinema with his Space Jam sequel – and Damian Lillard, a part-time rapper, you’ll spend your time also pursuing careers in fashion and music. This means that you can hit up recording studios to lay down tracks and even strut down the catwalk in the centre of the city – all for rewards which help contribute to your overall progress in the game.

It’s not a bad idea, but unfortunately it all feels undercooked. Navigating the City, which you’ll need to do a lot in order to complete Quests, is cumbersome – and many of the side-activities lack any real depth. When the game is asking you to wear a different t-shirt for two minutes in order to progress, the novelty quickly wears thin, and considering the core on-court gameplay is so strong, the supplementary fluff feels like it exists predominantly to get in the way.

It doesn’t help that the game is plagued with old issues, like the fact that you’ll need an exorbitant amount of in-game virtual currency VC in order to upgrade your player’s stats, and the City itself is riddled with advertising. Some of the lowlights include a line of quests involving Jake from the State Farm commercials, who’s been face scanned into the title to espouse the American insurance firm’s virtues. And he’s not alone: Daily Quests task you with wearing the latest drip from global brands like Adidas and Under Armour in order to reap rewards, while even your MyPlayer’s in-game phone is running 5G from AT&T because of course it is.

While none of this is particularly uncommon for the series, it’s particularly egregious in a game now costing $69.99, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the package exists primarily as a vehicle to peddle microtransactions and secure commercial partners. But while that’s a valid criticism, it would dismiss the undeniable achievements elsewhere. For example, in a year where Madden NFL 22 sought acclaim for incorporating offensive and defensive coordinators into its Franchise mode, NBA 2K22 introduces an entirely new staffing system into its MyNBA counterpart, allowing you to oversee a team of 17 employees ranging from coaching staff through to sports psychologists.

This is all in addition to industry-leading presentation, underpinned by an excellent soundtrack which 2K Sports has committed to updating seasonally as the release matures. When you compare to the other sports games on the market, this series is in a class of its own in so many ways – it’s even continued its commitment to raising the profile of the WNBA, and while its MyCareer equivalent The W doesn’t have anywhere near the depth of its male-based counterpart, it’s worth keeping in mind that FIFA 22 doesn’t even have Women’s Super League teams yet. (Although it is adding female players to Pro Clubs, which should be acknowledged.)

Conclusion

NBA 2K22 spreads itself a little too thin off the court, but it genuinely takes strides on it. The game’s rewritten defensive system makes for a much more enjoyable experience across all modes, where you feel rewarded for using the ball effectively and engineering open looks. MyCareer’s first foray into non-NBA activities could do with fleshing out, and there’s still an overreliance on advertising and microtransactions. But with one of the most complete Franchise modes on the market, and with exceptional presentation across the board, this is a series at the top of its game again.