It’s that time of year again when we are treated to the annual releases of the latest versions of the sports video games. Now in its 22nd year the NBA 2k series has long held the crown as the best video game version of Basketball having beaten off the competition from EA many years ago.
This year’s version NBA 2k21 comes out at what is a very unusual time for basketball and indeed sport in general. The 2019/2020 NBA season has only just finished (with the Lakers triumphant) with the playoffs being delayed from their usual spring slot and played in a secure bubble at Walt Disney World. Added to this is the looming release of the next-gen consoles and a next-gen version of NBA 2K21.
There are adverts all over the internet for the next-gen version telling us that it has been “rebuilt from the ground up to give a more realistic experience”. Unlike with many other recent new game releases you will not get an automatic upgrade to the next-gen version. You do if you buy the “Mamba Forever Edition” (RIP Kobe) but that is a tad pricey retailing at around £100. Where then does it leave this current-gen version of NBA 2k21? Is it still the G.O.A.T. or just a stop-gap until a better version comes along. Read on to find out.
The oft-heard criticism of the likes of the NBA 2k and FIFA series is that not much changes from year to year with just roster updates being the biggest difference from one version to the next. Given this year’s over running NBA season, NBA 2K21 didn’t actually have any roster or rating updates as the season covered by NBA 2k20 was still running! This, however, will apparently be remedied by an imminent update now that the season has finally ended.
As I said when I reviewed NBA 2k19 there wasn’t much to improve in respect of the core elements of gameplay and graphics in the series and it had pretty much already reached its peak for this generation a few years ago. So without the usual team/player updates is there actually anything new in NBA 2k21? The answer is that there is but its not particularly seismic. The biggest change has been made to the controls for shooting.
There is a new technique/system called Pro Stick aiming which has very much divided opinion. It takes some getting used to and has a steep learning curve. Essentially as well as getting your timing right (as in previous years) you need to centre a wedge on the shot meter to get your aim spot on. One advantage of this new method is that it frees up the right stick for dribbling and more precise movement taking away the danger of inadvertently shooting at inopportune moments and wasting possession. Mastery of the new technique is rewarding and you will really see the difference as you build up your MyPlayer’s abilities. If you can’t get on with the new system you can revert back to pressing the square button as in previous editions.
One issue that has still not been resolved is the AI’s tendency to do strange things in transition. The AI’s time management is also sometimes off with computer-controlled players inexplicably running down the shot clock and sometimes committing backcourt violations. This is something they have not quite nailed yet and hopefully, the next-gen version will fix this ever-present problem which has plagued this and past versions of the game.
All the usual modes are present and correct in NBA 2k21 – MyCareer, MyTeam, MyLeague, MyGM as well as the more basic Play now, Season and Playoffs.
MyCareer sees you create your own player and take him from High School all the way to the NBA. As before there is a story attached to this mode. This year’s version is called “The Long Shadow” and in it, you play a character called Junior who is following in the footsteps of his father. Some excellent voice acting comes from Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy fame and Michael Williams of The Wire. When you start out your stats are pretty poor and you have to go through the usual grind to improve. It’s good to play the high school and College modes and this allows you to build up your stats and skills before the NBA draft. The storyline is ok although the addition of a love interest was a little bit too Mills & Boon (showing my age) for my liking.
The FUTesque MyTeam returns with its divisive loot boxes. Thankfully the ill-advised casino style theme of last year has been dispensed with. As before you can play online and offline in this mode. If you are not prepared to pay real money then it’s another case of a long hard grind to build a top-notch team. Classic players and kits are present and correct and you can swap lots of dud cards for the more valuable cards in The Exchange which is kind of like FUT’s squad building challenges. Triple threat matches have been given a makeover although I’m not too sure I am a fan of the new futuristic look.
Management mode MyGM has not seen much change this time around. For those new to the series, this mode puts you in the shoes of a General Manager having to deal with the minutiae of running a successful franchise. You get to make decisions on roster moves, trades, ticket prices and marketing amongst all the other things it takes to run a team. The conversation system remains a bit dull and tends to drag and this mode is very much the preserve of those who are fans of detailed management sims.
In my view, MyLeague has always been the most neglected of the modes and this remains the case in NBA 2k21. Nothing much has changed and it remains a stripped-down version if MyGM without the tedious (in my opinion) business decisions.
The free-roaming My Neighbourhood has been given a makeover and is now set in a version of Venice Beach. This is essentially the central hub of the games online and multiplayer play. You can pick up online 3 0n 3, half court and 2 on 2 games and make changes to your MyPlayer. The 5 on 5 Pro-am games have a steep difficulty rating and you will need plenty of badges etc for your player to stand a chance. Save for the change of location, not much has really changed from NBA 2k20.
The dreaded microtransactions are in evidence with the court areas surrounded by shops where you can spend virtual currency (VC) to buy new shoes and clothes for your player. You can also visit your manager and agent to pick up VC from any endorsements you have. If you don’t want to spend your hard-earned real-world cash then the long grind beckons.
NBA 2k21 sees the welcome return of the WNBA however it is disappointing that it has been limited to certain modes. The next-gen version apparently lets you build a female MyPlayer for use in the game so it is odd why this is not a feature of this version. Here you can only play in the WNBA in the Play now, Season and MyLeague mode. It’s great this is going to change going forward but there seems no logic as to why the change can’t take place now.
As with previous versions of the series the graphics in NBA 2k21 are pretty much the best this current generation can offer. The player models are spot on and movement is realistic. The TV show presentation remains and you really feel like you are watching a prime time NBA show. The fact that the next-gen graphics are a further step up from what is almost perfection is very exciting and I like many others have already boarded the hype train in that regard! Let’s hope we are not disappointed. In a sense, it is a shame that the game does not reference the infamous bubble but to be honest it’s nice to escape this currently depressing reality and pretend that we are back to normality!
The TV show presentation is present and correct and Kevin Harlan remains the main man ably assisted by Doris Burke, Greg Anthony and Chris Webber. David Aldridge also adds pre-game comments from courtside. This gives NBA 2k21 the polished TV show look the series is renowned for.
NBA 2k21 has the usual thumping rap/hip hop soundtrack with well know artists such as Juice Wrld and Lil Baby featuring. If unlike me you are familiar with these genres there will be plenty of your favourite tunes.
As always you can invest many many hours into your favourite mode. If you have an aversion to loot boxes and don’t want to pay your way to success (with real money) then the grind for virtual currency and badges can be long and tedious. It appears (although I stand ready to be corrected – and hope I am) that your progress in the current-gen version can’t be carried forward into the next-gen version. With that in mind, if that is truly the case then if you are looking to upgrade to the new version soon then you may be reluctant to invest too much time in the game. In fact, if you are looking to upgrade then you may want to give this version a miss altogether!
To be honest I am very conflicted here. If taken in isolation and ignoring the fact that a next-gen version will be out in a few weeks then it’s easy to conclude that NBA 2k21 is another great entry to the series. The tweak to the shooting system is worth mastering and the usual modes are present and correct. The continued presence and prevalence of loot boxes and the fact that you don’t get an upgrade to the next-gen version with the standard edition is very disappointing.
Is it then worth buying NBA 2k21 if you already own NBA 2k20? The answer depends on whether you are getting the next-gen version. If not then this is a solid entry to the series which will undoubtedly receive updates going forward. If you are going next-gen then unless you are intending to get the “Mamba Forever Edition” you might as well wait. In terms of rating the game, I am going to look at in isolation. The series has won the basketball wars for this generation although the lack of competition means that improvements have slowed in recent years. NBA 2k21 is however at the top of its game with the on-court action still amazing and hard to beat. It remains the G.O.A.T for now and therefore……
I award NBA 2k21 a Thumb Culture Gold Award
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.