You hear this said about annualized sports games every year, but this year it has a lot more truth to it than usual: NBA 2K21 is more of the same. That’s good in some ways: none of the minor changes have done anything to spoil the exceptional on-court experience, which accurately emulates the play and style of NBA basketball. Of course, it repeats the sins of its predecessor as well: Off the court, NBA 2K21 remains a disjointed mess and riddled with noxious pay-to-win microtransactions that leave a bad taste in my mouth. The addition of shot-stick aiming and a MyCareer reskin are nice improvements, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the lack of upgrades to key game modes while the focus on monetization only intensifies.
Between the baskets, NBA 2K21 features a handful of small upgrades but is otherwise extremely familiar if you’ve played any of the recent-year iterations. My favorite addition is the new shot-stick aiming, which allows for the challenge of actually aiming shots rather than just timing them. The best part is that it’s really difficult to master and resets the learning curve for experienced players in a beneficial way, and hitting a green shot – which requires nailing the target in the meter that appears when you hold down the right stick – is tremendously satisfying.
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As a side benefit, the right stick now has a full range of motion for dribbling, including pressing forward for signature size-ups like Jamal Crawford’s exaggerated crossover and behind-the-back moves. Being able to focus on creating space for myself using the right stick without worrying about accidentally flinging up a shot is a substantial improvement. In general, dribbling feels more responsive and rarely leads to the awkward, uncontrollable animations that have plagued the franchise for years. Chaining moves together, like a step back with James Harden into a Eurostep, is more natural than it was before. The changes aren’t always visually apparent, but it helps improve the already solid gameplay.
One of the reasons the lack of updates is so frustrating is that a handful of legacy issues remain stubbornly present. One of the most aggravating, especially when playing against another person online or offline, is how clumsy post-play is. On one hand, it’s far too easy to get the ball into the paint. Outside of awkward plays where the ball just hits the back of a defender, passes almost always reach the interior without much interference. Even more frustrating is that once the ball gets to the post, the start-up on animations is much too slow and lacks urgency. Rather than just going right to the hoop for an easy dunk or layup, players will sluggishly move toward the basket or awkwardly hurl up a shot from just a few feet away. When there is open space between the player and the basket, the player should always go right to the basket. In NBA 2K21, that is rarely the case.
Then there’s the CPU’s mishandling of all things related to clock management, which still happens constantly. For instance, sometimes a player will hold onto the ball with no urgency, five feet out from the three-point line as the clock ticks down. Sometimes, for no reason, the CPU will take the ball and walk into the backcourt for a violation. Another issue I noticed is that players frequently behave oddly in transition. Whether it be someone slowing down (even when they have a numbers advantage) for no reason, or three-point shooters collapsing in from the arc and crowding the interior, there’s frequently no logic as to the A.I. decision making in transition play. Similarly, the CPU is often much too aggressive on double teams, making it far too easy to find open teammates. This has been an issue for several years, and it’s maddening that it remains so apparent. NBA 2K21 does such a good job of looking like a game of NBA basketball that when things go awry like this, it’s really jarring.That being said, spacing has been improved in general, and I noticed that non-controlled players behave more realistically off the ball. I had a lot of fun finding open teammates as they curled around screens, made solid cuts to the basket, or slunk out quietly to the baseline for a corner three-point shot. Particularly in online play, I was pleased to find my A.I. teammates creating space for themselves and making room for stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo to isolate with more effectiveness. It’s touches like this that let NBA 2K21 do a great job of emulating a real game of basketball, for the most part.
It’s unfortunate that nearly everything outside of the on-court experience pales in comparison. Over the last several years, I’ve found myself looking forward to the MyCareer campaigns in the NBA 2K series. They are generally polished, well-written in spurts, and feature a fun cast. However, this year’s campaign, called The Long Shadow, is a colossal disappointment. The story follows Junior, a promising young talent playing in the shadow of his deceased father. In between his journey from high school play to the NBA Draft, The Long Shadow spends very little time developing any of its uninteresting characters and too much exploring Junior’s college love, in which he awkwardly chases after his girlfriend to declare his love like something out of a Hallmark movie. It’s too bad, because the premise could have been genuinely affecting, but it’s far too disjointed and shallow for The Long Shadow to be anything but an excuse to play a few games in a college uniform. It is nice seeing some form of college sports in a video game again, but that’s about it. Thankfully, there’s an option to skip the story and head straight to the NBA Draft.
The rest of the MyCareer mode is pretty good if you can ignore the horrible microtransactions that infest its every corner. The Neighborhood, a free-roam area where you can play pick-up online matches and make character modifications, is now set in Venice Beach. The change of setting is nice, especially because you spend so much time there. The colors are vibrant, the courts look great, and there’s something soothing about the cool blue backdrop. I had a lot of fun touring the area, buying new gear for my created player, and participating in pick-up games. As nice as it is to explore the more intimate space The Neighborhood provides, it mostly contains the same elements from last year’s game. It looks different, but there isn’t much new to do.
NBA 2K21 Screenshots
But of course, ignoring the microtransactions is easier said than done, because NBA 2K21 won’t let you look away from its monetization train wreck. Everything you do in MyCareer involves Virtual Currency (VC), from character upgrades to attire purchases and haircuts. Being able to compete at a high level in The Neighborhood requires upgraded attributes, and while you can eventually earn the VC to buy those for free, it would take a painfully long time. At least there are a handful of ways to acquire VC, such as playing games with your NBA team, meeting daily goals, and in-game endorsements – but it’s not enough. It really is a shame that the mode revolves around paid-for currency, because MyCareer has so much potential as a deep create-a-player mode… if only the grinding were a little less tedious.
Thankfully, MyTeam has at least ditched its horrible casino aesthetic from last year, but it still forces you into making a decision between grinding out mundane tasks or shelling out real money for the VC, which can be used to progress players or buy packs to unlock more. There does seem to be an emphasis on customization for MyTeam this year: you can now choose different skill paths for your evolution cards, such as focusing on athleticism or playmaking, which should help guide players to better fit under my individual playing style. MyTeam has also added a “seasonal” component that will allegedly add new modes as they unfold. As it stands at launch, though, MyTeam desperately needs a few more enjoyable ways to grind out team improvements and cards.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the modes left untouched by microtransactions, such as MyLeague, have seen no meaningful upgrades. Even though MyLeague has enough features to serve as an excellent simulation, it lacks the life of what makes the NBA so fun to follow. Built into every NBA season are the stories that come with it, whether it’s LeBron’s departure from Cleveland in 2010 or Kawhi Leonard’s storybook year as a Toronto Raptor in 2019. MyLeague should feel dynamic and alive. Instead, even for a big fan of this mode for years, it’s starting to feel like I’ve been doing the same thing for years without the hope of moving forward.
In a world where online play was entirely stable, I don’t think I’d ever find myself playing against a CPU opponent again. The best way to play NBA 2K21 is against other people, and that’s only emphasized by the gameplay tweaks to this year’s iteration. However, as has become an annoying tradition, online play remains hit or miss in NBA 2K21. I had several instances where my game mysteriously disconnected just a few minutes in, even on a wired connection. I also had some crashing while roaming The Neighborhood, especially when going into areas that require a loading screen. It also feels like the skill gap continues to grow between players who are willing to put in the time to learn the mechanics and those who don’t, which is a good thing. Anybody looking to brute force their way to victory by sprinting up and down the court without bothering to engage in a half-court offense is likely to have a bad time.