Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
There is no denying that the NBA 2K series has been the platinum standard for basketball games this console generation. They hit the ground running at the start of this generation and never looked back, much to the frustration of EA’s NBA Live series – to the point of becoming the only consistently released hoops game on the market the last few years. The core systems that have become familiar to 2K fans are here, for better and for worse without a ton of changes this year, with a handful of welcome tweaks and a potentially controversial change to the shooting mechanics as well.
I noted in my Madden NFL 21 review that this has been such a weird year for sports, video games and life in general. The NBA season was postponed, so right now the playoffs are taking place while 2K21 is attempting to do a bit of forecasting and serve as a simulation experience for the season to come. Normally by the game’s release, we have crowed the prior season’s champion, had the free agent signings and rookie draft, but this year none of that has happened, making this a very fluid season. It was an issue that Madden did not face, as the pandemic hit after the NFL season had concluded, but leaves me wondering if maybe NBA 2K should have waited another month or so before releasing.
There is another factor that makes this year a strange one for the annual sports video game releases, and that is the next generation of consoles. I noted in the Madden review that it felt as though the development team had to play a lot of things pretty safe, and that this year’s release looked a great deal like last year’s version and in many ways the same can be said of NBA 2k21. It makes sense given the hectic actual sports season, the impact the pandemic has had on work in general and development in particular as well as the need to split their focus between the current generation of console and the new ones releasing in a couple of months.
This does however, leave an impression that things are largely the same. Last year’s player builder for MyCareer was my favorite iteration yet, but this year it saw no changes from last year. Badge work is handled almost identically as well through drills that are largely unchanged in practices. The Gatorade training facility offers the same drills as last year as well (I really hate the agility ones – they’re the only ones I can’t get a 3 star in this year as well as last year. I will say that the beach aesthetic is a welcome change from the inner city that they’ve been using for the last fear years. Functionally, it’s not all that different, but visually it makes for a pleasant update.
Another nice small change is the swap from the gambling vibe of years past to putting the daily spin and pick-‘em games to an arcade setting. I thought the whole complaint about the ‘gambling simulator’ from some fans last year was completely overblown, but the arcade setting is just more fun. I do think it would have been cool if they had some basic arcade cabinets within that could be functionally played, but right now there’s just a handful of lifeless boxes labeled NBA 2K and Dino something-or-other that you can’t actually interact with. Speaking of the new locations, I did run into a handful of crashes during the first couple of days when I would try to access the cages, but those seem to have cleared up now. It is safe to say that things were a bit rough in some places right at launch, which is why I wanted to give the game a few days to breathe before publishing this review.
Probably the two most notable black eyes that NBA 2K21 has received since its release (outside of the usual ‘it is just a roster update’ grumble that tends to come with any yearly sports franchise) have been the changes to shooting and the issues with redeeming VC / getting preorder rewards. For the latter issue, it was chalked up to opening day server overloads, with people complaining on twitter that their pre-order items and purchased VC (virtual currency that you use for things like upgrading your player or buying new packs of cards in MyTeam) were not getting processed. Having had the Mamba Forever edition of the game myself, it did take about a day and change for those bonuses to come through, but they eventually did and never struck me as that big of a deal.
More problematic for many people, myself included, were changes to the shooting mechanic. A quick online search of “NBA 2k21” and “shooting” yields all kinds of articles and forum posts on the topic. It is an interesting change on the surface of things, allowing you to still use the button to shoot in similar fashion as the older games, but for people who like to use the right / shot stick, the changes were notable. There was a hotfix patch that made it less challenging on the lower levels of difficulty, though the higher levels of difficulty and park / beach are still pretty brutal.
Two examples from before the patch:
- On ‘pro’ difficulty, I was using Trae Young (86 overall 3 point rating) and going a bit launch happy in my game to test shooting with an established gunner. I was sticking to corner shot (trying to take advantage of his gold badge in that area) and I was 1 of 13. Now admittedly, not all of those were great shots, and the more you miss the colder your player gets and shooting out of a slump is hard. Out of those 12 misses, I noted that 7 of them were ‘wide open’ and some combination of ‘slightly early’ or ‘slightly late’, so hardly egregious misses. None of those went in. My only make was an ‘excellent timing’ or ‘green’ release. Pretty brutal considering that was the lowest level of difficulty and I had those ‘wide open’ shots.
- In an online 3 on 3 match, we collectively shot less than 20%. That percentage was helped by dunks and layups because neither team hit a 3 pointer all match. My struggle was real – but it was not mine alone
Feedback was swift and brutal. I mean, when your own cover athlete and notoriously big fan of the series (and actual NBA pro) is frustrated, odds are you got something wrong (keep in mind, this was from prior to the hotfix):
I will say that the fix has made the lower levels of difficulty a lot easier. It can still be frustrating – my sweet 3 point shooting the last couple of seasons has been my favorite part of the gameplay. Granted, last season had an abusable mechanic that I absolutely took advantage of (calling for a pick while in the corner leads your defender to back up and try to play the under on the pick about half of the time, leaving me quite open to drain triples). The defense definitely handles the screen concepts better on the ball (off of the ball, I see what feels like too many wide-open layups so far this year created by back screens that seem to work just a bit too well).
Where this change to the shooting works best: MyCareer. You have a single player, so you can focus on your stroke and get your timing down. Sure, it’s harder when you take your skills to the beach for multiplayer, but in theory if you’ve been using this character, you have a feel for how they shoot. I’ve managed to adapt quite well post-patch. I do think it’s still a bit too punitive and it doesn’t feel as good subjectively as shooting has for me the last couple of years, but it’s improving and I suspect that this will be a fluid season for NBA 2K21 given the state of the league in real life. Where the shooting mechanic works terribly for me: MyTeam. Why? Because you are constantly using different players to meet goals and objectives. This leads to a ton of different shooting and player styles, and to its credit, the players in NBA 2k21 feel as authentic and move uniquely from one another more so than ever (Jordan fadeaways from the high post for example, just look so smooth). But it is nearly impossible to develop a steady shooting stroke when you are constantly shuffling out players. I find the higher levels of difficulty in domination incredibly hard compared to the last couple of years, to the point where they are frustrating and I don’t even want to bother with them this season. So I hope further adjustments can be made on that front.
MyLeague / MyGM fall somewhere in the middle of these two modes. You’re using more players than in MyCareer, but usually only 7-9 different ones as you build a rhythm with your team and its players, so there is nowhere near the amount variance as you will find in MyTeam. These are both perfectly good, deep modes that don’t feel any different than last year though, which is a bit disappointing.
The mode that has seen some more tweaks is MyTeam. I had never been much into these collectible card / fantasy team modes in the past, until last year. Something about MyTeam clicked for me in a way that MUT and the other EA Ultimate Teams never had, and I sunk way more time into it last season than ever before. I like some of the changes this year – the ‘season’ approach to timed challenges, Evolution players are back (an RPG-like progression system for improving certain cards) – probably my favorite recent change and a couple of new additions as well. One is applying badges to non-evolution players to give them access to / improve some skills to make them even better, and the evolution system added a sort of specialization option to some players. For example, my Shaq starter card evolve into more of a pure athlete, or more of a defensive presence depending on which direction I want to take him upon meeting the evolution requirements. I can see that being a huge time sink for me, and one that I’m looking forward to. I just wish shooting was a bit smoother / more consistent on the harder levels of difficulty, and as mentioned above, is really exasperated in this particular mode.
Still, the mode I (and most players based on the in-game surveys that get shown) play most is MyCareer. As mentioned, the nuts and bolts of it hasn’t changed a great deal, but the window dressing around it is pretty fantastic this year. Your character (nicknamed Junior) starts his story as a high schooler, who then chooses one of several actual colleges, who then plays through those games and gets drafted to the pros. It’s very similar to the prior years in terms of taking the inexperienced player and introducing him to the NBA, but having multiple high school and college games makes for a satisfying season.
It also makes me yearn for the day we had college sports titles that could integrate with the pro ones that would release a couple of months early and let me live out a full earlier experience before graduating them to the bigs. From there it’s a relatively familiar path, but I enjoyed the narrative quite a bit more than the last couple of years, and there is a decision made as you go pro that actually has a tangible impact on how you grow your fans and endorsements as well. I’d love to see even more things like that where decisions have a spiderweb effect deeper into your career. 82 games (plus playoffs) is a lot of games per season – so some extra breadcrumbs like that are certainly welcome and hopefully a trend that we get more of going forward.
That being said, it was a little weird when with my first player (an athletic small forward, so thankfully not greatly impacted by the shooting changes) got drafted #2 to my team of choice, The Detroit Pistons. Why was it weird? Because my primary competition and childhood friend Cobb got drafted #1 by… the Detroit Pistons. I wish my Pistons could get the #1 and #2 pick in the same draft one of these days, but it was just a sort of weirdly jarring experience that sets up having the two players on the same team.
Also, I do not understand why 2K refuses to respect my preferred camera angles. I know a lot of people swear by the default camera and its ability to see the whole court, but being the old fart that I am who has been playing horizontally scrolling hoops games for about the last thirty years, I prefer my Nosebleeds angles. I get them in college and pro games, but the high school games and practice scrimmages still insist on forcing me into the vertical default camera. For a game with dozens of different options throughout, please for the love of my sanity 2K, allow me to play all of my games from the visual perspective of my preference in the future!
As for the actual gameplay? NBA 2K21 is the only current game in town, but really the series always shines on this front, even when considering the current shooting woes. It’s interesting, but the players feel more fluid and less ‘sticky’ than ever. People roll off of picks in ways that they didn’t in years past. The ball pinballs around a bit more on rebounds and steals, not sipping to predetermined straight lines. I’m seeing more fluidity in the rebounding game in general, including a variety of quick one-handed tips, two-handed bank in tip-ins and even follow-up dunks on the offensive boards that are genuinely exciting to look at. Alley-oops are a bit harder to pull off this year than the prior two years, but this feels fair – I think they were too easy in recent iterations.
That being said, boy they can look spectacular. There are still some weird AI glitches that occur (defenders standing out of bounds to try and defend the inbounds pass, or a player getting into a canned animation like a spin move that gets carried away and they wind up going over-and-back, things like that). Dribbling has probably seen the biggest improvement as chaining together ankle-breaking moves is easier than ever. I will say that blocking seems to have been beefed up a bit this season, for better or for worse. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or not yet – I see some pretty spectacular defensive plays in snuffing out fastbreaks, but I’ve had some games where a person walks out with 8 or 9 blocks multiple games in a row, which is pretty unrealistic too.
In terms of the presentation, it’s as slick as ever. Fantastic color commentary from the primary commentators to guest ones that come into the virtual studio, excellent action replays and more continue the legacy of television quality presentations. Admittedly there are a lot of recycled bits that get said from the prior couple of years, and when you play any season 82+ times, repetition is going to set in, there’s just no way around it. Still, I am really looking forward to seeing how it looks and sounds on the next generation of consoles. I will say that one small change was made this year to walk back an addition to last year’s NBA 2K game that I greatly appreciate. Last season the devs implemented a feature that if your character was on the bench near the end of a half, you had to sit there and watch those last several seconds play out. Once in a great while, it made for a cool, cinematic experience as you saw a team win or lose a game at the wire, but more often than not, it was an inconsequential sequence that simply killed the game’s pacing and drove me nuts about ten games into my first season. I am not sad to see that design choice go the way of the plodding big man.
In all, NBA 2k21 is still the best sports experience on the market. That being said, this feels like a strange year for the series, given the pandemic, altered real life NBA season and split attention between two generations of console. There were few significant changes made, but almost all of those updates were for the better – except arguably the most important one. To change such a core mechanic as shooting so fundamentally is going to be polarizing and while I have been growing used to how it works, I think more tweaks need to be made to finetune the experience. It’s been a strange year and NBA 2k21 reflects that in a lot of ways. All things considered however, NBA 2K20 was easily my most played video game over the last year and I suspect that will be the case for my upcoming year and NBA 2K21.Score: 8 / 10