September 10, 2020
Familiarity breeds contempt, and, as the years and new iterations roll by, 2K's NBA series grows increasingly contemptible. NBA 2K21 is essentially NBA 2K20 in a different wrapper, plagued with all of the same issues the previous game had, not least the continued implementation of its all-pervasive Virtual Currency, which infects almost every facet of the game's MyCareer and MyTeam modes. The game's overtly cynical microtransactions remain a sticking point, for sure, marring progression through what is otherwise yet another very good basketball game. But that's the least of the game's problems this year – NBA 2K21 feels like it's running on empty, perfectly content to rehash the same experience from last year.
Thank goodness next-gen is just around the corner, as it's high time NBA 2K underwent a serious revamp – for years now the series has remained unchallenged, as EA's attempts at resurrecting NBA Live went down the toilet, leaving the way open for 2K and developer Visual Concepts to seemingly become increasingly complacent when it comes to innovating. NBA 2K21 introduces a new MyCareer – as it does each year – this time dubbed 'The Long Shadow' (in which you guide new protagonist ‘Junior’ to NBA glory), and doesn't really do a whole lot else. Even the rosters are the same as last year, with coronavirus halting the draft (which in fairness, can’t be helped). The reasons to fork out for an upgrade are few and far between.
Perhaps NBA 2K21's biggest and most egregious problem is progression – MyCareer, in particular, being guilty of holding up your character's development unless you're willing to part with real cash to make your player even halfway decent. In a career mode where you're once again being touted as the next big thing, it's a joke to see your MyPlayer completely outclassed on the hardwood, saddled with rock-bottom stats and a laughable inability to be truly effective. How are you an NBA prospect, scoring six points a game and leading your team in turnovers? It's nonsense. This has been a perennial issue in NBA 2K games for a long time now, but it feels especially pronounced this year. A change is clearly overdue.
Compounding things are MyCareer games that are clearly scripted, so you go in resigned to a loss before the tip-off has even occurred. Couple that with sloppy character models that look like glassy-eyed zombies and the same 'fledgling basketball player makes good on his way to the NBA' narrative (albeit with the excellent Djimon Hounsou and Michael K. Williams putting in spirited performances) that it's hard to give a toss about, and MyCareer really isn't worth bothering with this year. It's a thankless time sink if ever there was one. It's not without its moments, but they're too few and far between. As your beleaguered MyPlayer, the entire experience can feel sludgy, like running through ankle deep molasses – it's deeply unsatisfying.
Outside of MyCareer, the on-court action is largely the same as it was in NBA 2K20, and so remains every bit as good as it has been year in, year out – but that's not really enough when you're asking people to shell out for a whole new game. NBA 2K21 is hugely gratifying when you successfully orchestrate a smooth passage of play, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Managing to successfully drive the lane and score, or sink a three-point shot feels like some rare strain of miraculous alchemy, rather than what you'd expect to happen.
That said, choosing to simply play NBA exhibition matches solo or with friends ensures you can't go far wrong with NBA 2K21. There's little to complain about when you're not playing against AI and maligning arbitrary missed shots (the shot stick feels askew in this one), fluffed free throws, or a layup that inexplicably clatters out of the hoop. It's also worth mentioning that the shot meter remains a superfluous thing; an irritating distraction that you should turn off immediately. Switch off the free throw aiming when you get a second, too – it's utterly abhorrent.
If you're already dead set on picking up a copy of NBA 2K21, I'd recommend putting most of your time into the improved MyTeam mode this year. At least that remains something deep and involving, with card collecting proving compulsive, as does the ability to build your own fantasy team, and then pit them against opponents. MyCareer – despite eventually opening out into the refreshed Neighborhood with all of the usual extras – can be a bit of a chore, whereas MyTeam is much less so. Alternatively, you have the mainstay MyLeague and MyGM 2.0 modes to delve into, as well as Quick Play with NBA teams galore (classic teams included) and the WNBA, so, like last year, there's really no shortage of content. On that front, NBA 2K invariably manages to deliver without fail. While MyCareer proves disappointing, practically everything else is present and correct.
Despite various refinements, it's impossible to shake the sense that NBA 2K21 is something of a retread of last year's game. We can only hope that 2K and Visual Concepts have grander ambitions for the next-gen version, because on current-gen platforms NBA 2K21 is severely lacking in genuine innovation or sweeping changes. You're better off sticking with a previous iteration and waiting to see what the series' next-gen debut can bring to the table. 'Everything is game', NBA 2K21's tagline proclaims, but on the basis of this year's effort, its ‘game’ is coming up seriously short.
The game's soundtrack hurts my head, but the commentary is very good, as indeed it always is. On-court sound effects and so on or all present and correct, too, including the all-too-rare sound of a swish.
NBA 2K20's spooky goggle-eyed characters return, ensuring your teammates in MyCareer look utterly bizarre. But the NBA and WNBA player likenesses are excellent, while the overall TV-style presentation remains exemplary.
For some reason, the shot stick feels completely 'off' this year. The shot meter and free throw aiming mechanics are dreadful, and sometimes attempting to drive the paint in traffic is ludicrous. The rest of the game feels robust, despite a lack of innovation.
The Neighborhood has been given a bit of a refresh and MyTeam has been expanded and improved, but everything else here is pretty much identical to last year's offering. There simply isn't a compelling enough reason to play NBA 2K21.
Not entirely unlike NBA 2K21 itself, there's a fair bit of overlap with previous lists, but this is a perfectly serviceable selection of trophies that covers practically everything you'd expect. It does the job just fine.
Unless you've missed a few iterations of NBA 2K, there are few – if any – reasons to delve into this year's offering. NBA 2K21 features the same old insidious microtransactions that have marred MyCareer for years, but provides very little that's genuinely new or fresh. Capping off the generation with a whimper, we remain hopeful that NBA 2K21 is a lot better on next-gen platforms, because this current-gen version is a lukewarm rehash.