Everyone is already well aware of how weird this year is, so we don’t have to go into any details about that, but even weirder is the fact that annual sports games didn’t get delayed despite virtually every sport going through that fate. So here we are, in the midst of the playoffs, and next season’s NBA game is already on store shelves.
What Is It?
Visual Concepts has been responsible for the premier NBA video game series for more than a decade now and while the very profitable and microtransaction-littered MyTEAM mode has sort of led the series astray over the last few years, the 2K Sports developer has consistently produced a basketball sim that’s second to none.
With the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X expected to launch in the next couple months, this is also a transition year as we expect developers of annualized titles to focus their attention on the next generation of consoles. Fortunately, Visual Concepts has a solid track record based on the shift from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and we’re pleased to announce that save for some hiccups in the presentation, the current-generation version of NBA 2K21 follows suit.
Why Should I Care?
NBA 2K veterans should be able to notice a gameplay difference right away, namely in the overhaul of both the shot meter and the shot stick system. In the last couple years, we saw the shot meter that relied on your timing as a gauge filled from the bottom to the top. In 2K21, it’s replaced by a targeting system, one where you have to line a moving cursor with a tick on the meter for a better release–it’s a meter similar to that of what you normally see in golf games (you can refer to the screenshot above). Luckily, it didn’t take long to get used to, as it’s still all about releasing as your player reaches the zenith of his shooting motion. I’m personally the kind of player who still shoots using the shot button, and as a Warriors fan, I still felt like a sharpshooter, sinking treys from deep with Steph Curry.
There has been some backlash from series veterans saying that the feel of the shot stick mechanics are totally off (even Dame has had issues), and as a button shooter, I personally didn’t notice them, but the developers did add a hotfix over the weekend that makes shooting easier in select modes. That said, I don’t think anybody will complain about more points being scored. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time learning the game in 2KU, 2K‘s robust tutorial mode.
2K’s broadcast-style presentation emulating the NBA on TNT has always been superb, but it’s also beginning to show its age. Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and Shaq are still poorly animated in both the pre-game show and halftime show, and their performances just don’t feel as fun as they’ve typically been. As far as the on-court presentation, Kevin Harlan is the best in the business, but I didn’t notice anything particularly new with any of the stuff the announcers say. Granted, the game has been out for less than a week, and we could see more content put in, but with the 2020 season yet to end, it could be a long time before we see anything significant. Player introductions also seemed to be out of sync, as each arena’s hype man seemed to be yelling the names of the NBA stars a player behind the player being shown on TV, so that’s pretty awkward. Either way, this is stuff that’s often skipped by longtime fans, but as someone that’s always appreciated 2K’s effort with their authentic style of presentation, I figure it should be addressed.
I’ve always had issues with the main menus in the NBA 2K games, but this one seems much more streamlined. PlayNow has your favorite returning modes like the WNBA (you actually get a trophy for finishing one game), Blacktop, online, and more while MyCAREER and MyTEAM each have their own tabs.
As someone that’s had increasingly less time to really sit down and enjoy a game like NBA 2K throughout the years, NBA 2K21‘s MyCAREER is definitely a breath of fresh air. This year’s story, The Long Shadow, puts you in the shoes of Junior, the son of a legendary player as he tries to make it in the NBA by balling his way from high school to college, all the way to the pros. The story still has some cringey moments especially with the Hollywood actors in it, along with a performance by Zion that I would hardly call inspired, but it still isn’t too bad this year. I particularly enjoyed a section where you had a choice to play injured to help your team in a losing effort, or to rest up for an important invitational the following week. I have my issues with the overall attitude of the main character, but that’s become an annual occurrence that I won’t waste your time writing about.
The high school portion of these stories typically are boring, but the developers actually added some amateur commentary to go with it this year. They’re reading off the same script that Kevin Harlan and crew call when playing regular games, but it enhances to the experience. Last year’s game had you playing through the China league as a longshot to make it to the NBA, and while that had its moments, it’s also great to be playing as and against real colleges again–even though, for some reason, the first college game you play doesn’t have commentary. You can choose from Michigan State, the University of Connecticut, Florida, Gonzaga, Syracuse, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, UCLA, Villanova, and West Virginia to ball for, making longtime fans wonder if they’ll ever play a College Hoops game again. MyCAREER has been my favorite mode for a few years now, and it’s good to see it further solidified.
That brings us to MyTEAM to continue on with what’s new. Undoubtedly the most controversial mode in the game, it’s also 2K Sports’ most profitable due to its microtransactions. If you’re new to the series, MyTEAM is essentially fantasy basketball. It’s all about building a team of the best NBA players both past and present to dominate other teams in however way you can, and these players are unlocked via blind packs that can be obtained as in-game rewards or by purchasing them with Virtual Currency (VC) that are accrued both in-game and through microtransactions. It’s definitely possible to build a stacked lineup without spending real money, but it’s a grind.
So how’s it different this year? 2K Sports is doubling down on the game being a live product. Aside from choosing a captain (Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, or Shaq) which affects the makeup of your team at first, MyTEAM now has Seasons not unlike what you’d see in other games as a product like Fortnite. Completing Season Agendas net you some XP to level up, and leveling up will get you rewards–which can be anything from NBA players, to blind packs, and even in-game currency. This first season caps you at Level 40 (150,000 XP) where you can earn a Pink Diamond Stephen Curry.
Seasons are just one part of MyTEAM’s core gameplay loop. In addition to Seasons, you have other limited-time challenges. There’s Domination, where you play every team in the NBA by division to accumulate stars that’ll earn you Milestone prizes. There’s MyTEAM Unlimited, an online head-to-head mode that puts you in ranked tiers as you win games (and drops you a tier if you lose too many games). Being in higher tiers at the end of each season results in better rewards, with the main goal being one of 2K21‘s elite to compete in the MyTEAM Unlimited $250,000 Tournament.
All of these modes are pretty cool for those ingrained in the NBA 2K Community, but to newcomers, it’s a lot. In fact, it’s bloated. It’s not even just about VC anymore. Now you need XP, Milestones, Silver Coins, as well as VC. Even the menus are so complicated that each option comes with a tutorial flow similar to what you see in mobile games in order for you to get a feel for everything since it’s all incredibly deep. Even basic player cards in the game have you dealing with things like Dynamic Duos (if you complete a Dynamic Duo pair, those players get attributes), badges (special skills that boost specific attributes) and Evolution (yes, you can “evolve” players like Pokémon to make them dominate even more) to worry about.
Again, it’s a lot, and it all goes back to this main point: If you want to be able to compete, you need the roster to do it, and the easiest way to get there is with getting lucky with these blind packs. Blind packs can be bought with VC, which in turn can be bought with real money. So if you don’t want to spend too much time grinding for these various forms of currency, you can always spend your money. If you pre-ordered the game, you also probably got thousands of VC to spend to get a good head start, and that makes it easier to deal with. But guess what? This is just Season 1. Who knows how much further 2K goes once Season 2 rolls around?
If you don’t like it, play however you want to play. That’s just the nature of mainstream sports games this generation. 2K empathizes a little bit by giving you the ability to bring your currency with you to the next-generation version of NBA 2K21, but the reality is we don’t know how similar or different the next-gen version of the game will be, though I can’t imagine a world where these MyTEAM features don’t remain intact. At least slot machine isn’t in the game anymore, or at least I haven’t seen it.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
I spent six paragraphs talking about the nuances of a mode that I don’t traditionally play. Again, MyTEAM is the most controversial mode in the history of the 2K series simply because of how divisive it is with the way the developers handled microtransactions. I actually chose not to review the last couple of NBA 2K games because of how egregious they were as soon as I installed them, and while it’s more of the same, I do have to admit 2K21 does a better job handling them to make them seem at least somewhat human. At its core, the addition of seasons in MyTEAM provide a fun core loop that’ll keep players involved all season without having to tempt players to take their wallets out, so they deserve some credit for that.
At the end of the day, I’m still the guy that’ll play MyCAREER until the main story elements are done in addition to the frequent games I’ll play with friends online, and it would be nice if I can do more than that once the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X versions are out.
However it is you enjoy NBA 2K, NBA 2K21 offers it all and still does it better than any basketball game in the market. Now we’re just hoping the next-generation version doesn’t skip a beat and we see some changes that truly feel like we’re in a new generation.