Time for another annualized sports title to make the case for your hard-earned cash. This time its the only basketball simulation on the market is NBA 2K21. Innovation in the sports simulation segment is a challenge most developers struggle to fully rise to on a yearly basis, often preferring to refine instead of rebuild. Developers Visual Concepts have the additional task of preparing their yearly NBA simulation for next-gen consoles which might placate judgment from those looking to make the immediate jump to the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S (via Dual Access which can be done by purchasing the Mamba Forever Edition of the game).
This means NBA 2K21 on current-gen, unfortunately, isn’t a big leap at all from its predecessor released a year ago. I for one was introduced to the nuts & bolts of the game when 2K20 became available as part of the monthly allotment of games on PS Plus last July. Fast forward to September 2020 and there’s not much to report on in terms of groundbreaking changes.
The game modes remain the same from 2K20 with some enjoying minor touchups and others having the life sucked out of them. MyTeam falls into the former, the card-based mode enjoying a new lick of paint to make things interesting with a rebuilt progression system. The cynical gamer might put that down to largely how real-world money spent on packs might’ve pushed this mode to the top of the to-do list. But it still does a good job of melding the appeal of collecting cards with the prospect of crafting a hotshot team of suped-up players to win in the offline and online challenges which get refreshed regularly.
Whether you’re trying to recreate the current NBA or WNBA playoffs or line up with legends of years past, you still need to approach each game with poise and structure. Whatever the sports sim version of Run ‘n Gun is, it won’t serve you well here. Taking time to learn the team playbook and being patient in unlocking its potential becomes a rewarding endeavour. 2KU is your best place to start if you’re new to the game. The training mode allows a lot of flexibility and makes up an important cornerstone of your experience. Simply put, ignore the intricacies and you’ll suffer on the court. This is where the game shines with the depth of the control scheme feeling well thought out and balanced. Whilst it’s a lot to digest initially, the forgiving game engine allows you to grow in confidence and start figuring out the best use scenarios for your developing skillset.
The new Neighbourhood in its fresh Venice Beach setting is where you can go wild with the trickery and aggressive play. Here you’ll bump into players of all skill levels and get a true sense of where you rank. Whilst I did experience some odd behaviour at times on a decent Internet connection, overall the idea and experience of shooting hoops with random players present a nice break from the formal hardwood.
Introduced this year is the contentious new shot meter that relies less on only your timing, encouraging the user to also guide the direction of the ball. Let me tell you, it is tough to master. So much so, the first update post-NBA 2K21’s release addressed this after feedback from the frustrated community. It was done equitably by allowing a softer learning curve and the option to switch it off in MyLeague, MyCareer and MyTeam, which I opted for. Instead, I relegated the right analogue sticks function to solely controlling the mellifluous dribbling system which benefits from some further refinements. Stringing dribbles together has never looked so smooth and natural. The new shot meter does, however, remain as the standard in online-oriented modes for the sake of separating skilled players from the noobs. So there’s no escaping it if you’re trying to be a serious contender online but having the option to go “Legacy” helps.
As for microtransactions, they feature heavily in this game and probably don’t do the 2K franchise any favours. Unless you’re a streamer looking to spend real-world money to generate content, it just feels like too much of a cash grab. The game throws you bits of VC in the hopes you’ll shell out more to avoid the grind. In modes like NBA 2K21 MyCareer however, there’s a case to be made for grinding it out. You inevitably become better at the game by using the limitations of your player as a reference as to where to improve. Shots I’d been missing early on in MyCareer become a lot easier to pull off after applying my hard-earned VC to some attributes. I enjoyed that bit of strategy and the choices it forced me to make when levelling up.
The downside of the timing of 2K21 is that certain modes that needed fixing or updating, were just ignored. MyGM suffers from this when it in fact required the most attention. MyCareer on the other hand has less meat on the bone than 2K20 which featured post-match interviews well into your ascent to becoming an MVP. In 2K21, your story and its supporting blockbuster production begin in High school, and by the time you hit the big leagues, it’s over. As in you no longer have your character being engaged by the game and a storyline. No chit-chat. No postmatch interviews. Nada. Just static emails that guide you for the rest of the journey as you play through regular season after regular season. Now, Visual Concepts might argue that rehashing those same responses and scenarios would’ve been lazy, even for them. And its probably true. But it only entrenches the notion that this game is a cobbled-together Frankenstein of 2K20’s best bits.
When its all said and done, NBA 2K21 plays an amazing game of basketball and is comfortably in the top 3 sport simulation titles on the market. With an eye on next-gen, current-gen players are being asked to pay the price of a generational leap, receiving little to no innovation in return. And with no respite in the games pricing and a full-on assault on your real-world coins, it becomes difficult to justify this game as an essential purchase unless you haven’t played the series in a while and are looking for your fix of NBA action. But if you’ve played 2K20, you’ve largely played this game and would be better served to wait out the world of innovation being promised for NBA 2K21 on next-gen consoles.
Available On: PS4, Xbox One, PC | Reviewed On: PS4 | Release Date: 4 September 2020 | Price: R1,130