NBA 2K21 sees new life on the PlayStation 5, and benefits quite nicely from the extra horsepower. While it is not a completely different game than the one that came out a couple of months ago, this iteration of the series does do several things differently.
It still seems weird to refer to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 as ‘last-gen’, but here we are. Next-gen is now and the visuals for NBA 2K21 on the PlayStation 5 are a pretty fantastic showcase for it. No doubt by now if you’re a fan of the series, you’ve seen the teaser trailers and some of the images for 2K21, but these honestly don’t do the visuals justice. Certainly, they are pretty. The facial details, the reflections from neon signs off of the hardwood floors and more add some glitz to the graphics, but the animations were what I found myself noticing most. The way players handle the basketball, the planting of feet as they break into a dribbling or cutting move and the tangle of arms and legs on collisions all jumped out at me. Fan look better than ever, and while that may sound like an odd thing to bring up, they don’t look like the cardboard cutouts of old, and move around in more convincing fashion that helps support the immersion that the broadcast style presentation so successfully sells.
Now, that’s not to say the graphics are perfect. It’s clear that NBA 2K21 was being built for two generations of consoles at the same time, so you see some repurposed assets (such as player’s faces) from last gen, and you can still see weird things happen where an arm clips through a body in a completely impossible way. Also, while animations feel less canned than in years past, there is still a bit of strangeness with foot placement now and again (especially when navigating narrow spaces such as the baseline 3 point line. Getting set up for corner 3’s just feels harder than it probably should be. Also, the camera is a bit weird.
Maybe it’s just me and the way I play, but I frequently use a side view – I have for years. Nosebleeds with a slightly elevated and zoomed out view that gives me a pretty good look at the action. I get that 2K wanted to showcase the improved visuals, but even fully zoomed back in the camera settings, it is more cropped than the Xbox One version of the game, which made just about any view other than the vertical “2K” view almost impossible to deal with. You lose sight of players too easily off of the edges of the screen and can’t keep the action in the frame as effectively. So, I had to make the switch. It works, it’s just not what I’ve been using for the last several years.
In terms of the players and their collision physics, I’ll say it’s still solid if somewhat frustrating at times. The majority of the time players move in ways that seem realistic. I am definitely seeing more charges than in prior versions of the game, which I consider a good thing. Big bodies have more heft when slamming into one another in the post (and this is only further accentuated by the haptic trigger feedback, which was really weird right first, but soon became a pretty cool feature to me). Every once in a while I found myself getting hung-up in the lane, mentally counting out 1 ½ seconds on offense and trying like hell to get out before committing the 3 second violation and my player could stumble into a teammate who was just standing there blocking me. The end result was my character basically running in place like a hamster in a wheel for that last second and drawing the sort of silly 3 second violation that you’d never see in real life. I’m not sure how you address these same-team collisions as they’ve been a problem for years now – I was just hoping they would be completely gone by this release, but unfortunately not.
That being said, as I mentioned above, the weightiness of players is welcome, and the speed of quicker, more nimble guards by comparison feel more realistic than ever. There were times I could just turn the corner on a defender and go flying to the rim and make a spectacular play… or get crushed by one of the bigger men on defense, and it all looked pretty great. It’s also worth noting that the ball physics seem better than ever. I noted this in my last-gen review, but rebounding, tipped balls and the like just seemed more realistic than in years past, and it seems even better here. For years the ball was treated like it was on a string, and extension of the player’s hand during dribbling, passing, stealing and rebounding. That is far less the case now, and NBA 2K21 is better for it.
The modes are generally the same, with a focus on MyCareer and MyTeam making up the bulk of things here, and on the surface it’s all pretty similar to what we saw on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. MyNBA is a merging of MyGM and MyLeague that I approve of. That being said, I appreciate that MyCareer shook a few things up. It’s still the same core story as you take your player from high school to the pros, but there are some new wrinkles here. There was a moment in the last-gen version where you had to choose who your agent was going to be, and it offered some tangible differences around things like gaining more fans.
It was a nice bit of ownership over the character progression, but I like what they did here in the PlayStation 5 version instead. Now there is a larger choice earlier on – right after high school. You can choose to take your player into the G League or go to college. The college route is pretty much the same as what we saw before on Xbox One, but the G League (with some amusing cameos from prior 2K characters like ATM and Shammy Wells for additional humor) was a pretty cool touch and the new content was welcome.
While discussing modes, I have to say I appreciate that the MyPlayer character builder is more flexible than ever. There has been a strange fixation on cookie-cutter architypes over the last few years, and while those have become less restrictive of late, this new builder is more open and the experience is better for it.
Additionally, there is a WNBA mode, and while this won’t excite everyone, there is a notably different feel to the women’s game. It’s less about crazy athleticism and focused more on core gameplay. You won’t get as many ‘wow!’ moments using the women players, but there is a much bigger focus on passing and shooting and it is a welcome addition.
Speaking of shooting, that was probably the most controversial aspect of the NBA 2K21 release on last-gen consoles. I know it was a struggle for me when I played on Xbox One. I adapted and got better, but there were also tweaks made by the development team to make the game a bit more accessible again. Those lessons having been learned already, this iteration of the game benefits from having had those tweaks made prior to the release. The shot meter’s nice and large, you can tweak your shot settings a few different ways.
While the devs deserve credit for taking feedback from the prior release and applying it preemptively here, there are some issues still from the technical side. There’s some weird cross-account stuff if you happen to have the game on both PS4 and PS5. They share one pool of VC. Also I have seen instances of MyTeam daily login bonus not working for both platforms on the same day (if I log into PS4 first, I don’t receive a daily bonus on the PS5). Also, Locker Codes are in a weird state. If you try to redeem it on PS4, I get an error to contact Customer Service, but the code never actually redeems (I made a video of this and reported it to customer service – they said there was nothing they could do).
This also has the weird effect of using the code up for the PS5 platform (when I try to put the code in on that platform after attempting on PS4, it tells me the code is already redeemed. In talking to Customer Service about this, they said that on their end it shows as redeemed successfully. I shared video of the problem and again no current fix). However, if I redeem Locker Codes first on PS5, it works there (but does ‘use it up’ on PS4). There’s some zany account issues that need massaging here it seems, and currently Customer Service doesn’t seem equipped to handle them, despite an error message directing players to reach out to their team. Honestly, these feel like pretty minor things, but they still mar the overall experience slightly.
One of the series staples over the last few years has been The Neighborhood. Now we get The City, which is a massive, sprawling experience that is annoying tucked behind a Rookieville wall that forces you to play several online matches before you get to see what the city has to offer. There’s an MMO-like component to The City that makes it feel more active than The Neighborhood was, and there’s no shortage of things to see and do. There are NPC’s to encounter with exclamation marks over their heads that give you quests (generally beating a specific team of players) for rewards. That being said, the shops are really the most prominent thing here, and dovetails into one of the series’ longest-running complaints (which I’ll address in a bit).
In all, I think I spent about an hour interacting with everything, and sure – some of those items were more interesting than others, but it’s still a pretty cool gameplay hub that is bound to get even better in future releases. I will say that it feels just a bit empty, and it still takes too long to get pickup games going (I don’t really know how you remedy this except that events do a better job of funneling players in than just walking up to a court to play). I just dislike that I had to sink nearly 2 hours of neighborhood games in while standing around the Rookie training grounds to get there. I personally only tend to take advantage of online games when I have buddies to play with or there’s a themed event going on. I just don’t personally care to stand around waiting 10-15 minutes to play my next match, which there’s a lot of happening in this Rookieville area. That needs to go. Otherwise, The City itself is a winner.
So the perpetual elephant in the room with this series over the last few years: Microtransactions. It comes in the form of VC (virtual currency) here. Either you’re okay with it or not. If you’re okay with it, you continue to play the game yearly. If you’re someone who is willing to invest even more money into this title, then you actually like the system. If I were to guess, 2K makes quite a bit off of this system or they’d have minimized or removed it by now given some of the harsh criticism they’ve received over the years. I am not a big fan of it, because it does create a player imbalance (both in MyCareer and MyTeams), but I play regularly enough, take advantage of daily logins and goals as well as Locker Codes that I still make pretty rapid progress throughout the year.
That being said, given the above bugs I’ve run into and the inability to bring your player over from PS4 to PS5, I can see where the constant microtransactions could be annoying. This plays into The City as well, where about 70% of the structures you can visit are shops of some sort which… you guessed it, relies heavily on microtransactions. Again, not the biggest of deals to me – I find after a couple of weeks of daily logging in and playing that I tend to have earned some nice cosmetics through the daily prizes and such, but for those who were hoping maybe the VC system would be scaled back a bit going into the new generation of consoles, I am sorry to report that is not the case.