We’ve been here before: annual sports title comes to a console about to be obsolete in a few months time, and people naturally expect that we’ll get nothing more than a full-priced update of last year’s game. Heck, some can even argue that this has been standard in annual sports titles for at least five years now. FIFA 20 generally felt like FIFA 19 with some improvements to a core gameplay that hasn’t changed since at least FIFA 17. Madden 21 (which was released days before this game) didn’t even fix bugs that already existed since Madden 19. With that in mind, it is easy to write-off NBA 2K21 as NBA 2K20 with roster updates, and after playing the game for a week, I have to say that I agree with them.
NBA 2K21 is at least 95% the same as last year except for roster updates and menu aesthetics. The former is not even a “proper” update as the 19-20 Playoffs are still ongoing. You may even say that the game is 98% 2K20 depending on how high you’ll rate the MyCareer storyline and if the very few gameplay adjustments matter. For example, in the hours I spent playing MyCareer and MyLeague, I was not able to notice new player animations. I cannot say for certain that there aren’t, but if there were, then it was incredibly hard to see. I did like the MyCareer facial animations of the main characters, but the others seem about average. Real player faces do seem updated for at least the most recognizable players, but I guess I’m happy they don’t all look the same.
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The AI in this game is so inconsistent and this goes for both AI team mates and opponents. When it works, it’s impressive, with the AI finally learning how to move without the ball. But when it doesn’t, the players on the floor play like head-less chickens. What hurts is that most of the time it’s your team mates whose AI is dumbed down. It is really painful whenever you see Luka Doncic not get intense D after scoring 15 in a quarter. Tuning up the difficulty makes things harder, but does not make your team-mates smarter, and instead of challenging it becomes frustrating. One could wave that off as just me having to “git gud“, but I simply don’t have as much time as I used to invest in a game such as this. I do appreciate some challenge, but it’s difficult to enjoy a game when the opposing team suddenly plays like an All-Star team two minutes into the fourth. When your own team’s AI works, that’s not much of a problem since you can rely on them to play as intense as you. But often, they make decisions that are counterproductive like driving to the basket with four defenders while you’re open and asking for the ball. The result is a defensive stop and receiving a team-mate grade penalty on your pass being ignored.
Defense was an issue for me in the NBA 2K series, and it’s still the same for 2K21. I still find it hard to man-up my assignment, sometimes needing help to prevent a drive to the basket. At least, contesting a shot still affects the percentage of it going in. That is not an issue in MyLeague play since you can switch control to the defender, but in MyCareer, it gives me headaches whenever I get play out of position. I have a slasher build, and I simply couldn’t compete against speedy point guards who can dribble the ball around me. Defending in 2K is a subtle art, which involves being in front of your man at all times. But sometimes, I feel 2K should allow me to play hard, in-your-nose defense especially since your defender can sometimes play like a defensive player of the year for some odd reason, and like in 2K20, the opposing team start double-teaming you after reaching 15 points. I understand I’m a bit of a threat, but I was playing in Portland, and Damian Lillard has 30 points in the 3rd, but the CPU was gunning against me like I was responsible.
There’s a new shot meter (again) and this time, you also control the direction of your shot. So on top of having to time the release, you need to be aware of the direction of the right stick. Although this is, on paper, a good approximation of the real-life mechanics behind a basketball shot, my opinion is that it unnecessarily complicates the video game aspect of it. It makes jump-shooting much more complicated, and often it made me use the square button a lot more than the right stick. For MyLeague games, I turned the aiming off in the options because it felt way too difficult for me using the broadcast camera. Sure, it added nuance to making jump-shots, but I’d argue that they could have improved something else instead. I’m not hating on the meter since it has its merits, but it makes the game that much harder to appreciate. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the game’s jump-shot felt broken on release. Multiple users were reporting that shots weren’t going in despite on lower difficulty, and even when they “greened” the meter (indicating a perfect shot release). 2K eventually introduced a hot-fix, but it was an inconvenience to those who played at launch and did nothing to endear the new shot mechanic to players.
The MyCareer story feels a bit better for me than the previous years’. You play as Junior, the son of local legend Duke, who has massive potential but had only started playing organized basketball during he senior year in high school. He had to deal with the expectations of the people around him, performing at a high level, and his father’s long shadow. Unlike previous years, the story is pretty light and I enjoyed it. While the writing won’t win any awards, it adds a little context and motivation to your actions. Your rivalry with Hendrixx Cobb was very light-hearted in the sense that you are rivals but aren’t hostile to each other. The game does give you some choices, but besides choosing your agent, none affected gameplay as much as it could have. Is it 2K playing it safe on MyCareer for the current-gen? Perhaps, but the story warmed up to me very quickly, providing me with one somewhat-bright light in an increasingly dark arena of the NBA 2K franchise.
One thing I certainly have mixed feelings about is that the game is still hard-pushing microtransactions to you. MyCareer and MyTeam are both as Virtual Currency (VC) heavy as in previous years, and while you can earn VC naturally by playing matches in MyLeague or via performing well in games and earning endorsements, the payout is not nearly enough to make significant improvements to your character. Not when everything else in MyCareer needs to be “bought” via VC. The whole system heavily favors those willing to pay real money for VC to put their character in a reasonable rating so as to compete in online matches in the Neighborhood, or even for just continuing their NBA career in the mode. 2K has totally normalized micro-transactions in their NBA game in that the whole system encourages players to fork in the cash to get ahead of the competition (or at least put you in a competitive level) or rock “expensive” on and off-court gear.
It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities to improve without forking in real money. Going to the gym for a work-out provides a small boost (depending on how well you did the mini-games), which is good for a few games. You can also buy Gatorade booster packs (using VC) if you want an extra boost on your stats. You can play online matches in the Neighborhood which earns you VC, but it needs a stable connection and the fact that I am not really big on online matches meant that I only went on one or two tries. You also go to a Team Practice before a game and those drills give you the boost you need to earn badges which are very crucial in 2K21. 2K could have expanded on the Team Facility mechanic for players who want to grind it out for badges (and possibly VC for scrimmages), but I guess there’s no money in that so they didn’t.
Also, the MyCareer mode still has script left over from 2K20. There are times when players will message you and call you “Che” (the name of your character in 2K20), and even the play-by-play commentary will call you such. I guess that’s why the pre and post game cut-scenes were removed, because 2K wouldn’t be bothered to update the scenes and voice-overs at least for current gen. That is so disappointing, considering the fiasco that was WWE 2K20. Don’t take my word for it, here’s a screenshot from Redditor u/came-in-like-a-wreck who posted it on the NBA2k sub-reddit.
My favorite NBA 2K mode has always been MyLeague. Yes, there’s no significant changes, but I got a better appreciation of the game through it because you are controlling a team instead of just one player (even though you can lock yourself to controlling your player if you so desired). The only thing that didn’t work out for me in MyLeague was the new shot-aiming, but that can easily be disabed in the options. I do hope that they’ll give a patch for 20-21 jerseys (we’re still in the 10-20 playoffs) once they are available.
When I played off-line MyLeague mode, it made me appreciate the very subtle improvements to the gameplay. Yes, the AI sometimes decides to have a day off in the middle of a game, but it was in this mode that my experience improved. It doesn’t mean MyLeague didn’t have the same problems MyCareer has, you just don’t notice it because your mind has settled comfortably to the same game you’ve been playing for years. 2K did add the functionality of simulating the whole season which, coupled with last year’s “Force Win” addition, gives you a lot more control over how the League progresses.
My least favorite mode was the MyGM mode, and since everything felt the same, I’m not gonna spend a lot talking about it since while it retains the deep micro-managing options of years past, it’s literally just last year’s mode with a few visual updates. I do like the micro-management of a franchise it offers (down to ticket prices), but the contract negotiations and the team chemistry goals as well as balancing the team needs with the budget on top of playing a full NBA season wears me down quickly.
The biggest disappointment (among the many disappointments) for me is the lack of a Franchise mode for WNBA. It’s still a one season thing which is a downer for WNBA fans who’ve wanted a proper mode for the women’s league. If 2K is serious about promoting WNBA properly, they should add the option for a proper Franchise mode come next-gen. The play animations are there, there are female body-types in the game, and it shouldn’t be too hard to make female computer-generated rookies. It’s all there, they just need a proper mode.
I really feel bad that 2K decided not to make significant changes and improvements to MyLeague, but I guess, looking at MyCareer’s focus on VC, MyLeague didn’t get a lot of attention because it doesn’t rake in the cash. In my opinion, MyLeague best brings the video-game NBA experience because it gives you a top-down view of the whole thing, and even allows you to take control of one player just like the other mode if you so want. Yes, MyCareer puts you into the shoes of a hot young prospect complete with a storyline and you’d have to earn your stripes via work-outs, but the excessive reliance on VC prevents me from picking the mode over MyLeague. It doesn’t mean that one mode is “better” than the other, but in this game, your enjoyment greatly depends on which 2K mode you actually play more.
In closing, NBA 2K21 for current-gen consoles ultimately serves as a “transition period game” as the company puts more focus and energy to the next gen. It tries to convince the player that it hasn’t forgotten its fanbase, by making an OK MyCareer storyline, a new location for the Neighborhood, an attempt at “improving” the shot mechanics, and other minor tweaks, but it ultimately fails by taking last year’s game, putting only minimal real change (besides the shot meter) and hope it works. The bad news is, that it doesn’t. Not when messages and announcers in MyCareer address you as last year’s character. Not when the same problems that has hounded the series for the last three years are still there.
NBA 2K21 will only make sense if you haven’t played 2K19 and 2K20, or if you don’t mind a full-priced update. The core basketball gameplay is still solid and fun at times, and I continue to enjoy my time playing with it. But these are hardly enough to recommend the game to NBA fans who’ve bought the games of at least the last two years. As a basketball video game, NBA 2K21 still works. But as a full-priced purchase, it just isn’t enough.