Sports as a whole have been in a rather odd place this year thanks to the current pandemic and while nearly every sport has managed to figure things out and get started back up, basketball was one of the first to get things moving again. As such it only makes sense that NBA 2K21 would continue to come out right on schedule with an attempt at trying to add some improvements even while last year’s season still runs its course. That being said, with an annualized sport game such as this one, especially one that won’t even feature an altered roster due to the delayed season, has NBA 2K21 made enough improvements to be worthwhile?
First things first, players will still find that there is a fairly meaty story presented through the MyCareer mode that allows players to create their very own potential basketball star and bring them up from high school, through college, and eventually to the NBA. This time around players undertake “The Long Shadow” story that involves creating their own character that will be dubbed as “Junior” who hasn’t played basketball in years despite his father being a legendary player that could have made it big but never went to the NBA out of college. This made Junior hesitate to try and step into his father’s shadow but with a little nudging he manages to step foot onto the court and begin his journey.
There is some solid ground and storytelling to be had through most of The Long Shadow as seeing Junior step into his own makes for some great moments but too often the story veers randomly to try and develop odd connections to Junior’s past love interests and other things. These random interactions end up having no real bearing on the story as a whole and feel a bit forced at times. That being said, there are a few decisions to be made throughout the story that will play a bit of a factor in how various parts of MyCareer will play out. Unfortunately once Junior makes it to the NBA draft, the story comes to a complete end with no fanfare or even an attempt at trying to allow the player to have some semblance of interaction with their team outside of taking their homegrown player into the newly located Neighborhood.
When it comes to annualized sports games, everyone wonders just what improvements to the gameplay have been made to make things a bit more challenging or lifelike compared to the real thing and for the most part NBA 2K21 remains the same game as last year once the player gets on the court outside of one significant change (that can be opted out of) to the shooting system. Players will now need to take their shots using the right stick as the “Advanced Pro Stick” to properly aim and time their shots for the basket. Outside of slam dunks, no matter what style of shot the player is making will make use of an accuracy meter that will now appear and must be lined up within a certain target area to try and sink the basket. Easier shots such as lay-ups and free throws can be a bit more forgiving when it comes to making an error in aiming but be prepared to throw plenty of bricks into the air until the new system becomes second nature.
That being said, this style of mechanic is still a bit rough around the edges as players who should easily be able to make shots at even the worst of times can completely miss shots that are aimed accurately with no coverage. This can of course be chalked up to chance but happens far more often than one would think and generally makes for aggressive plays to be the more rewarding options as playing outside the paint is far more difficult than ever before and not in a good way as the AI on the player’s team generally neglects to successfully field rebounds or set up for more complicated plays without the player taking things into their own hands. This isn’t to say that the AI is bad, as it can handle itself as well as ever, but players should be ready to be aggressive this time around. Thankfully one other element that this Advanced Pro Stick brings with it are a variety of new moves that can be used both on offense to try and fake out or slip around a defender as well as on defense to intercept passes or block shots.
Off the court is where things become a bit more complicated and not for a good reason. MyLeague mode remains basically entirely untouched from last year and while this isn’t too bad as it still offers an extensive amount of freedom for players to take advantage of while the Neighborhood also features most of the same mechanics as before, only this time it is now located on Venice Beach in California, with plenty of little side activities to sink time into as well as courts to take part in pick-up games with others online in 3v3 or 5v5 matches using everyone’s created character from MyCareer.
It is in MyCareer and MyTeam that things become rather rough in regards to a certain issue that has been plaguing the 2K basketball games for years and that happens to be microtransactions through the use of VC. Almost everything that the player wants to do in either of these two modes requires some use of VC and the grind to obtain it. Leveling your personal character’s various stats to improve their abilities and make them more viable, simple customization options such as clothing, haircuts, and tattoos, all require VC. MyTeam similarly features a number of mechanics that encourage players to pick up card packs to try and improve their teams as fast as possible. Seasons have been implemented to offer players rewards for playing often and daily challenges also can boost the ability of the player’s team for a time but often these challenges cannot even be completed due to the player not even having a required card set, encouraging them to purchase more. This doesn’t even touch upon the numerous pop-ups that appear whenever the game is launched encouraging players to check out the latest things added to the shop.
As for the online play itself, as mentioned before it often runs at its best when used for pick-up games in the Neighborhood or through the delightful NBA Threes mode as larger scale games often suffer from bad lag to flat out disconnects on wired connections and considering the new shooting mechanics that require more precise timing, this generally leads to a bad time all around when things get rough.
Visuals & Audio
One thing that continues to impress year after year happens to be how detailed the players look in these games and NBA 2K21 is no exception. Fans of each team will immediately be able to recognize their favorite players and the various nuances a few of them have while shooting or performing drives up the court and while none of the “bubble” arenas are playable the recreation of every hometown stadium is once again impressive with a shout out to the neon Triple Threat court. It is worth noting that it is still very clear that nearly all of the opening animations and half-times are recycled from last year and that basically all of the standard animations also remain recycled and, in some cases, shockingly stiff at times.
The soundtrack features mostly new tracks that generally fall into the rap genre though a few surprising pieces of music do mix things up occasionally and as far as the voice work is concerned all of the story content features some impressive acting. The commentary team during the game’s remain mostly the same though there are references to current events that help make things feel a bit more updated from time to time and it is a nice touch that the WNBA side of things features a different pair of commentators.
By offering a new style of shooting NBA 2K21 helps make things far more interesting and provides players some new tools to their arsenal on both offense and defense on the court. That being said, even when executed properly this new style of shooting can be far too inconsistent at times with even star players missing perfectly set shots. Outside of these new shooting mechanics, NBA 2K21 plays the same as last year’s entry and when it works, it is an outstanding presentation of sports that can have someone thinking it is a real game at a glance, but between a story mode that comes to an abrupt end and the only real updated modes of MyCareer and MyTeam feel more like ways to extract more microtransaction money from the player’s accounts than anything else.