Title: NBA 2K21
Available on: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
Version Tested: Xbox One S
Official Site: https://nba.2k.com/en-US/
Release Date: September 4th, 2020
Where to Buy: Microsoft Store, PS Store, eShop, Steam, Retail, Google Stadia
(This game was tested and reviewed via an Xbox One S. And before we get into the review, I do want to send out appreciation to 2K for providing us with a review copy.)
Many people say that if you purchase a sports game nowadays, you’re pretty much buying the same game with some quality of life improvements and an update to the roster. Madden and NBA 2K have seen that exact criticism for their latest current-gen installments.
Actually, in the case of NBA 2K21, there’s not even a roster update because the 2019-20 season is still going on. It’s completely understandable but worth pointing out nonetheless.
Regardless, going into this review for the current-gen version of NBA 2K21, I had one question that I wanted to answer. With the next-gen version not too far away, is this game worth buying on current-gen systems for $60? Short answer, no.
NBA 2K21 is not an absolute trainwreck of a game. I’ve invested many hours in MyCareer, MyLeague, and MyGM so far. And I’ve had a pleasant time with it. But, at the end of the day, there’s not enough new here to justify its current $60 price.
NBA 2K21’s Complicated Gameplay Is An Improvement From NBA 2K20 (Well, In Some Ways)
Right from the jump, dribbling in NBA 2K21 is much better thanks in large part to the game’s Pro Stick system. Using the right stick, you can make more dribble moves than ever before from signature size-ups to escape dribble moves. It takes some time to get used to but, once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself breaking defenders’ ankles in no time.
The second big change, and where I believe the gameplay starts to get a little complicated, is with NBA 2K21’s brand-new shooting mechanics. With NBA 2K21, there’s a new targeting system called Shot Stick Aiming. Instead of solely letting go of square, X, or the right stick at the height of your jump, you’ll move the right stick left or right to guide it into a centered release window. For a boost, you can tap the left trigger at the height of the release. Furthermore, you never have to let go of the right stick as your player will do the rest of the work for you.
If that all sounds too crazy, there is the option to somewhat revert your controls to NBA 2K20’s shooting system. Although, if you want a shooting boost, it’s recommended that you turn off your shot meter.
It’s evident that this year’s NBA 2K is all about giving the player more control. While I genuinely appreciate the developers for attempting to revamp their status quo, the gameplay of NBA 2K21 is a bit of a mixed bag.
To me, it all comes down to 2K finding the right balance in its shooting mechanics. Early on, nearly every park game I played resulted in each team going 3/17 or 8/20 from the field. The same can be said for regular online Play Now, Rec, and Pro-Am games.
However, through hotfixes and everyone upgrading their players, I have seen the shooting gameplay become much less frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not where it should be (yet). I’d personally recommend for another boost to the shooting because I’m still seeing players who have all the necessary badges and attributes miss shots even though they are doing all the right things. Along with this, the Shot Stick Aiming has some serious latency issues online.
Other than that, the core gameplay of NBA 2K21 is very solid and a step up from NBA 2K20. Driving the ball is excellent, passing accuracy matters, and most importantly, blocked shots don’t feel like second chances for the offense.
MyLeague, MyGM, And MyTeam
MyLeague and MyGM have always been strong aspects of NBA 2K games, in my opinion. For MyLeague, it’s an insanely detailed experience where you can pour over various stats, scouting reports, and trade offers. MyGM focuses more on the day to day tasks. As a GM, you’ll talk with your coaching staff, players, and team owners to keep them happy and win a championship. Both modes do see some quality of life improvements, but nothing substantial enough to talk about here.
MyTeam, on the other hand, did see some noticeable differences. The Exchange is where you can exchange cards you don’t want for other cards. There are also new ways to upgrade your cards through Evolutions.
Honestly, even with the additions, MyTeam just isn’t enticing to someone like me. But, if you have been a fan of modes like this, you’ll probably get a kick out of everything MyTeam has to offer this year.
MyTeam, MyGM, and MyLeague are where NBA 2K21 starts to fall apart for me. These are all good modes in their own right but, I don’t see anything that’s extensively different compared to NBA 2K20. For MyTeam, it still feels that the focus is all on microtransactions. The same can be said for MyCareer.
MyCareer Is Meaningless To Those Who Plan To Purchase The Next-Gen Version
Wrapping up this review, we have NBA 2K21’s MyCareer mode. In this year’s installment, you are placed in the shoes of Junior.
Junior is the son of a well-respected baller who is struggling to live up to his father’s shadow. After deciding to switch from football to basketball, Junior becomes a star on his local high school basketball team and catches the eyes of college scouts. From there, Junior’s path is up to you. You can go through high school as a 5-star recruit and later become a top-5 pick through your play in college (I ended up being drafted #2 overall). Or you can drop out of college early to declare for the draft. Fair warning though, deciding to drop out early is definitely a high risk, high reward situation.
What I liked about this year’s MyCareer isn’t necessarily the narrative or your player’s journey to the NBA. Instead, I enjoyed the choices you make and how you can progress your player throughout the entire narrative. If you want to exit the story and skip straight to the Neighborhood, you can do this at any point in the story. Additionally, you can earn VC and badges while at high school and college. So it never feels like you are completely wasting your time.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some parts of the game’s story either. Jesse Williams, Michael K. Williams, and Djimon Hounsou put in solid performances as Junior’s mentors. Being able to pick your college (out of 10 available teams) and play multiple games in school were huge positives as well.
So, once you either complete the story or decide to skip it through a myriad of ways, you’ll be placed in the redesigned beach-themed Neighborhood. After 2 years of looking at the same Neighborhood, the brand-new park is a breath of fresh air. All of NBA 2K’s outrageously overpriced in-game stores are here too with all sorts of customization options to outfit your player.
NBA 2K21 builds off of the MyPlayer Builder system from NBA 2K20. It’s about making the character how you want. If you want to make an oversized 6’8” PG, go ahead. But be prepared to lose some key attributes due to the decision. The same can be said if you wanted to create a big man who specializes in 3-pointers. You’ll be able to nail shots from anywhere but your driving or defensive abilities may leave a lot to be desired. The MyPlayer Builder is a great system and by far one of the best aspects of the NBA 2K games over the past 2 years.
All in all, MyCareer can be a ton of fun. But, just like nearly everything else I’ve talked about in this review, there’s not much different from NBA 2K20 other than several smaller enhancements like the new Neighborhood, progression at the lower level, and a few new pie charts in the MyPlayer Builder. Additionally, microtransactions feel like an integral part of the grind. What makes matters worse is that your MyCareer progress won’t carry over into NBA 2K21 for next-gen (VC and MyTeam progress will carry over though).
Verdict: NBA 2K21 sees some solid gameplay improvements in terms of dribbling and driving the ball. The Shot Stick Aiming mechanic is promising but, it somewhat falls apart in execution. That said, it appears that 2K is trying to figure out a balance for players that’ll be a win-win for everyone. MyCareer gives you more choices in how you progress and the MyPlayer Builder. Despite those improvements, NBA 2K21 doesn’t succeed at separating itself enough from NBA 2K20. Plus, you can’t really look past the game’s over-reliance on microtransactions as it’s thrown in your face far too much.
Long story short, whether you are someone who plans to buy an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 console this holiday season, NBA 2K21 is easily not worth picking up on your current-gen system. It’s too similar to NBA 2K20 and its minimal cross-progression support really hurts the game’s value. With 2K claiming that NBA 2K21 is being built from the ground up for next-gen, there’s no reason to waste your time on a version that’ll be obsolete in a few months.