As the lifespan of the Xbox One and PS4 continued to age, it seemed to me like the NBA 2K series continued to decline year after year. Each time, the next iteration would make some minimal adjustments to the gameplay, introduce a new story to my career mode, and shoehorn in ads and microtransactions to milk that player base for all their worth. Visual Concepts has advertised that it has created a new experience from the ground up for the next generation of hardware. While NBA 2K21 might look like a next-gen experience, it certainly doesn’t feel like one.
That might sound like a harsh statement, but the contrast between graphical/technical improvement and gameplay improvement is steep. NBA 2K21 for the Xbox Series X and PS5 looks incredible. Towards the end of the previous generation, the last few games in the series tended to blend together. Now that Visual Concepts can take advantage of more powerful technology, the lines between reality and make-believe are starting to blur.
The lighting in NBA 2K21 is the star. NBA Courts pop of the screen and offer unreal reflections. During instant replays and timeouts, you will notice just how much it has improved. Players look much more lifelike and it could probably fool someone for a real NBA game if they took a quick glance at the screen. And the sweat. Oh, the sweat. I know it’s a trope to show off how good the next 2K game looks by close-ups of sweaty players, but it really does sell you.
The extra horsepower of the next-gen hardware allows the game to get closer to a real NBA experience. Before each game, the court will be filled with players warming up doing their pre-game rituals, referees will be consulting midcourt, cheerleaders will be pumping up the crowd, and the TV commentators will be sitting courtside. I have watched plenty of NBA basketball in my life and Visual Concepts sure nailed shoot around.
Another aspect that might fly under the radar to some is that players will not have hover as much as they did in the past. 2K tasks players making quick decisions based on what the defense or offense gives them. If a player makes a move, the game has to play an animation for that move. In the past, you might have noticed players hovering over the court to get to the spot where the animation was going to play out. Or their feet will shift in an unnatural way. Movements in NBA 2K21 are much more fluid. Player’s shoulders will rub much more naturally when they are driving to the paint. Visual Concepts has really improved how natural the game looks and feels.
Once you get into the game though, 2K veterans will notice everything looks better, but you are still playing the same 2K you have played before. I will say, NBA 2K21 has made adjustments that I greatly appreciate and noticed. Players will naturally find the three-point line after running around a set of picks. If you take a step back that would normally straddle the line, players will make sure to step behind the line. I have come to love playing with Damian Lillard because when he has the open space, especially when coming off a ball screen, a step back three is much easier and fun to pull off.
On top of that, pull-up jumpers seem to be much improved. For an NBA player, a pull-up jumper isn’t too hard to make. NBA 2K has made it not so easy in the past. I found that if I was coming around a ball screen and noticed an open window to take a shot, I didn’t hesitate to pull up. In previous versions of 2K, I would only take outside shots if I knew my player was standing in one place. Now, pulling up off the dribble looks and feels natural. Veterans might notice a few leaning jumpers falling where they wouldn’t have had a prayer in the past.
Other than those changes, I wouldn’t say this next-gen version of NBA 2K21 has done much else to really separate itself from its predecessors. There have not been many groundbreaking achievements done to make this the definitive version of the game. It still feels pretty identical even though Visual Concepts introduced a couple of new gameplay mechanics that spice things up for you depending on if you like how they control. The first of these is a new way to control your player’s shot.
While I personally wasn’t a fan at all, you have the option now to control the flight path of the ball with the analog stick. Once the shot is starting to be attempted, the analog stick can be brought back to the center of the stick, almost mimicking shooting the ball right on line. If you move to the far left, the ball will miss to the left. Too far right, the ball will miss to the right. I found that any shot I attempted, this new control just felt too unnatural to me. After making a great move past your defender, the last thing you would want to do is awkwardly try to flick your thumb and align it back right in the center. I’ll take my normal button press with open jumpers and different rotations of the stick to get around defenders for contested layups.
The second addition comes with controlling your player’s ball speed. I honestly didn’t notice too much of a difference compared to other 2K games and believe it doesn’t give anyone that big of an advantage or disadvantage. Some might come to master the new moves, but I have yet to see it.
Gameplay aside, some of the mainstays of the NBA 2K series are back for the next generation of consoles. MyCareer and MyTeam return and I honestly had quite some fun with them. I have always felt like these modes are at their best when the player hasn’t played 2K in a few years. Maybe that is just a testament to how repetitive this series has been, though.
MyTeam offers a laundry list of tasks to do. Whether that is as a single-player experience with matchups against custom created teams in 5v5 or 3v3 games, or online matches against other players, you will never not have something to do. Each game mode might offer a different reward such as MyTeam currency that can be used on card packs or even card packs themselves. Those said card packs could offer new players, badges that can be tied to players, shoes that players can use to boost stats, or contracts to lengthen the number of games your players can be used.
If you don’t want to shell out real money for packs and want to experience the long grind to upgrade your team, MyTeam is an enjoyable experience for the most part. There is a lot to do and constantly upgrading your team provides a longing satisfaction. However, I will always point out that card packs are only a way to incentivize players to use real money. I wish unlockables were a lot more transparent rather than just wishful hopes. Plus, if you are playing a game online and you get disconnected from the 2K servers, it will count as a loss and players will lose another game on their contract. I have been disconnected 3 or 4 times and had to use a contract on some players while also taking an L. There needs to be a way for teams not to take a hit when the 2K servers are the problem.
In MyCareer, you take the role of Junior, the son of a New York basketball legend who recently passed away. Junior had only played football throughout his school career, until his senior year of high school, when he decided to lace up his shoes and hit the hardwood. You can play through his senior year of high school, but you also have the option to jump right to the NBA draft. If you decide to play through high school, plenty of different story paths will open up such as deciding to skip college and go straight to the G-League, going to college and competing for a national championship, or even deciding what agency to sign with once you are going to get drafted. NBA 2K21 has tried to emulate the career of a professional basketball player so players can see what it’s like through their eyes.
Being an NBA nut myself, I can’t help but grin a little bit whenever that next big hurdle is jumped over in MyCareer mode. In the first NBA game, Junior will run out from the tunnel and jump into shoot around with his new team. Leaving the locker room looks pretty surreal with the power of next-gen hardware. It looked like the pre-game for an actual NBA game.
Even with all of the new technical bells and whistles though, MyCareer mode in NBA 2K21 isn’t anything that’ll blow your socks off. The story is incredibly predictable, the narrative can be very campy, and you can really tell the game was made to look great during matches, not cutscenes. If you go into it wanting a great story mode first and gameplay second, you will be disappointed. The addition of a WNBA MyCareer mode is a cool bonus that I believe will make some people happy. Though, this leads me to the expansion of its online MyCareer mode.
The City is an expansion of The Neighborhood. This is a hub world that features NPCs to give you quests to complete, games to play against other players, and it wouldn’t be an NBA 2K game without things to purchase with real money such as clothes or even VC. I have always thought the idea of an open-world basketball experience where players all over the world can compete would be incredible. But when I launch the game for the first time and everyone has already leveled up their rating to the high 80s or low 90s because they purchased VC, it’s a little disheartening. The City isn’t anything groundbreaking, it’s just more ways to play 2K online against other players with your created player and another way for 2K to try to get players to purchase VC with real money.
NBA 2K21 on next-gen consoles might look like a next-gen leap for the franchise, but it still lacks any meaningful improvements on the gameplay side of things. Visual Concepts has made small improvements that were needed such as improving pull-up jumpers and collision detection. However, this isn’t the leap many fans were hoping for. Also, in all honesty, I still can’t help but feel a little gross hopping into any of the online modes 2K21 has to offer since the publisher has previously included some pretty predatory microtransactions and unskippable ads. You can slice it any way you want. The City might have countless amounts of things to do in it, MyTeam might offer plenty of different scenarios to play through, but NBA 2K21 can still be a pay to win experience if someone wants to open up their wallet.
Have we hit the ultimate ceiling for basketball simulation in terms of gameplay? Over the past five or so years, 2K has not evolved very much in how it controls. And to be fair, why should they? The current control scheme still works well and I am not sure what more innovation can be done using a modern controller. The problem that these games keep running into is that they just feel too repetitive and convoluted. Every year we get a similar MyCareer mode with an underwhelming storyline, a convoluted MyTeam mode, and an online experience that rewards those who fork over real cash. Until 2K and Visual Concepts can evolve the series in some way, or people stop buying more VC, I have to imagine the repetitive feeling and microtransactions will be around for a while.