This year’s NBA 2K game has more changes than you might expect for a yearly sequel, but not all of them are for the better…
Assuming you’re familiar with basketball, the NBA, and gaming, you’ll be aware of 2K’s latest release NBA 2K21 and likely already have a copy. The franchise has been the standout sport sim of the last few years and has eaten its competition, leaving the likes of NBA Live on the scrapheap.
With the licensing, the contract with the NBA, a growing eSports scene, and an incredible number of endorsement deals, there’s no sign of 2K losing its crown anytime soon. The challenge of developing a game in the midst of a global pandemic does present a unique test for this year’s version, but whilst the pressure of hitting its annual release date will undoubtedly have contributed to some of the problems that doesn’t excuse them all.
For a series that monopolises the market, 2K is in a funny position. Competitive online gaming is clearly the endgame and ever since the introduction of the Park in 2K14 the series has been trending in that direction. But there have been misjudgements and poor decisions along the way that has always left their community feeling hard done by or short-changed.
The introduction of the Neighbourhood in 2K18 only served to speed up this transition and marketing things like ‘The Road to 99’ suddenly took away a lot of the fun in 2K. Every game meant something but that something wasn’t for everyone.
Impressive career storylines and offline challenges within myTeam meant 2K still had something for the casuals though and was part of the reason NBA 2K20 scored so well last year.
It’s a shame then that 2K21 has left most of that behind.
2K21 is almost entirely built for the online competitive gamer, those who have 10 hours a day to grind out badges and build their rep. If you buy 2K solely to play offline the news isn’t good, unless you’re happy to buy loot boxes of course.
We’ll come to the online play shortly but here are the problems as we see them. Firstly the story in myCareer – usually such a big part of 2K games each year – is undeniably poor.
The girlfriend storyline is weak and predictable but also infuriating as you approach the end of your college career. Select the wrong dialogue option and that’s it, no NCAA finals game, straight off to the NBA. Funnily enough that is maybe the one bit of dialogue that meaningfully affects your career – the rest seems like fluff, and although your answers in the personality test can improve or decrease your stock value it’s a predictable and dull story.
It doesn’t end there either. One of the great elements of past careers was the pageantry and presentation. The bow-tied Ernie Johnson as the anchor, Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith and Shaq his sidekicks in the 2K pre-game show. It was legitimately brilliant – a couple of minutes of relevant and contextual build-up, a laugh or two and something that really felt part of the career mode story. And yet it’s gone in 2K21. It has been completely stripped out of the game.
You’ll still find plenty of familiar parts in myCareer. Training is identical, your coaches are carbon copies of last year, and the draft combine hasn’t changed a bit. Once you’ve been drafted behind your rival and friend Hendrix Cobb… that’s it. As soon as you’re in the NBA there are no further cut scenes, no interviews and no dressing room or pre-game shoot arounds. It’s all gone.
You’re also given a choice towards the end of your college career: go with the big corporate agency or keep your family friend as your agent. Your decision, you’re informed, will affect things like team chemistry and which endorsements you’re signed to. Except the event cut scenes have gone and endorsement deals are just done over text.
Career mode has been stripped back to the point where all it represents is an arena to level up your pro for the Neighbourhood. If you’re an offline player who invests hours into a career mode built with layers of content and presentation, this is not the 2K for you.
Speaking of presentation, what’s changed? Beyond a couple of new sponsored replays by the likes of Mobil 1, everything, and we mean *everything* is the same as 2K20. Even the commentary, usually so refreshing each year, feels rehashed. At best you’ll hear a couple of new anecdotes from the colour commentators but given we’ve heard at least one of them twice in our first 20 games, it’s another area that seems half-baked.
The player likeness this year is decent enough but in some cases (Andrew Wiggans and Nicolas Claxton, for example) it’s a real letdown, whilst the cut-out in-arena crowds are badly needing an update. Perhaps 2K has eked out all it can on current gen consoles and has improvements planned for next gen, we shall see.
The second major game mode is myTeam and while it hasn’t always been for everyone it has provided hundreds of hours of gameplay over the years, in interesting and creative ways. 2K20 propelled it forward with Evo cards and the Spotlight Challenges and was the franchise’s biggest success in years.
Importantly, it gave offline players a wealth of content to work through with regular updates and content drops keeping things interesting. This year 2K has introduced seasons: a 40-day run of challenges with XP to be earned by completing milestones in games with certain players. The idea is a good one but early signs suggest the execution is off.
The top prize in season one is a pink diamond Steph Curry card – strong but by no means all-conquering – which is frustrating given how difficult it will be to accomplish. Rough calculations mean you would need to complete around 15 challenges a day for 40 days straight to hit the max rank and add Curry to your team. Impossible unless all you do between sleeping is play 2K.
It’s one of many moves that favours the hardcore gamers, streamers, and content creators. For casuals, any hope of completing a season appears dashed just a week after release.
Domination returns in much the same guise as last year but with one noticeable difference. The three star challenges are now locked on Hall of Fame difficulty – the highest there is – and have already posed serious problems. Domination rewards always have a shelf life – wait too long and they won’t be worth pursuing – but given how hard the early game currently is it’s almost not worth investing your time unless you’re happy to pay-to-win.
Elsewhere, Triple Threat receives a nominal update with a new eyeball-assaulting court and little else. The difficulty has also been significantly upped and where the early tier games last year were fun and mostly quite easy, this year you’ll do well to win two in a row.
The difficulty of the offline modes in myTeam has been significantly increased to the point where it just isn’t fun anymore. Defence requires serious concentration and gameplans and you’ll regularly see average AI players knock down any open three they’re given, whilst offence is just about spamming pick and rolls.
Parts of the community will tell you to just ‘get gud’ but this isn’t something to be proud of – no-one in their right mind is going to sit and plough through hours and hours of offline gameplay in its current state. It’s a painful, frustrating grind, and unsurprisingly pushes the user towards buying loot boxes or playing online, which, inexplicably *still* suffers from significant input lag.
It might seem like we’ve gone overboard but we’ve not even touched the significant gameplay change 2K has introduced to this year’s game: the shooting mechanic.
In years gone by you could use the stick or the square/X button to shoot and it would all come down to your timing. Hold it too long and you’ll miss. Release too early and same result. With practice you could get the timing down and become a pretty good shooter with any player with a 70+ three-point rating and that seems to be the reason 2K felt the need to start over.
What we now have is a new mechanic whereby you have to pull the right stick down as central as possible – think pulling it down to the 6 position if it were a watch face. It seems fairly simple and it should be. Except it isn’t at all. There’s no tutorial within the game announcing this mechanic, or an explanation of what you should do, whilst the size of the shot meter is so inexplicably small you’ll find it very hard to use its feedback to improve.
It has been such a disaster that 2K issued a hotfix two days after the servers went live to make it easier at certain offline difficulties. On top of that it cannot be a good look to have your cover star call it out on social media too.
It’s a horrible change but would probably be fine if the alternative was viable, except 2K has reduced the make percentage of using the button. Another method that worked on 2K20 was to turn off your shot meter when you use the button as you receive a small boost. And for this year you can now press the left triggers as you make your shot for another little boost. But none of this is explained in game – our only source has been the Twitter feed of developer Mike Wang, it’s bizarre.
The new shooting mechanic is overly complicated and hard to get down. Some say it’s introduced a new skill gap and that might be the case at the top end but it has made the game almost unplayable for newbies.
Developers will always receive some credit for trying to revolutionise a tried and trusted area of a game but this needs addressing as a matter of urgency. The thinking behind it is linked to the Neighbourhood and online play, in particular the ludicrous builds people ended up with in late-stage 2K20, who could green three-pointers with a 50 rating so long as they had the right badges. This was making the competitive scene in Neighbourhood and in myTeam unrealistic.
So whilst there was space to make a change like this, what we now have is a mechanic designed for professionals and competitive content creators with the time in their day to hone the action to perfection.
It leaves a rank taste in the mouth and alienates new players, surely not part of 2K’s long-term strategy.
As ever, there were also problems at launch. Thousands of players complained of not receiving their pre-order bonuses like the 100,000 VC (virtual currency). It might not seem like a huge deal but if you’re competitive and want to level your player up immediately, you’re left with a decision to either pay for another 100,000 VC at around £20 or wait until 2K Support figures out the problem.
Innocent mistakes like this somehow seem to happen every year, and yet still players are enticed into spending more money on top of the £90 they had already spent on the Mamba Forever Edition. Interestingly for those days the VC went missing, so did items won on the Daily Spin – clothing, boosts, anything cosmetic, whilst the mobile app has yet to launch its card-collecting game, and with it the guaranteed daily VC you would receive.
Much of this was expected and though some elements of 2K21 have shown improvement – the gameplay does feel smoother and dribble moves on the skill-stick are a positive step – it is let down by familiar problems and a level of asset-stripping we didn’t see coming.
It’s a worry as we head towards next gen. The opportunities to purchase VC, ad placements and other gimmicks are more blatant than ever, whilst 2K’s social media is full of ads for the latest clothing companies selling in-game swag. This is a game that has never hidden microtransactions or apologised for them, they’re just part of the furniture.
With it, 2K’s casual fans have been cut adrift and unless the next gen is packed full of surprises, like a new story mode or even a change or two to myLeague/myGM there doesn’t seem to be much place for them going forward.
As it stands, pre-patches, 2K21 is the weakest sports game you’ll find amongst the various sims getting their final current gen release this year. Should you pin your hopes on next gen saving NBA 2K? Perhaps, but at this point that requires a a lot more optimism than many are going to be comfortable with.
NBA 2K21 review summary
In Short: It would be one thing if this was just NBA 2K20 with some minor changes but this rips the heart out of last year’s game solely to appeal to competitive online players, with many much-loved features stripped back or not included at all.
Pros: The idea behind seasons in myTeam may still work and the new Neighbourhood looks nice and should prove more competitive. Skill-stick dribble moves work well.
Cons: Horrendous new shooting mechanic, half-hearted story mode, and features littered with microtransactions. Online input lag is still a thing in 2020 and the presentation of myCareer has been asset stripped at launch.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, PC, and Stadia
Developer: Visual Concepts
Release Date: 4th September 2020 (10/11 on Xbox Series X/S)
Age Rating: 3
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