NBA 2K21 Review

October 6, 2020
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4, Switch
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It’s been an interesting year for sports all across the world, almost entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the major competitions worldwide were suspended, with many still having to find unique ways to start, restart or even just finish their respective seasons. In the case of the NBA this resulted in a final eight regular-season games to determine the sixteen teams that would go into a regular NBA finals tournament. All of this would take place in a bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida. It’s been quite the tournament with, at time of writing, the LA Lakers leading the series against the Miami Heat 2-0. If they were to win, it would be ten years since their last finals triumph and a fitting tribute to the late, great Kobe Bryant, who tragically died alongside his daughter Gianna and several others at the start of the year. In its own tribute, NBA 2K21 has a special “Mamba Forever” edition that has Kobe as its cover star in addition to Damian Lillard who adorns the regular version.

Much like any other sports game out there, this top tier edition comes with extras for your myCareer pro and your myTeam squad. In some ways one would think this is a boon but what it does is highlight just how much grinding is required if you were to do this without these extras. After creating our first myCareer pro and going through a rather limited, dare we say, boring story, we went crazy and spent most of our 100,000 virtual coins to make sure our new star was ready for the NBA. Whilst this made sure we could compete there was still much to improve on with stats still not where they needed to be. Your pro will get a wage which is entirely dependent on where they’re drafted. The closer to round one you get the more money you’ll make per game. 

I only wish I had that Hawaiian shirt!

Even with this, however, the grind of getting enough virtual currency to upgrade your stats is a long one. Should you choose to, you can, for real money, purchase more and if you wanted to, you could spend it all on upgrading your stats. That’s not the only thing you can throw your virtual coins at either. Once you hit the NBA, your pro can enter the myNeighbourhood location. There’s plenty to do and it is the multiplayer component of myCareer allowing you to take your pro online and compete with and against others. It’s all done in a street style, very reminiscent of White Men Can’t Jump. You can go 3v3 or 2v2 either as a group or on your own. There’s also your myCourt where you and your friends can go, hang out and play some basketball.

This year sees you saunter around a lovely beachside promenade as opposed to the street style location of NBA 2K20.  Here you can purchase boosts to improve your stats further for a limited time, adorn your pro in different clothes, get your haircut or find some new shoes to wear. So far, so cosmetic and NBA 2K21 is not alone in this, wander into the Ante Up area, however, and things get a little more worrisome. In Ante Up there are various courts with differing amounts of virtual currency required in order to play. If you decide to play on one of the courts you’re placing a wager on whether or not you’ll win the game. Win and you get your stake plus winnings, lose, and it’s all gone. 

Atmosphere and gameday recreation is on point

If this was all just for in-game virtual currency which you could only get in the game then it would still be bad, but couple this with being able to top up your in-game wallet with real world cash; it’s gambling plain and simple. Whilst there’s an age restriction on the myCareer mode it can be circumvented, and irrespective of that it just shouldn’t be present in a game that has such a wide ranging age appeal. Having card packs in the myTeam mode is bad enough, but to literally have a mode to gamble it is egregious to say the least. A cynic would suggest that the prevalence and requirement to use NBA 2K21’s in-game currency to advance and progress is that it’s trying its best to push you towards buying more. This may very well not be true but it’s hard to argue against it at times as you throw another brick knowing that a stat increase would make that shot easier.

Compounding everything here is the change to the shooting mechanic. Last year you held your shoot button until the peak and released it using a vertical bar as your guide. To get the timing right you would get a green release and a nice basket. You could use visual cues as well as muscle memory to get it down right and it was easy to see where you needed to let go. You can still do this, but pro-stick shooting, new for NBA 2K21, offers a tangible boost that is hard to ignore. Should you use the pro-stick to shoot, you don’t have to release it at all to get a perfect shot. Instead, depending on how you pull the right-stick down, you will need to rotate the same stick left or right to get a bar into the middle of a zone. It’s not a difficult technique on paper but getting it right in-game is tricky and seems far more dependent on your character’s abilities than before or, in the case of just a normal game, that player’s attributes. Again, you can improve your abilities with virtual currency but the grind to earn and reach top level is long, unless you want to spend your actual money of course.

There are some awesome community-created teams to use if you want

Our biggest issue — outside of the obtrusive microtransactions — is that NBA 2K21 feels like a cookie-cutter update. Aside from the pro-stick shooting and change of scene in myNeighbourhood it is, on a functional level, the same as NBA 2K20 before it. The story is bland and whilst NBA 2K20’s story missed its mark here and there it had a heart and message. This year you’re some kid with a chip on their shoulder about their dad with whom they had a less than stellar relationship. These movie-style stories for sports games are now intrinsic to the genre thanks, in part, to this very series with the myCareer debuting way back in NBA 2K10. It feels, however, that ideas are starting to run dry. Taking away the drama and going back to basics would be a refreshing change. Let us just create our pro, take them through college and, hopefully, make the number one pick for the draft rather than be forced to sit through cutscenes with mostly meaningless dialogue and forgettable characters.

At its core, NBA 2K21 is a wonderful, realistic recreation of basketball. Its game-day visuals are fantastic and turns up the presentation dial to eleven. Everything from court-side reporting to a commentary team that is random enough to be enjoyable makes playing matches rather fun. It’s just a shame that, to really do anything with your myCareer pro or your fantasy myTeam you need to grind virtual currency or succumb to temptation and use real-world money. With the world as it is today everyone is being given the chance to adapt to what many would say is our new normal. Microtransactions should not be part of the gaming landscape anymore, but until we vote with our wallets, will things ever really change?

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When you’re shooting hoops and playing basketball, NBA 2K21 is rather fun to play. However, it suffers from obtrusive microtransactions and game modes that are made in such a way that they try to nudge you to buy more virtual currency. NBA 2K21’s appeal dives even more when you realise very little has changed from NBA 2K20. Hopefully Visual Concepts will come back strong on next-generation consoles with something that feels more than just about making money.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.