NBA 2K21 Review: Shot Clock Violation
The NBA 2K franchise has been arguably the pinnacle of sports gaming for much of this console generation, but NBA 2K21 shows the franchise's age, as if it's desperate for a next-gen timeout to give it some energy.
Feeling like a $60 stopgap until the PS5 and Xbox Series X and Series S arrive, NBA 2K21 feels devoid of any momentum or drive. Its saving grace is that it remains built on the bones of what made the last few entries of the series so well-regarded, despite offering nothing of any real value in and of itself.
NBA 2K21 Review: Shot Clock Violation
The most significant strides have come, luckily, in the on-court action. It's rare that a franchise decides to shake up its control scheme so fundamentally, and while not everything works perfectly, there's definitely a big improvement when it comes to dribbling.
Unlike in previous titles where the right stick would double as both a dribbling and shot input, NBA 2K21 leans much more heavily on the former. This allows for much more free form locomotion, with the best of the NBA and WNBA able to size up opponents with a simple flick of the stick. At the same time, more elaborate moves reward those looking to sink time into learning how best to manipulate space and bamboozle defenders.
This also brings out the best in offensive play, with players now surging forward in transitional scenarios and reacting to defensive layouts and players dribble with impressive realism, making it feel less like a game of tag between telepathic defenses and predictable forwards.
If It Ain't Broke, Then Why Are You Fixing It?
Unfortunately, it's not all good news, with these new dribble stick options coming at the detriment of basketball's key pillars: shooting.
Previously, players could spend enough time to learn the rhythm of each player and their shooting aptitude within different coverage situations. Now, shots no longer "lock on" to the basket as they once did, meaning aiming and power need to be taken into account, all within the fraction of a second it takes for your player to jump and shoot.
A post-launch hotfix has made shooting more forgiving on lower difficulty levels, but when even cover star Damian Lillard is tweeting about the issue, it's clear something isn't quite right.
There's no denying the allure of more rewarding three-pointers, but all too often, that's outweighed by missing a shot from right under the basket. There's also a degree of learning to play the game again, but the whole thing feels like trying to rub your stomach while patting your head.
That's not all that disappoints this season, though.
Short of some improved facial renders (how did it take this long for 2K to nail Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?!), it's tough to tell this year's game apart from NBA 2K20 or even NBA 2K21. That's not to say either of those titles were ugly in any sense. Still, the fact that the likes of the National Anthem and many of the halftime shows have essentially been copied and pasted adds to the feeling that 2K21 is treading water until the more expensive next-gen version.
One area that has seen a makeover is the new 2K Beach, which forms part of the Neighbourhood mode that lets players get involved in quick pick-up games. It does nothing to change the overall purpose or gameplay loop of the mode, but it is a little nicer to look at than the blacktop courts we're used to seeing, and it adds a nice splash of color.
We don't know how 2K keeps doing it, but MyCareer remains the best example of single-player storylines in the genre.
This time around, the narrative remains a little less effecting than last year's arguably more culturally relevant effort. However, it still packs plenty of star power with the likes of Michael K. Williams and Djimon Hounsou joining the cast.
There's still not a great deal of player agency, particularly in the early stages, with some matches determined to be lost, but it offers a fun way to practice the new shooting mechanics and earn some more VC (more on that later).
That said, despite the addition of the WNBA last year, it's disappointing that we still can't create a female character, or even play a kind of MyCareer alternative as a current WNBA player.
Spend Some Time Or Spend Some Money
MyTeam remains the focal point for the 2K franchise, with constant suggestions to hop into the squad-building mode. Thankfully, 2K21 has dropped the tone-deaf casino aesthetic from last year, but it remains a money-sink for dedicated players to invest their hard-earned cash in.
The game's currency, VC, is still handed out in a slow trickle, meaning you'll continuously grind to earn packs for the most part.
The in-game economy remains a ridiculous choice between spending VC on packs to build out your squad or cosmetic and stat boosts for your created player. Sure, both can be earned through perseverance, but it's a tough pill to swallow for a $60 game lacking in new ideas.
It's the complete antithesis of leveling up your baller and taking them from relative rags to riches. The sooner the ties between the currency and character progression are severed, the better.
One positive addition to MyTeam is "The Ascension," a new chance-based mode where players select from a slate of face-down cards to add to their collection. Pick the right card, and you'll advance to the next tier, with a chance to earn a "grand prize" card.
While 2K promises a greater focus on seasonal content, we'd imagine Ascension will be a great place to earn big rewards further down the line. But for now, it's a fun chance to earn some currency, though its generosity remains the exception rather than the rule.
Players looking to jump into MyLeague or MyGM are sure to be disappointed in this year's edition. Both are the same as they were in 2K20. You can still build your franchise, but your trades, tactical options, and everything else remains the same.
The one addition is the ability to share certain scenarios for other players to try. Still, even these will rely on a community becoming increasingly frustrated with the modes' overall stagnation.
NBA 2K21 Review — The Bottom Line
- MyCareer remains as strong as ever
- Dribbling is much more fluid
- Shooting still being worked on after launch
- MyLeague and MyGM remain the same as 2K20
- Most of what's here is identical to last year's game
NBA 2K21 is a mediocre ending to a predominantly positive console generation. A disappointing lack of new features, as well as a bizarre overhaul of the game's shooting mechanics, make it a tough sell for anyone still enjoying last year's title.
If you can hold out for the next-gen version, we'd advise doing so, but if you're desperate to jump into MyTeam or get the latest roster updates, this will tide you over until then.
[Note: 2K provided the copy of NBA 2K21 used for this review.]