Usually with cross-generation games like this, when we play on the shiny new boxes we expect to see the exact same game but prettier. However, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X version of NBA 2K21 uses the opportunity to take the ambitious leap forward that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 version didn’t. Everything feels newer and bigger, from the jaw-dropping variety in presentation to the giant City that can be explored in MyPlayer. It doesn’t shake the bad habits that rob the existing version of greatness, though: we’re still stuck with unnecessary grinding, putrid pay-to-win microtransactions, and a host of problems that seem like a direct result of NBA 2K21’s ambition. There’s a lot to be excited about, but much like a fast-break dunk gone awry, sometimes flash is less important than substance.
But my goodness does it look great. Everything on the court – and everything revolving around it – in NBA 2K21 is a technical marvel. Player models are incredibly detailed – so much so that I would frequently pause the game and watch a replay just to slow things down and appreciate it. Watching players’ expressions change as they contact each other in the air or fight for position off-ball is truly impressive. Even beyond the players, the sidelines feel so much more alive and dynamic. After years of watching static (or sometimes non-existent) movement courtside, it’s one of the first details I noticed about NBA 2K21. The unfortunate side-effect of all of this realistic glamour is that when things break down, like when a player stares blankly into the void at the freethrow line, it looks odder than it would otherwise. Still, NBA 2K21 is a good representation of what the new set of consoles are capable of graphically.
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Between the hoops, the new-gen version of NBA 2K21 addresses many of the legacy issues that have plagued the franchise for years. Players being warped into uncontrollable animations happens much less frequently, and as a result there’s more efficacy when on defense. Positioning isn’t just about reacting anymore; it can be employed as a strategy. There were several times, particularly in matches online, where my usual ability to drive past aggressive defenders with someone like Kevin Durant has been stilted due to being out-positioned. Unfortunately, the A.I. doesn’t take advantage of this in the way that it probably should. They were frequently overly aggressive on players who can drive but can’t shoot well, such as Markell Fultz. This makes it far too easy to get into the lane for an explosive dunk or easy foul call.
Movement also feels a lot better, with foot planting resulting in less sliding and more nuanced play. Again, the real beneficiary here is how it feels to play defense. Tapping the analog stick to one side or the other doesn’t result in a big move; instead, it results in the controlled player taking a quick step to the left or right to adjust position. One of my favorite refinements has been the ability to position yourself for a charge when playing against someone overly eager to drive the lane. The emphasis on position makes mid-game battles more fun and engaging than they have ever been in the past. The tradeoff is that the changes to the movement mechanics seems to result in accidental out-of-bounds happening far too frequently, especially involving the A.I. There were several instances where the CPU would dribble the ball out of bounds in really important situations, breaking the immersion that NBA 2K21 works so desperately to achieve.
Similarly, other new issues crop up as a result of some of the changes. The pick-and-roll is incredibly hit or miss, and frequently results in a far-too-easy basket for the offense. The off-ball defender doesn’t switch matchups when it’s appropriate and often sinks on players it shouldn’t, such as Steph Curry. This is likely a side-effect of the animations being less automatic than they were in the past, but given that the pick-and-roll is such a common tool, it’s a glaring issue.
NBA 2K21 makes quite a few changes outside of the arena, too. MyCareer features the same disappointing story from the previous-generation versions, The Long Shadow, but it now includes a branching storyline that involves going to the G League out of highschool instead of playing for one of the 10 available universities. The story follows mostly the same path as it did on the PS4 and Xbox One, though I did enjoy additions like the return of some characters that had made appearances in previous 2K stories, such as the over-the-top Jackson Ellis. That said, there’s an option to skip The Long Shadow and head straight to the NBA, and I’d still advise taking it. The writing is rarely any good, and the G League games are a slog to get through.
The rest of MyPlayer, however, has seen an ambitious overhaul. The City is a brand-new area to roam and explore with created players, and it’s absolutely huge. In fact, it’s arguably far too big. Even with a decent map to help guide me, it took far too long to get from one end of The City to the other. There is too much unnecessary padding, such as restaurants you can’t interact with and large construction sites that seem to exist for no reason. The City also seems to be capped at 100 players, which might seem impressive, but this isn’t a battle royale. Given that there are four different affiliations and a handful of courts per affiliation, those numbers are spread incredibly thin. In my experience, finding a 3-on-3 matchup can take anywhere between five and 10 minutes, which almost totally defeats the purpose of the incredibly fast loading times.
Even worse, The City just feels empty. There isn’t much to do but shop around, and with only 100 people on the server at once, it often feels like roaming Grand Theft Auto without anyone to interact with. The people I did see out and about were almost always zooming by on a skateboard at a choppy frame rate. It’s such a striking juxtaposition, seeing the gorgeously lit urban environment, only for it to feel empty and unengaging. The City does feel like it could be really interesting, but that would likely involve increasing the server capacity by an awful lot – which doesn’t feel entirely realistic, given that the servers feel spotty at best already.
Adding to the frustration of all of this is that your MyPlayer can’t transfer over from the previous generation version, which meant that the dozens of hours I poured into my previous character were entirely lost once I started playing on the Series X. This is likely due to the myriad changes in the mode, including a revamped badge system, but it shines the spotlight square on the gross microtransactions that can make the grind back to a high rating a whole lot easier. Even with the Legend Edition I was provided with, I was only able to get my player up to a 75 overall rating or so and I was instantly surrounded by players with higher skill levels because I didn’t want to purchase additional Virtual Currency. Even though getting dunked on can be fun, I’d rather it be because I got outplayed than because I didn’t drop an extra $100 on my player’s skills. It’s really a shame, especially because MyPlayer has so much potential to be one of the best and most complex game modes in sports game history if it ever stops trying to wring cash out of us.
One of my favorite additions to NBA 2K21 is The W, which allowed me to create a WNBA MyPlayer. It’s worth noting that it’s is drastically different and thin on features compared to MyPlayer; for example, there’s no story mode in The W and you can’t explore The City with your created player. Still, there are some exclusive features that can only be played inside of WNBA MyPlayer, such as a really nice indoor 3v3 court that served as my favorite place to play. Unfortunately, finding matches proved even more difficult here, but I was eventually paired with some A.I. teammates and opponents.
While MyTeam is more of the same, especially as it pertains to grinding out card packs or spending loads of Virtual Currency to get the players you want, the Play Now experience online was surprisingly fun. Latency still proves to be a problem, but my experience felt much more smooth than it has in the past. The gameplay changes really benefit online play, where defense feels a lot more focused than in the past and using stars like LeBron James to control the offense feels better than ever. I also never had a problem finding matches and didn’t experience any disconnects in more than 10 matches online, which is not something I could have said about the previous gen version.