Although the game is getting a next gen version in a few months, NBA 2K21’s version for current gen consoles, which includes versions for the Switcha and PC, is already here. We tested the Xbox One edition.
When you think NBA 2K21, you quickly think of those few seconds of footage we saw during the online PlayStation 5 event, showcasing not much more than the leap forward in visual fidelity that we should expect. None of that applies to the current gen versions though, and without trade shows to give us access to the developers and a look at the in-game features, how NBA 2K21 turned out was a bit of a mystery this year.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ‘previous’ NBA season itself is still ongoing, which means that the new 2K game doesn’t have any of the roster updates that we usually get post-season. I’m assuming we’ll get these in a post-launch update, but it doesn’t help the game stand out from last year’s offering. Updates are mainly aesthetic in nature, with a few updated looks for players in a game that otherwise looks extremely similar to last year’s game.
The on the court gameplay itself feels like a small refinement to last year’s, as has been the case for a number of years now. Dribbling feels slightly smoother this year, but the main new feature that’s been added has to do with shooting – with a new shot stick mechanic that will no doubt be divisive among players. Rather than a focus on well-timed button presses, shooting now requires you to pull straight up or down and then return the stick to the center position at exactly the right time. It certainly feels challenging, favoring precision movement over timing, and the jury’s out on what will ultimately feel better. I like how the new mechanic feels like you’re timing the actual release of the ball, but certainly missed a fair number of shots because I’m not used to the mechanic either.
Looking closer at the various game modes that are on offer in NBA 2K21, the biggest improvements are in the MyTeam mode this year. Featuring a number of new and refreshed (mini)games to play inside this card collection-based concept, I found myself hooked on this mode even though I never really enjoy similar card-based approaches like the one in FIFA – which always feels like too much of a grindfest.
Other small improvements include social integration for MyLeague (letting you share scenarios with others) and more room to customize your WNBA players, but by and large this is a very similar experience to NBA 2K20 unless you head into the MyTeam portion of the game. There’s a brand new take on the more story-driven MyCareer mode, but I can’t help but feel that (narratively speaking) things here haven’t really evolved since 2K brought Spike Lee on board for the 2K16 edition. The mode feels better-rounded from a gameplay perspective, but if you’re looking for narrative experience then you’d be better off watching The Last Dance again in between games of NBA 2K21.
NBA 2K21 certainly isn’t a bad game, but it’s improvements over last year’s version are minor. More problematic, however, is that the game has the upcoming next gen edition hanging over it. The standard edition of the game is a full price game, but doesn’t give you a free upgrade to the next gen one. You can opt for the Kobe Bryant-inspired premium version instead, but you’d be getting the next gen one at a premium price point that way. As solid as the game is, I can imagine players being left in a bind because of these price points. If you can’t wait or aren’t going next gen anytime soon, then NBA 2K21 is a great basketball game. If you were hoping for big changes, this one won’t bring them.