Imagine a game series lasting so long it no longer has any competition. Because of the lack of competition, the quality starts to wane a bit, eventually leading to a product that does not feel like it should be worth full price.
This is what’s happening with the NBA 2K series and, in particular, NBA 2K21. Here is an honest review of NBA 2K21 and how it stacks up to its non-existent competition.
(Note: This review is from my experience playing NBA 2K21 on current-gen platforms only. I can’t find a next-gen console to review NBA 2K21 on – thanks scalpers.)
1 - Visuals
Visually speaking, NBA 2K21 is like every yearly 2K installment: the visuals are the exact same as 2K20. The visual changes between games are almost miniscule to the point where one would really have to look at a specific cutscene/character model to notice a discernible difference. Playing on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I did not notice anything noteworthy, at least visually.
To that end, NBA 2K21’s face capture technology is getting better and, as a result, some players do look more like their real-world counterparts. The MyPlayer character – whom the player controls – does look a bit jarring at times, and emotions and feelings don’t feel like they’re being conveyed properly at all.
For example, in one particular MyCareer scene where my character was supposed to be angry, his facial expressions just did not match: my character had his mouth open and the rest of his facial features failed to convey his anger. For all 2K’s advancements with facial technology, these types of issues are expected to happen when players can create their own character.
Additionally, 2K’s proprietary face scan tool – which allows players to upload their own faces into the game – rarely worked. Out of the more than dozen times I attempted to use it, it worked only a handful of times, if that. When it did work, my face didn’t properly transfer, making my face look stretched-out and distorted.
In all, NBA 2K21’s visuals get three stars.
2 - Audio
Much like all NBA 2K games, the audio in NBA 2K21 is top-notch, from the crowd noise to the soundtrack, sideline reporting and commentating. The crowds feel authentic, especially when the games are close; the soundtrack features a bevy of tunes that can hype up almost everyone; David Aldridge continues to provide commentary; and the broadcast crew led by Kevin Harlan is as good as it has ever been.
That said, it is extremely interesting to note that the next-generation version of NBA 2K21 has a larger soundtrack than the current-gen version, at 100 and 50, respectively. This might be because of the next generation’s better hardware, but that is neither here nor there.
The voice acting is done well, with Jesse Williams and Djimon Hounsou leading the way in the story along with the player character themselves. The only points I will dock off from NBA 2K21 would be the sounds in the Neighborhood.
More often than not, games in the Neighborhood are expletive-laden – not unlike an actual basketball game – which is definitely a turn-off for players looking to have a good, clean time. Thankfully, players can mute those offenders and still unwind.
NBA 2K21’s audio gets four stars.
3 - Story/Progression
In NBA 2K21, there is an extremely short “story” which acts as an introduction to your players’ MyCareer before it actually lets them play NBA games. This year, players take control of “Junior,” the son of college basketball legend “Duke” (Williams) who opted to play football instead of basketball.
Throughout this “story,” Junior is continually compared to Duke. At different points in the “story,” Junior will face off against his friend/opponent “Hendrixx Cobb” (Vince Washington) to see which of the two is better. There is also a love story between Junior and Ellie – a college soccer player – which was added for intrigue.
Once Junior gets drafted to the NBA, the story seems to end. After that, players can just play NBA games to unlock badges and remove level cap restrictions. It really feels like 2K phoned in this year’s story and it does not feel like it is actually our career. Rather, it feels like a collection of sports movie tropes thrown together.
There is nothing at stake and it feels like the player has no say in what is happening in their “career.” Sure, the story is dependent on how the player performs, but ultimately, the player will end up in the NBA in some way and it really feels like an on-rails story mode.
In the end, the very few choices the players make have little-to-no impact on the story and their career. Also, players can outright skip the story if they just want to play in the Neighborhood – the social hub where players can train, customize their character and play against other gamers.
It is worth noting that the next-gen version of NBA 2K21 has a longer and more immersive storyline, compared to the seemingly bare-bones offering the current-gen came with.
NBA 2K21’s story and progression get one-and-a-half stars.
4 - Gameplay
In terms of gameplay, very little has changed from NBA 2K20 to NBA 2K21. Perhaps the most noteworthy change from the two games is that now, players can aim and shoot with the right stick.
Players can still shoot with the button, but using the right stick allows players to target where and how they want to shoot. In theory, this allows players to continually air ball shots if that is what they want to do. Along with potentially shooting air balls, players will also have to account for the timing of their release with the new shot meter.
Seemingly every year, 2K changes the shot meter players use, and this year, it is much smaller with a smaller window to get a “green” – a perfect shot. The meter changes depending on where you are on the court and is even in effect when going for a layup, often resulting in less-than-desirable results.
(Quick aside, I have written more in-depth about NBA 2K21’s gameplay mechanics here.)
Aside from that, everything essentially remains the same, with the other game modes – MyLeague, MyGM, MyTeam – being the most egregious cases. There is nothing that differentiates last year’s version to this years’, save for an updated roster.
Again, I have to mention how developer Visual Concepts revamped the next-gen versions of MyLeague and MyGM, featuring more enticing gameplay and deeper customization options. The next-gen version also has a more in-depth offering regarding the WNBA, allowing players to have a female character and experience a more-robust WNBA season.
NBA 2K21’s gameplay gets two stars.
5 - Context
Regarding context, there is not really much to write home about in NBA 2K21. Yes, it features the WNBA, but most of the advancements in that regard are in the next-gen version of the game. NBA 2K21’s offering is almost identical to last year’s and as a result, players are only allowed to play one season with a WNBA team or the playoffs. That is it.
Even with the game seemingly being copy-and-pasted, as the lone basketball simulation on the market, NBA 2K21 saw incredible numbers in 2020 as it was the best-selling game in September. Not only that, but in early February 2021, Take-Two announced that NBA 2K21 had sold more than eight million copies across all platforms.
It also has to be mentioned that with all the sales figures, NBA 2K21 is a game driven by microtransactions. Almost all aspects of the player character is tied to Virtual Currency, or VC. For instance, if a player wanted to upgrade their attributes, change their haircut or buy new clothes, they would have to pay VC for it.
Players can either earn VC by playing the various modes and MyCareer games – though the amount earned is often miniscule compared to the prices of the customization options – or they can buy VC bundles. Currently, players can buy 5,000, 15,000, 35,000, 75,000, 200,000, and 450,000 VC for $1.99, $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, $49.99 and $99.99 USD, respectively.
As such, it makes sense that Take-Two – the parent company of Visual Concepts – made over $530 million just from DLC, virtual currency, microtransactions and more.
In all, NBA 2K21 gets one star for context.
Overall, NBA 2K21 is essentially the same game as NBA 2K20, at least on current-gen consoles, as most of the updates are for the next-gen version of the game. More importantly, it is not worth the $60 USD it is priced for.
If anything, NBA 2K21 should have been priced at $30 – or lower – especially since it does not move the needle in any way and is riddled with prompts to buy microtransactions at every turn. That said, I understand the game was released in the middle of the pandemic and the developers had to work twice as hard in order to release a game for current and next-gen platforms.
However, that is no excuse to release a copy-and-pasted game for full price. The fact that Visual Concepts chose to put the late Kobe Bryant on some of its Collector’s Editions undoubtedly boosted sales.
At the end of the day, the question still stands: is NBA 2K21 a fun game? Sure, if you enjoyed NBA 2K20. But for fans looking for something new, this isn’t it. There is almost nothing that differentiates NBA 2K21 from NBA 2K20, and since this is now the only basketball sim on the market, you’re out of luck if you want something more.