The current-gen version of NBA 2K21 is an absolutely solid basketball game. Don’t get me wrong.
The NBA 2K series’ stellar gameplay, popular game modes, and fundamental features are all back in NBA 2K21. They’re all as entertaining as they’ve ever been. On the other hand, it is harder than ever to recommend anyone to go out and purchase this year’s version of NBA 2K on current-gen consoles. It is obvious that the developers put the majority of effort into the next-gen version of 2K21, which launches alongside the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X in just a matter of weeks.
Before jumping into that particular discussion, I’d like to briefly point out the new additions and features found in 2K21. I’ll also touch on some of the slight tweaks to the on-court controls and sim-style gameplay.
What’s new this year?
The all-new “MyCareer” mode is called “The Long Shadow,” and tells the story of your very own customized “MyPlayer” avatar. As an up-and-coming player, you begin your career in high school where you are conflicted by the decision to focus on basketball as your primary sport. Unfortunately, you are already living beneath the very large shadow of your father, a former NBA superstar. Your relationship, especially in the early part of the plot, seems pretty complicated.
The story is actually scripted well and has improved a great deal, especially with the efforts of the big-name talent. For example, Michael K. Williams (The Wire) is excellent as Archie, who serves as a mentor and mediator between your player and his father. You can also choose to keep Archie around as your agent, or you can choose to hire someone else.
In fact, the story arc contains several different choices and branching pathways. For example, after a fight with a girlfriend character in college, your player has to choose between staying true to his college career or dipping out and declaring early for the NBA Draft. However, I didn’t get a chance to experience all of them before writing this review.
The “MyPlayer” mode allows you to build and customize your own player for MyCareer mode or any of the other modes in 2K21. It is once again based around using various player “builds,” which allow a lot of flexibility when building a player for any of the five different positions.
With so much variety to create unique playing styles, you may end up with a skill set similar to current or former NBA stars. Or you might just craft a new kind of player that could redefine his position or even the entire game of basketball. For example, you are allowed to have taller guards than ever and sharpshooting big men, but there is always a trade-off. It is quite difficult to create a unique player who dominates all facets of the game.
I personally prefer to play as a slippery, sharpshooting guard with enough quickness to shake defenders – but also enough size to be a formidable defender and a scrappy rebounder. My actual defensive skills and my presence in the post were quite lacking, but I was still able to put up pretty solid numbers on both sides of the ball. This was especially true after developing my skills and increasing my attributes using the “Virtual Currency” that I earned after each game and career milestone.
This year, “The Neighborhood” (the active “hub” found in every version of NBA 2K) is located at 2K Beach. It serves as a very bright and colorful locale for players to explore. You’ll play pick-up games, enter Pro-Am tournaments, run training drills, or just go shopping for new gear, hairstyles, and more.
I’ve personally never spent a ton of time in The Neighborhood, and I didn’t spend a lot at 2K Beach. Still, I have to say that the location change was a breath of fresh, seaside air. I still look forward to putting some time into playing pickup games, especially the 3v3 streetball.
Tweaked gameplay mechanics
The Targeting/Dribbling Stick is the biggest gameplay tweak in 2K21. For some reason, the developers absolutely insist on messing with the fundamental game mechanics each and every season. This time they’ve fiddled even more with the right stick controls.
Last season, the right stick was used for dribbling moves as well as shooting. Frankly, it resulted in plenty of accidental shots and turnovers. It was easy to initiate a shot when you were really just trying to pull off some kind of dribble. This season, the right stick can be used for both shooting and dribbling, but I preferred the option to use the right stick only for dribbling. I felt like this helped to adjust to some of the new dribbling controls.
New shot meter
The shot meter is also different this year. It’s not just based on the timing of your release; it’s also based on the direction and targeting of your shot. Since I struggled so much to use the right stick for shooting, I decided to turn off this new feature. I fumbled with it for several games and ended up throwing up bricks far too often for my liking.
The shot meter is horizontally displayed in 2K21 instead of the vertical meter seen in the past. That may be a slight adjustment for series veterans, but I actually thought the meter was easier to see. I felt like the new meter made a dramatic impact on layup accuracy. Most layups were consistently easier to sink, but I also struggled to defend against them more than in previous years.
I also struggled a lot more to hit most shots, at least until I used all of the VC points I had to max out my three-point shooting and mid-range shooting skills. At that point, like usual, I was blasting 12+ shots from long range per game. I actually broke the all-time record for 3-pointers in a single game in the first month of my rookie season. I play on the default difficulty setting, so it’s not like I was putting up those numbers against the Rookie mode, but I still felt like I missed a lot of open shots and made a lot of shots as a result of positive momentum more than taking a good shot or not.
What’s really wrong with 2K21
Other than the handful of gameplay-related issues I’ve already addressed, NBA 2K21 doesn’t have a lot of huge issues that make me want to jump up and say, “This is not a good basketball game.” That really isn’t the case. As a huge fan of the NBA 2K series over the years, I still have to say that I’m excited to play almost every time I pick up the controller to play.
However, I still won’t touch the MyTeam mode. I understand that it’s a lot of fun if you’re into it, but I’m just not. More importantly, I refuse to drop money on the mode. I’m glad that 2K Sports has allowed the transfer of data from the current-gen version of 2K21 to the upcoming next-gen versions, but you still can’t pull over the data from previous years of the game. So you’re forced to restart from square one yet again. While this is the same for MyCareer mode, at least that mode doesn’t throw up a paywall and a thousand obnoxious notifications every time you open it up.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of NBA 2K21 on current-gen consoles is that the graphics, sound, commentary, and most of the presentation effects have been directly lifted from NBA 2K20. I’ll be the first to remind everyone that 2K20 was an utterly fantastic, great-looking basketball game. That said, I’ve also been defending annual sports games franchises for years, arguing against the idea that games like Madden and NBA 2K simply copy and paste features or graphics or commentary from year to year.
Sure, there are a lot of sound bytes and basic graphics that might not look dramatically different from one season to the next. It’s almost never blatantly just the same stuff from the previous season. But when you’ve played hundreds of hours of 2K20 as I have in the past year, it’s pretty easy to see that 2K21 is the same game, visually. Most of the commentary is also the same as last year, especially after updates throughout the season. Even the cutaways for things like the national anthem and mid-game dancer routines are almost identical with minimal changes.
Look, this isn’t a huge “problem” to fans of the 2K series. Plus, I understand that the development of the game – like all things in 2020 – was negatively affected and limited due to the pandemic. However, NBA 2K21’s standard version on the current-gen consoles costs $59.99. It isn’t really much better to play than NBA 2K20. That game was offered as a freebie on PlayStation Plus just a month or so ago and can be purchased for a fraction of the price of the new game.
Overall, I just don’t think the value is there this year. It’s a great game, but wait for the price to drop or hold out for the next-gen version. Just focus on the thrill of the upcoming NBA Finals in the meantime.
Game Freaks 365 received a free review copy.