Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
More of the same can be a good thing when done right. However, the way that NBA 2K21 has approached it is the cookie-cutter example of a “new” annual sports game entry that does little to justify a purchase for long-running fans. With few changes to the overall experience and a continued emphasis on microtransactions, it is hard to recommend NBA 2K21 to anyone but newcomers.
When booting up the game for the first time and entering into a match, it was hard to realize that I wasn’t just playing last year’s solid entry but with a number change. Most of the features that have been changed are relegated only to a few gameplay changes, the usual roster updates, and a new story.
Pro Stick Gets Changes But Not Much Else
The gameplay side of NBA 2K21 is probably where most changes happen but they aren’t all for the best. The Pro Stick has received a much-needed shift to make the game more realistic but in a messy way. Since the introduction of the Pro Stick feature, it has been relatively unchanged throughout several games.
But the 2020 iteration shakes it up, putting a crucial divide between the offensive maneuvers and shooting elements of gameplay. No longer will you be able to use the stick to just shoot by timing the shot as there are specific directions required for shooting, layups, dribble moves, and so on.
This does mean that some veteran players will need to relearn the Pro Stick all over again and not just for the changed controls. Shooting in general has taken a page from the controversial 2K17 and made the experience an entirely target-based system rather than the timing-centric one that has been used for so long.
This is a change that would be welcome on paper but, in execution, is problematic. For one, it ups the learning curve significantly and required me to play the entirety of the NBA 2K21 MyCareer prologue (more on that in a bit) before I felt like I had a somewhat decent handle on how to work the system.
At its core, the shooting system is now based around moving the Pro Stick to aim the shot to the ideal target. If you are on the right side of the hoop, that means the adjustments needed to make that shot will be totally different from being on the left side of it.
This goes for mid-range shots, three-pointers, layups, and more. There is a lot more about how shooting works that will make it a complicated learning experience for everyone, both veterans and newcomers alike. And even when I did finally get a grasp on it just in time to be signed to the Cleveland Cavaliers in MyCareer, I realized how much I preferred the older way of doing it.
There is no doubt that shooting has a more realistic feel to it but it also brings with it a challenge that is hard to execute even when you do finally have it figured out. There is so much variety to it that I do think that it holds back the experience overall. More challenges can be a great thing if done right, but this wasn’t the way to do it.
Instead of easily getting the highest rating each match as the point guard, I found myself barely staying in the C range and only breaking through to the B rating every once in a while. And most of that wasn’t because of the points I scored since I missed a lot of shots.
Instead, it was mainly because of the defensive side of the court that finally received signature defensive moves from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and more. This, coupled with the signature dribbling from last year, allowed for better control when it comes to moving around the court, which was the only positive change to gameplay for me.
Modes Are Largely the Same
While the gameplay did receive a few crucial changes, the game modes are largely what was included in NBA 2K20. You will find the standard MyCareer, MyTeam, GM, MyLeague, and so on. In each of them, there are only minor swaps to have them feel somewhat different from before and not much else.
The only two game modes that actually change quite a bit are MyCareer and the Neighborhood with new sights and sounds for both of them. The former features a new story-driven experience about Junior, a boy who follows in the footsteps of his talented father who passed away.
You start out with Junior in his high school days, showcasing his journey through high school, into college, and then, finally, navigating the difficult nature of the NBA Draft. From a glance, it sounds like an entertaining storyline but the execution, like much of NBA 2K20, leaves a lot to be desired.
For starters, the characters aren’t deep or interesting, with stale writing at best. The drama and twists don’t land well, either, with a fairly straightforward story in which the choices don’t really matter. There is only one choice that genuinely felt important besides picking a team and even if it just locked me out of certain brand sponsors.
The idea of showing the player in high school is solid but short-lived with only a few matches included and the return to college play is perhaps the highlight of the MyCareer experience. You do spend a good bit of time here with the school you choose but the drama surrounding it is forgettable.
There is a large focus on Junior’s boring romance and less of a focus on the characters who initially seemed important to the story. It doesn’t help that Junior himself isn’t exactly a star-worthy character and I would have been fine with him not talking at all. Finally, when it comes to the NBA Draft, this section went on a lot longer than it should have with challenges and unnecessary padding for no reason.
There were several times that I did want to skip directly to the NBA, which you can thankfully do, but I stuck through with it. When it comes to the standard NBA season of MyCareer, this is where the game mode shines as always. Going through the decisions, progression, and ebb and flow of being a professional player is just as fun as ever with little changes involved.
Then there is the Neighborhood where I spent a lot of time trying to collect VC (virtual currency) for making my character better. Fortunately, there is a new Venice Beach location that was instantly more exciting than last year’s Neighborhood, with its stunning beachside setting and gorgeous views.
But when it comes to what to do in the new Neighborhood, this is another situation where I ended up doing the same old content and daily missions as before. This is less of a problem with the content, though, and more of an issue with the progression system.
Like in NBA 2K20, there is a huge emphasis on the VC microtransactions. Sure, you can earn VC through the usual content and matches but the grind to get enough to make a difference for your custom character is unbelievably long. Much of the game feels like you are encouraged too much to purchase VC with real money and it feels scummier than ever.
NBA 2K21 Begins to Show Its Age
One issue that is somewhat new to NBA 2K21 this year is that the basketball game is starting to show its age. The Neighborhood looks great and the courts are more impressively realistic than ever before, but the players and other characters look awful. The animations are stiff, especially in the facial department, and the lack of detail is cringey, especially in cutscenes.
It is possible that this could be due to the next generation coming up later this year, but even still, it is hard to believe at times that this is a new game in 2020. These aren’t just visual problems, either, as the AI is bizarre and buggy at times.
There are too many moments in nearly every single game where the opponents will just shut down. There could be two minutes left in the match and the other team will just stand still, dribbling the ball in place and running the clock down. They wouldn’t move or pass or anything until the very last second and this happened pretty often with little I could do about it.
I also found that my own teammates were oftentimes unresponsive as well, failing to pass the ball to me even though I was completely open and ready to charge in to make the layup. That said, they did excel when it came to making shots and, given the controversial aiming-based shooting in NBA 2K21, they were the reason we won most games with their near-perfect aim in every single shot, including three-pointers.