NBA 2K21 review: A flagrant foul

NBA 2K21 marks the yearly return of the world-renown basketball sim. Our review.

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The NBA 2K series has risen to become one of the most popular ongoing franchises in gaming. Allowing players to step into the shoes of their favorite basketball superstars, 2K usually rests among the top selling games, year in and year out. The latest title, NBA 2K21 bids the current generation of consoles farewell as the last release before the franchise makes the jump to the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Unfortunately, NBA 2K21 doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression on the court. 

Inherent issues

The MyCareer in NBA 2K21 suffers from the exact same issues as previous MyCareer modes.

MyCareer has become the premiere game mode in the NBA 2K series. Letting players create their own NBA star with the hopes of becoming the best in the league, MyCareer usually defines each entry in the 2K games. The MyCareer in 2K21 follows the story of Junior, a young hooper standing in the shadow of his late father, a beloved basketball player. As Junior, players will go through high school, college, and eventually the NBA. Much like the story’s protagonist, MyCareer is haunted by its past.

For starters, you can’t change your camera angle until you make it to the NBA, forcing you to play numerous high school and college games from an awkward one-way viewpoint. The story itself lacks all of the emotional punches that it thinks it has. As we’ve seen several times over, 2K21 tries to deliver a dramatic story with meaningful moments, but instead, we get a generic story with writing so corny it borders on hilarious. For example, in college, Junior randomly gets into an argument with his girlfriend one night, players are faced with the decision to walk away from her and drop out of school, or apologize and spend some more time at university before declaring for the NBA draft. For a moment that’s supposed to feel so heavy, it’s strangely jarring. 

All throughout college and the combine, the player’s draft stock increases and decreases based on performance. I was pretty excited about the aspect of trying to play at my best to secure the best draft pick, only for the wind to be taken out of my sails once it was time for selection. First, the draft class is composed entirely of generated players. LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, and other big prospects soon to join the league are noticeably absent from the game. Of course, the delay in the NBA season means that we still don’t know what teams these players will suit up for, but I don’t see why that stopped them from just including the new players and letting them go to random squads.

You go through all of the draft stock and combine shenanigans only for the game to ask you which team you want to play for, and then that team magically ends up with the first two picks so that you can end up on a team with your new rival, Hendrix Cobb. MyCareer once again suffers from trying to do too much, rather than providing a simple yet refined NBA experience. 

Nothing but net

The saving grace in 2K21 is that the gameplay is as good as ever.

Despite all of the writing and design issues that plague 2K21, the gameplay is still pretty spectacular. Simply dribbling the ball, doing dribble moves, and passing the ball feels right. Each of the players have such a unique and dynamic feel to them. Sprinting down the court and pulling a deep three with Stephen Curry feels completely different than getting down in the post and slamming it home with Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Once again, 2K21 changes the shot meter. This time around, the sim uses a targeting system, where players look to hit the center aim point. It’s a change that doesn’t feel quite necessary, rather something to make the game feel different from its predecessor, of which it holds many similarities. 

Pump fake

NBA 2K21 features a variety of assets taken directly from the previous game in the franchise.

One of my biggest issues with NBA 2K21 is that it feels like a .5 upgrade from last year’s 2K20. Several assets are reused from the previous game. This feels the most blatant when creating a MyPlayer, as well as working them out in the team practice facility. Badges icons, models, and entire screens are present that were also seen in the previous game. There’s certain moments where you cannot tell the difference between 2K20 and 2K21. 

2K has advertised that the next-gen version of NBA 2K21 is being built from the ground-up, and will be quite different from the experience on modern consoles. I believe them. NBA 2K21 100% feels like a side project, while the developer put all of their chips into crafting the PS5 and Xbox Series X version of the game. 

(Virtual) Cash rules everything around me

The Neighborhood is back with a different look in NBA 2K21.

VC, NBA 2K’s premium virtual currency, of course makes its return in NBA 2K21. Either earned through playing games, completing goals in MyCareer, or purchasing it with real-world money, VC is omnipresent in 2K21. It’s used to upgrade your player, buy new animations, purchase clothing, and it can be used across different game modes.

The issue with VC is that it’s a necessity to make any sort of quick progress in NBA 2K, specifically with MyCareer. On top of that, the amount of currency you receive isn’t much at all in comparison to the amounts you’ll spend at the various stores and shops in 2K21, which forces players to either grind away hours upon hours, or crack open the wallet instead. 

I was given the Mamba Forever version of NBA 2K21, which comes with 100,000 VC. Dumping every last VC I had into my newly created MyPlayer took me to an 80 overall. This didn’t include shot animations that I wanted, dribble packages, celebrations, or any of the sort. I didn’t buy a single cosmetic item, or even take my VC to spend in another game mode. To actually earn 100K VC would require players to complete dozens upon dozens of full-length games, unless they find a way to manipulate the game’s settings and game the system. 

The VC problem has been prevalent throughout the last several NBA 2K releases and could be resolved one of two ways: slash the costs of upgrades and cosmetics, so that players can steadily upgrade and unlock new gear without making 2K a part-time job, or, make it a reward that is earned entirely in-game, in larger quantities, so that players aren’t constantly nudged towards the microtransaction route. 

More ways to play

NBA 2K21 allows players to go through high school and college before entering the NBA.

Luckily for NBA 2K21, there are more modes outside of MyCareer for players to partake in. In Play Now, new teams have been added. Players can now suit up as the iconic Team USA squads from 2012 and 2016, as well as the newly added 2017 Golden State Warriors team. Play Now is a solid exhibition game mode, and more playable teams are always a welcome addition.

In MyTeam, players can collect cards and build a team composed of the biggest names across NBA history. They can then take them into different challenges or play against friends online. MyTeam is fun, I really got a kick out of building squads to take out my friends, and slowly acquiring new pieces to assemble my own dream team. 

MyLeague and MyGM remain hardly changed, with a small patch’s equivalence in changes from 2K20 to 2K21. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as the modes have been treated as an afterthought in the franchise for years. 

NBA 2K21 adds a new beach-themed neighborhood for players to walk around and face off with others online using their created players. While park games can be fun from time to time, the connection stability is noticeably worse when compared to other online modes. Both lag and timeouts are normalities, and have been for years. It’s a bit mind-boggling how a game as huge as 2K launches with mediocre online servers every year. 

The neighborhood also features a number of stores for accessories and cosmetics. While it’s cool to walk around and physically enter stores, it’s quite annoying that I have to load into the neighborhood and go to the NBA Store to get some leg sleeves, when I used to be able to just do it in a submenu while in MyCareer.

Shot Clock violation

NBA 2K21 feels like a shot clock violation. There was a chance to score, but it ultimately comes up short.

NBA 2K21 suffers from the same issues that have held the series down for years. A poor MyCareer story, reused assets, shoddy servers, and an over-importance of VC/microtransactions. The one redeeming quality that NBA 2K21 can boast is its high-level gameplay. Luckily, that’s what you want most from a basketball sim.


This review is based on a digital download code provided by the publisher. NBA 2K21 is available now for $59.99 on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.

Contributing Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

Review for
NBA 2K21
6
Pros
  • Gameplay is still high-level and satisfying
  • MyTeam feels fresh and fun
Cons
  • MyCareer story is shallow and empty
  • Plenty of reused assets
  • Barely any worthwhile changes to MyLeague/MyGM
  • Servers are mediocre at best
  • Microtransactions are intrusive
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