Review: NBA 2K21 – An incremental update
Annual games like NBA2K are inexplicably tough to review. On one hand, it remains the best basketball sim game out there, no question about it. On the other hand, it’s still the (same) best basketball sim game out there. It may sound weird, but hear me out.
The NBA 2K experience offers the most solid basketball experience year in year out. They look great, sound great, and most importantly, play great. The player models are near accurate, the detail in the shoes will please sneakerheads, and even the court and ring announcers add to the overall great experience of the game.
NBA2K has come a long way from its humble roots, and every year the step up in production and marketing is just amazing. On these merits alone, the game is considered a must buy because basketball fans are getting the closest thing they can get to their favorite sport, while newcomers can expose themselves to the best game that the genre has to offer.
But even with the change in tag line or cover athlete, it’s really just the same game over again, which is both a good and bad thing.
What more can you add to an already solid base? The sport does not drastically change per season except for new faces in each roster. As developers, what exactly do you do? What do you work on to actually have something of significance every year?
The Long Shadow
To partly answer the question, one thing you spice up is MyCareer.
I absolutely loved the MyCareer storyline back in 2K20. I think many would agree that the 2K20 iteration was one of the better ones in recent years. The performances, the writing, the actors… everything about made it a joy to play, and being produced by LeBron James’ SpringHill Entertainment, you can really see the step up in quality from previous years.
As someone who loves sneakers, it had a lot of wow moments for me seeing all the heat the characters were wearing, even featuring Jerry Lorenzo’s Fear of God line among others.
I can’t say the same for 2K21, entitled “The Long Shadow”.
MyCareer this year tells the story of Junior, who is the son of a well-known and loved basketball player trying to carve out his own path to greatness. The premise showed promise, but the execution was rather disappointing. In a way, 2K21 was trying to get out of the shadow of a great storyline that was 2K20, but unlike Junior making his way to the NBA, this falls short of doing just that.
It had all the ingredients of a W – a great cast headlined by Jesse Williams and Dijmon Hounsou, officially licensed Collegiate programs like the UCLA Bruins and Florida Gators, even celebrity appearances by cover athletes Damian Lillard and Zion Williamson.
Sadly, it did little to get me attached to Junior. I felt no connection or tug, and it didn’t help that some of the writing was a bit cringey. There’s even a simple love story shoved in there where they get into a fight in their dorm and you’re given a choice to walk out or make amends. It all feels out of place and with everything considered, you’ve got a MyCareer storyline you’d probably like to skip just get to the NBA Draft.
And you know what? The game actually gives you that option.
It’s also a bit weird that draft team, the Boston Celtics in my case (the Lakers and Warriors weren’t interested), get the top 2 picks in the draft, somehow teaming me up with the number 1 pick, Hendrixx Cobb. NBA teams would kill for the number 1 AND 2 pick but somehow, a team I chose to work out with, just gets both picks. For a game that prides itself in realism and its sim elements, this felt a little whack.
Shot Meter Fiasco
One of the biggest updates to 2K21 was the addition of a Shot Meter, which 2K promised to be second nature after a few runs down the court.
I turned it off.
Before you toss the git gud memes this way, know that within the first few days of releasing the game, even Damian Lillard was shooting bricks, prompting a hotfix from the developers. While that’s not indicative of how tough the new shot aiming system works, you know there’s something off when your cover athlete complains about it.
Instead of your shot being timing based, once you pull down on your right analog stick, a shot meter will appear and you’ll have to slightly flick the stick again left or right to “aim” it. As you can imagine, it would take getting used to because it feels very unnatural to perform a second motion after pulling down on the stick, adding an unnecessary layer of difficulty that veterans of the game may want to try out but will probably disregard. At some point, even shooters like Curry will start missing shots if you’re even slightly off center (slightly early or slightly late release), but while that’s supposed to happen in reality, it can be unforgiving in this context.
I understand that some people may like it, even love it, but in my experience, I went back to what I was familiar with and stuck with it. I’m pretty sure many of you will too. 2K have recently pushed a fix and will let players choose which system to use as soon as they log in.
What’s great though is that the game gives you the option to go back to how it was last year, which could be what most players would default to just because of familiarity. You can also choose to only apply the meter to shots, layups or both. In case you hate both the shot aiming and the timing system, you can opt to use the real shooting percentages of the players.
If you choose to use Pro Stick aiming though, the right stick can then be used to perform various dribble moves, like holding the stick up to do one of the new and improved signature size-ups from players like Harden and Durant.
The long grind
VC, in-game currency, can be earned to use on various things – player customization items, stat points, and much more. Playing through MyCareer, the development of your player will depend on your performance, as well as the amount of VC you get. Slog your way to the draft and your salary per game will give you 400 500-ish, being a lottery pick will obviously get you more. Each action you do during the game is also rewarded with VC, so it literally pays to actually do good in games. There are various streams of VC in the game but somehow, it doesn’t feel enough. Of course, it feels the same every year, as improving your character will take a while to get him to superstar levels, but given that you earn anywhere from 600-1000 or a bit more per game and at a certain point stat upgrades will cost 1000 per tick, it’s going to take a long time and many, many minutes spent.
That’s where the Mamba Forever Edition of the game comes in, which gives you a huge stash of VC to kickstart your career. Microtransactions in the game are generally negligible if you don’t mind the grind, but the amount of things to spend VC on is off the charts – haircuts, kicks, stat points, and so on. Even across game modes. It gets overwhelming, which makes it hard to feel that you actually make progress after a game. Again, I know its been mostly the same for the past few years, but its definitely still a consideration this year.
Badges also make a return this year, which has a simplified progression system compared to previous years. Depending on your actions on court, you’ll be accumulating points that will allow you to unlock badge slots that lets you equip a number of improvements to your skill set. My player this year was a power forward who specialized in rebounds defense, so as I played through games and gathered rebounds and blocks, my Defense and Rebound badge slots were unlocked the fastest. I was able to equip badges that would let me box out my defender more effectively and even give me an easier time to worm my way through box outs on me. There’s quite the selection, and the nice thing about this is that you definitely feel the impact in the game, which makes the badge system one of the better implemented systems in the series.
Throughout the games in MyCareer, I’ve noticed that the AI can be a bit wonky. Some games, they can be perfect teammates, passing the ball during the proper time, taking good shots, moving the ball around. Some games, they can be complete rookies. One thing I particularly hate is that they milk the clock a lot, even when we’re down by a couple of points in the winding seconds of the ball game.
Other instances when the AI felt really inconsistent was when I was setting up screens for my point guard. As a Power Forward, I specialize in pick and rolls and post moves and in most games, the AI never adapts to certain exploits. Even in higher difficulties, this would allow the defender to switch during the screen, giving my player a mismatch over the opposing point guard for an easy 2 points. Sometimes? They NEVER switch.
The AI in 2K21 feels more frustrating rather than difficult.
Apart from MyCareer and a neighborhood location update that takes you to the beach, there isn’t anything of note for the other modes, at least not big enough to consider talking about this year. The addition of the WNBA also feels like an afterthought, placing them there but not really giving them the avenue to shine.
One glaring thing that 2K has overlooked here is that MyCareer progress won’t have cross-progression capability. 2K has announced that MyTeam progress will carry over, but have made no such statements to MyCareer and your player. This is rather mind-boggling since MyCareer is one of the most played modes in the game and if you’ve had the misfortune of already spending on microtransactions, then you’re kind of on the short end of the stick here since you’ll have to do all of that again come the next-gen consoles.
All of this considered, NBA 2K21 is still the best basketball sim game out there but it seems that the years of it being uncontested has made it look a bit stale, with minor updates that don’t shake up the game enough to merit a full priced release.
What we liked:
- Solid gameplay and mechanics
- Best basketball game out there
- NBA Player models are more accurate than ever
- Tons of ways to customize the look and moves of your player
What we didn’t like:
- MyCareer storyline is not as good as the previous year
- Shot Aiming mechanic is tough to get the hang of
- VC distribution feels a bit too stingy
At the end of the day, NBA2K21 is more of the same, similar to its brothers the year before and before and before. MyCareer is usually the one big differentiator every year but the lackluster storyline could not stand up to the previous iteration from 2K20.
Don’t get us wrong, the NBA2K series is the best basketball sim game out there. It is a great game for fans of the sport and even for newbies who want to try it out. With solid basketball physics and mechanics, there isn’t any game out there that can hold a candle to the series. That said, for vets who are on the fence about picking up a full priced game only to find mostly roster changes, a lackluster MyCareer storyline, and a couple of tweaks here and there, 2K21 could be a tough sell.
NBA2K21 was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro via a review code provided by the publishers.