NBA 2K has been around as a franchise for 21 years, and celebrating this birthday comes with a lot of pressure to continually deliver a top-level product. NBA 2K21 is a game that sums up years of careful, small changes, and doesn’t head off in any brave new directions and, without any serious contenders to the number one basketball video game crown, there’s really no need to.
Some neat little changes are introduced this year, not least in the way that the right thumbstick has been updated to allow for some sweet new dribble and size-up moves. It makes for a more versatile feature, rather than the one-stop-shooting function. It’s a welcome change to the game mechanics, which gives you more control over your offensive plays and hopefully leads to a few broken (opponents) ankles as well.
Likewise, the shooting mechanics have had a minor tweak. While it’s not much on the surface, the shot-feedback function seems to more realistically show the result of your actions. The new systems do take some getting used to, but after a few pickup games you’ll get the hang of it.
Otherwise, the difference between this one and the last version is almost imperceptible. MyLeague, MyGM, MyCareer (outside of the storyline), The Neighbourhood (outside of the location change) all play and look the exact same as in NBA 2K20. The only major changes show up in the MyTeam mode, which fit firmly in the pay-to-win category. It’s a bit disappointing that we aren’t really seeing the effort being made to improve the player experience after three to four years of what essentially boils down to the same product with identical rosters as the 19/20 season.
MyTeam has had a major graphical update and at least runs more smoothly than previous editions. Collecting VC (NBA 2K’s in game currency) isn’t enough here. You also have MyTeam Points and Tokens, all of which can be used to open card packs of players, boosts and accessories to customise your team. There are objective based upgrades in the game that seem much less grindy than previous years, but if you have deep pockets you can pick up an A-grade team in no time.
The MyCareer story mode this year takes us all the way back to high school and allows players to develop properly before hitting college and making an impression on the draft. Gone, thank goodness, are the silly draft combine minigames and you’re left being a next-level athlete ready to make it in the big leagues. The story of a player, who is living under the shadow of his legendary father, is humanising. The cutscenes and in-play commentary provides a lot of colour to fill in the backstory. It gives context for your player and pushes you into some actually interesting choices in the game, which result in ongoing implications for how you gain VC. Once again though, as soon as you hit the NBA the story disappears entirely and now instead of cutscenes with agents, you get text chats to negotiate your next deals.
The actors in this story mode are incredible. Dijmon Hounsou plays your college coach, Mirelle Enos as the high-powered agent, and Michael K. Williams as your advisor. Some of the face mapping is stellar and captures excellent expression. Although, the 2K franchise seems to have a massive issue with body shapes outside of the on-court experience. Photo realistic faces on Sims body types can look fairly ridiculous.
“The actors in this story mode are incredible.”
There is one NBA 2K21 cheat code that everyone should know: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Locate that player and sit back to watch the W’s roll in. After getting a solid 90 rating for 2K20, this year Giannis is rated at 97. There’s just something about the way that he handles that makes him an automatic point crushing machine on offence and a literal brick wall on defence. Despite all that awesomeness, he’s not the cover athlete for this edition. That honour belongs to Damian Lillard, who’s also seen a significant boost in stats this time out. Although many will be looking to up to the more costly editions this year which feature the late, great legend of the game, Kobe Bryant. The Mamba Forever cover art alone is worth the price of admission and comes with a bunch of VC to get you started on stats or gear.
It’s clear that this latest edition is really starting to push the limits of the current gen hardware. NBA 2K21 already has a pre-order available for the next gen consoles which will be available at launch. But playing on the current consoles you can hear the difference in how hard the console is working to keep up. Playing on a PS4 Pro will occasionally cause the infamous jet engine fan to take flight mid-load or during every single MyCareer cutscene. Hopefully this won’t be a problem on the new consoles, but it’s here and now that the age lines are showing.
In its current form, NBA 2K21 is a little disappointing. Yes, the revamp of the MyTeam section is good and does make it more playable. Yes, the individual games themselves are good fun to play and the presentation is immaculate. Yes, the single MyCareer story is fantastic (when you can hear the cutscene dialogue over the maxed-out fan). But there’s just not enough new about this game to make it feel like an improvement over NBA 2K20. Perhaps there needs to be less focus on securing brand name actors and 2KTV updates, and more focus on the quality of the multiplayer servers and meaningful single player activities? NBA 2K feels like a franchise in desperate need of new ideas to refresh the player experience. Hopefully the next generation of consoles will bring it.
NBA 2K21 is available now on PS4, Xbox One and Switch, and will hit PS5 and Xbox Series X upon their launches.