✔️A genuinely polished gameplay experience that keeps the strengths from existing titles in the franchise.
✔️WNBA for fans of the women’s game returns, as well as the ability to play for college teams during MyCareer.
❌No real change to MyCareer, and no option to play as a female protagonist. MyTeam also largely unchanged.
❌Shot meter difficulty not changed in MyNeighborhood.
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Playing NBA 2K21 feels like the commute to work on a Monday morning – you know it’s going to take you along the same roads and there will be much to do upon arrival. That’s not to say what 2K has offered this year is in any way bad or unenjoyable, but like a lot of games in the competitive sports genre, much of it feels like a glorified roster update with little else to justify the upfront investment. Like its predecessors, the “authentic NBA experience” can be found in 2K21, and there is a lot for gamers to keep themselves busy within the process. When you buy a 2K sports game, typically there is enough to keep you through to the next title in 12-months time, and that is certainly the case again.
The issue here isn’t that of quality, the presentation and gameplay is as polished as long time veterans of the franchise will have come to expect, but there simply isn’t much else to justify a purchase over previous titles in what is one of the most popular annual franchises. Last year, 2K was heavily (and rightly) criticized for its gross approach to microtransactions. While that’s been reduced somewhat, depending on the version of 2K21 that gamers picked up on launch day, the act of buying VC (the in-game currency) will still very much be a requirement to rising up the ranks quickly, especially in MyTeam mode which is again titled toward incentivizing something that feels close to play to win on the VC front.
Either accept that and spend the coin, or grind it out over literally hours and hours of on-court time where the reward will be small at best. That will be the clear and obvious choice for some who pick up NBA 2K21, both options are possible, not only in MyTeam but in the popular MyCareer mode also. Playing as ‘Junior’, you’re once again tasked with experiencing a few games of High School basketball before choosing a college and taking to the court in those colors where you’re then drafted to an NBA side. MyCareer, the flagship part of the NBA 2K experience for many, brings with it a lot that’s familiar while keeping its addictive qualities that reward progression.
I chose to play for the Oklahoma Sooners before being drafted to the San Antonio Spurs, but very quickly into proceedings, I found myself skipping through the cutscenes of what is a storyline that flirts with telling a genuinely emotional tale. The problem, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the drama-filled backdrop that parts of Junior’s story take place in are buried behind what is a fairly simple end goal. That goal? Get drafted to an NBA side and spend the majority of your time hanging out in the infamous 2K Neighbourhood, aptly called ‘The Beach’ in 2K21.
Here, in this mini-world of sorts, you’ll take your NBA 2K character online and compete against others on the court. Once you get here, all incentive to return to the come-up storyline in the MyCareer seems to fizzle out completely, but that’s not all that a quick jog around the Neighbourhood will throw up. This year, 2K has tweaked the shot meter, and until a patch was hastily implemented within the first few days of release, shooting in NBA 2K21 was inaccessible to say the least. Trying to time shots was noticeably harder, but you can see what 2K was originally trying to go with.
The aim is to increase the challenge of what is a core fundamental of gameplay and create a genuine skill-gap between the hardcore and casual, but in the process, 2K made the mechanic so difficult to handle that even seasoned-veterans (including one of the cover stars Damian Lillard) took to social media to air their frustrations. The patch, or ‘hotfix’ as 2K call it, sought to fix the timing issues in the new shot meter but were only implemented on the lower difficulties such as Rookie, Pro, and All-Star while nothing changes for higher difficulty levels and the online experience in Neighbourhood.
Again, you can appreciate that 2K is trying to incentivize their players to upskill in their latest title, but there also has to be a bit of accessibility for new and casual players also, so the fix to the early issues in shooting is very much appreciated. The core experience, thankfully, retains its heights when it comes to the action on court. Like always, NBA 2K21 is flat out fun to play with friends and the AI presents a reasonable challenge when the difficulty is cranked up. Once again, the WNBA features, allowing followers of the women’s game to get their virtual fix, though it would be great to see a female protagonist in MyCareer in future titles.
It isn’t all roses on the gameplay front as some of the same bugs from previous titles are ever-present here, such as your controlled player stepping out of bounds for no apparent reason or falling over his teammates on the bench when shooting a three-pointer from out wide before taking so long to get up that a major defensive gap often cannot be filled quickly on the next possession. Graphically, there are some bugs in MyCareer mode too, including in the team gym where my player oddly had half his shorts cut, leaving what looked like him wearing a mini skirt out on-court (something that made me chuckle ever so slightly).
From a presentation perspective, little has changed this year aside from a new “Mobil Shot Block” replay for when a big defensive play is made. The same commentators, the same pre-game ramble by David Aldridge on the sidelines, and yes, the same boring halftime show that tries to be humorous and does little on the analytical side for true sports fans. Hearing the crowd gasp as the away team sinks a late bucket provides the same genuine feeling that you’re playing in a real arena, and as usual, the play-by-play commentary (headed once again by Kevin Harlan) is usually relatively on-point. Music-wise, NBA 2K21 once again has you covered with a variety of beats if that’s what you’re into.
It’s hard to justify NBA 2K21 over some of the previous entries into the franchise. Just when you think that something in MyCareer is going to tip it over the edge, players will quickly be returned to much that is familiar (albeit with a new paint job in parts). If you’re satisfied with the fantastic moment-to-moment gameplay and strong presentation that never fails to feel like a genuine NBA broadcast in large part, you’ll be happy with what NBA 2K21 delivers. Flagship modes such as MyTeam and MyCareer require a heavy investment of time, and if you’re down for that, then you’ll enjoy what are both largely unchanged overall experiences this year.
NBA 2K21 is also being developed for both PS5 and Xbox Series X, and the big question remains, just how much will be different apart from the expected graphical and fidelity upgrades? Will the flagship modes feature anything new of significance? 2K has been hesitant to confirm much detail around whether more than VC earnings will carry over, and cross-play between current and next-gen also appears to be off the table.
As always, NBA 2K21 is a solid basketball experience, the only one that gamers can get their hands on this holiday season. It does what it does well, but there is very little that is new to get excited about on top of that.
NBA 2K21 - 2K Sports
NBA 2K21 is a basketball simulation video game that was developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Sports, based on the National Basketball Association. It is the 22nd installment in the NBA 2K franchise and the successor to NBA 2K20.
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