Review: NBA 2K21 offers slight improvements, but not much else

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Take your shot.

It’s a bit of a weird year for sports games, as the arrival of next-gen consoles almost coincides perfectly with the annual release cycle for most titles. Because of this, it isn’t uncommon to see publishers opting to hold back certain features from the current-gen releases to maintain the excitement of the upcoming next-gen version.

The latest release from 2K Sports, NBA 2K21, is a perfect example of this, as the latest release plays extremely similar to its predecessor, leaving fans who may be looking to make the next-gen upgrade right away potentially better off waiting instead of jumping into the latest entry in the basketball franchise.

Step on the court

NBA 2K21


Bottom line: NBA 2K21 offers some of the best basketball gameplay you’ll find, but doesn’t have enough meaningful updates to feel like a brand new entry. An updated shooting system and deeper MyCareer make for great additions, but there’s little else here to make this feel an instant upgrade.

Pros

  • Incredibly accurate NBA presentation
  • MyCareer has better, more meaningful story
  • Improved shooting makes for more rewarding play

Cons

  • Reliance on VC and microstransactions still too apparent
  • Most modes have no substantial updates

$60 at Amazon

What you’ll love about NBA 2K21

When it comes to sports games, one of the biggest aspects to judge is its presentation, and it’s here that NBA 2K21 shines the brightest. Not only does the game look almost identical to a real-life, non-bubble basketball game, but the attention to detail on the broadcast side of things is also worth noting. Timeouts will often trigger various cutscenes that showcase different half-court celebrations or interviews with players, and hearing the voices of well-known NBA commentators also takes the realism of NBA 2K21 up a notch.

Category Spec
Developer Visual Concepts
Publisher 2K Sports
Players Single-Player, Local/Online Multiplayer
Genre Sports
Platforms Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia
Cross-play No
Age-rating Everybody
Price $60

Alongside the presentation, NBA 2K21’s actual basketball gameplay is nearly flawless as well. When it comes to presenting an accurate simulation of a sport, there might not be any better game than the NBA 2K series. Passing, driving to the lane, and the general movement that occurs on the court all feel extremely realistic, right down to the foul calls that might leave you agitated with a referee.

While gameplay is generally pretty easy to grasp, NBA 2K21 has some deeper layers to it, especially when it comes to dribbling and shooting. Players who take the time to learn how to properly dribble (especially with NBA players who have high dribble skills) can learn to do some pretty incredible moves, opening themselves up to greater offensive opportunities or just making for some big highlights.

As it does every year, NBA 2K21 looks incredible on the PS4

Every year, Visual Concepts strives to tighten up gameplay, with the focus this year seeming to be more on the shooting side of things. Shooting in NBA 2K21 has gotten a major overhaul, complete with a new shot meter and improved shooting stick control. While players can simply press a button to shoot, 2K21 also allows players to shoot using the right analog stick. This has been in the game for some time, but 2K21 adds a bit of a challenge, making it harder to hit shots if you aren’t accurately pulling back and aiming the stick consistently.

Doing so successfully will result in a boost that increases the odds of your shot going in, but failing results in your shot missing to the right or the left. It’s a solid difficulty curve that some hardcore fans of the series have been craving for some time, although it definitely can take some time to get used to it. Likewise, the new shot meter is a bit tough to see at first, so don’t expect to go into your first game shooting lights out.

When it comes to game modes, NBA 2K21 offers up pretty much the same menu of options as it has in the past. Alongside being able to play quick games with any NBA or WNBA team, players will also have access to MyLeague, MyCareer, and MyTeam. Sadly, the MyLeague mode — the equivalent to a Franchise Mode found in Madden or FIFA — hasn’t seen much, if any, improvements. For fans who love diving deep into a franchise and doing hardcore simulations that span years, it’s a bit disappointing to see that the mode hasn’t been changed all that much, although it still does have a solid set of features packed in.

You’re still encouraged to spend your own money in MyTeam, but the freebies are better than in previous years.

As far as MyTeam goes, the virtual card-collecting mode is also more or less the same, including its heavy reliance on VC, 2K’s in-game currency. Thankfully, 2K21 has become a bit more forgiving when it comes to microtransactions in MyTeam, giving players greater options to earn some really great cards through single-player or online play. Unfortunately, though, it seems like those who will benefit the most from 2K21’s MyTeam mode are those willing to spend real-life money in it.

Modes like MyTeam or Madden’s Ultimate Team are inherently geared to have players spend money on them, but 2K21 seems to lean on it a bit more than other games at this point. While it’s nice to see them lightening things up a bit, there’s still a long way to go.

Welcome changes to MyCareer

While some modes may not have gotten big updates, one of 2K21’s biggest game modes every year, MyCareer, certainly did. Once again, players jumping into the mode will get to make their own MyPlayer build, including what position they’d like to play and what player archetype they’ll be. After that, players are thrust into the story of MyCareer, which has also seen an overhaul in its storytelling. In this years iteration, players are put into the shoes of “Junior,” a basketball player who is struggling to live up to the legacy of his father, a legendary college basketball player.

MyCareer has received some of the biggest changes over previous years, and 2K21’s story is pretty damn fun.

As you make your way through the mode, you’ll go from a high school player all the way to the NCAA, all while being mentored by your coach and agent, played by Djimon Hounsou and Michael K. Williams, respectively. It’s become clear over the years that 2K Sports strives to tell a very unique story with every 2K release, and the one found in 2K21 is no different. While the story is a bit outlandish and plays out more or less like a typical sports movie, it’s still nice to see a sports game try to offer up an actual narrative that makes you feel like you’re going through the different ranks of basketball.

Not only did 2K21’s MyCareer change in storytelling, but it also changed in how it operates after you’ve finished the main narrative. In a surprisingly great change from years past, the story aspect of NBA 2K21 actually does end when you get to the NBA, whereas in past iterations, players would continue on with the story via smaller cutscenes before or after games. Now, players can simply play through games as they normally would or hop right into the Neighborhood, which is where most of NBA 2K21’s online play takes place. While sitting down for a post-game press conference or chatting with reporters prior to a game were nice touches that added to the feel of being an NBA player, things are much better when you’re able to do as you please without a time consuming cutscene popping up.

What you might not love about NBA 2K21

As is the case every year, one of the biggest drawbacks to the NBA 2K series is how much it relies on VC. 2K21’s virtual currency is needed for just about everything that you do in the game, all the way down to what clothes you buy for your virtual character. While earning VC isn’t too hard if you’re constantly playing through the MyCareer mode, it can be a bit annoying having to grind through virtual basketball games just to have to figure out whether or not you want to spend your coins on an upgrade for your player, a new shirt to wear in the Neighborhood, or the latest pack of MyTeam cards to make your team better.

None of your progress will transfer over to next-gen consoles, so if you want to play on PS5, you’ll have to start all over.

Thanks to this, you feel as if you almost have to spend more actual money on in-game currency to actually have the most fun possible, and this is only made worse thanks to the game’s next-gen plans. According to 2K Sports, nothing that you do with your MyCareer/MyPlayer (including inventory and progress) will transfer to next-gen consoles, thanks to the game presenting an entirely different experience. That means that if you’re spending actual money on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One version of NBA 2K21 in order to have a better MyPlayer, you’ll almost definitely have to once again if you plan on upgrading to a PS5 or Xbox Series X. Because of this, it makes almost no sense to invest any type of money into NBA 2K21 unless you’re a hardcore fan who can’t wait to play or someone who won’t be upgrading to next-gen consoles until much later down the line.

Should you buy NBA 2K21?

Thanks to a lack of any real competition when it comes to basketball titles, NBA 2K21 remains the definitive basketball simulation video game. Despite its many flaws, though, NBA 2K21 does offer a hyper-realistic version of basketball, and is a genuinely fun game to play once you step onto the virtual court. Changes to the shooting and MyCareer mode also make for positive steps forward in a franchise that can often feel a bit stale.

3 out of 5

However, its lack of meaningful improvements elsewhere, alongside its heavy reliance on in-game currency and microtransactions, are too hard to overlook. At the end of the day, it’s hard to recommend NBA 2K21 unless you’re a diehard fan of basketball or a huge fan of the NBA 2K series as a whole.

NBA 2K21 retails for $60 and is available on Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia.

Take flight

NBA 2K21

$60 at Amazon $60 at Best Buy $60 at Walmart

Take to the court.

NBA 2K21 is back again with another faithful recreation of one of the biggest sports in the world. With an improved shooting system and deeper MyCareer, there’s something for everyone in this year’s iteration.

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