Review: NBA 2K21 misses a wide-open shot in its final current-gen attempt

Take-Two and Visual Concepts needed NBA 2K21 to be a hit after an abysmal rollout to 2K20, but it still wasn’t enough.

In simulation sports games, it doesn’t get more popular than NBA 2K. The Take-Two franchise has gained a strong international player base, attracting millions of users from across the globe, and it’s received a significant amount of popularity among actual NBA players. The success of the franchise even helped Take-Two dive into esports with the launch of the NBA 2K League in 2018.

Despite its popularity, though, the past 12 months have not been great. Last year’s title, NBA 2K20, received a sharp amount of backlash thanks to glitches, stale gameplay, and an unappealing meta in The Neighborhood mode. The fallout from the launch was so severe that NBA 2K users got the #FixNBA2K20 hashtag trending nationally. 

While this year’s rollout for NBA 2K21 has been much smoother, the series is still suffering from something that has plagued it for years: staleness. Despite some new additions to MyTeam, as well as the introduction of a brand new shooting mechanic, this year’s release still has not built on the successes the brand has had in the past.

Not a slam dunk

Image via 2K

In the nooks and crannies of NBA 2K21’s gameplay, not a whole lot has changed. The graphics and animations look almost exactly the same as 2K20. That was almost certainly going to be a given since it’s well known that a next-generation NBA 2K21 is in the works. 

One thing that’s much improved is the AI’s defensive awareness. Thanks to some tweaks, it’s much harder to pass the ball in tight spots, meaning cherry passes are not going to work very often. Instead, the key is to find open seams to pass the basketball. This change not only adds more realism, but it gets rid of one of the game’s major flaws.

Player movements feel slightly different this year, but the change is marginal at best. One area that the game desperately could use an upgrade is the lateral movements. The fluidity of the player movements is often not there, and it just feels clunky at times. 

But the biggest change to gameplay for NBA 2K21 is the Pro Stick. Rather than moving the right stick in any direction to attempt a shot, you must now shift the stick down, then move the cursor around until you hit the center of the meter. The new change makes shooting much more difficult, as not only do you need to get used to different controls, but non-green shots are also less likely to be successful. These adjustments accomplish NBA 2K Gameplay Director Mike Wang’s plan for 2K21, which was to make shooting more challenging, but there are some major flaws with the change.

One, much of the meta from last year is still intact. There have been quite a few complaints levied at Take-Two and Visual Concepts about NBA 2K20’s metagame, as some felt that taller builds and players had too much of an advantage. But by nerfing the shooting this year, as well as essentially leaving badges untouched from 2K20, the metagame in NBA 2K21 is now dominated by… taller builds and players, once again. 

Of course, this could change in the near future. Once users get used to the Pro Stick, the frequency of unsuccessful shots should go down. The devs could further tune the shooting in future patches too. The new Pro Stick has already received complaints from the playerbase, and the devs released a hotfix for shooting just two days after the game’s full release. It’s also highly probable that the shooting will receive a much bigger fix in future patches. But until then, big men will continue to feast on the competition, as they will have plenty of rebound opportunities to work with.

MyCareer: A green or a violation?

Image via 2K

Every year, the signature game mode of the NBA 2K franchise is MyCareer. This year is similar, as the goal in MyCareer is not just making it to the NBA, but having success both before and once you’re in it. And just like in previous games, playing well in MyCareer will not only earn you some Virtual Currency (VC) but also unlock badges and attribute upgrades that can be used in 2K Beach, the new oceanside setting for The Neighborhood in NBA 2K21.

NBA 2K21’s MyCareer mode, just like in 2K20, also has a story to go along with it. Your character goes by the moniker ‘Junior,’ the son of a successful New Jersey high school basketball player. The story follows Junior’s path to the NBA, starting at Newark East High School and moving on to the college basketball scene, something that is new for NBA 2K21. Users can choose from one of 10 real-life universities, and once your college career is complete, you move on to the big show in the NBA. 

Much like with previous games in the NBA 2K franchise, there’s a lot here that Take-Two and Visual Concepts gets right. College teams are a welcome addition that adds to MyCareer’s immersion. And while other titles like Madden and NHL don’t reward players for grinding in career modes, the 2K franchise gets it right and does.

Full-court press

Image via 2K

While MyCareer might be the main game mode in NBA 2K21, it’s not the only one. MyTeam, NBA 2K’s collectible card game mode, has returned, freshened up with new additions that should benefit those who don’t feel like spending actual cash on the game. One of those The Exchange, where players can exchange cards that are no longer needed for some sweet rewards.

A second addition is MyTeam Limited, a new feature that is only available to play on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, where certain restrictions are placed on active rosters. This is a good sign for those who don’t have the time to grind for the best cards but still want to be competitive in MyTeam.

MyLeague, NBA 2K’s franchise mode, remains relatively unchanged. No major additions were touted during the game’s promotion, and it appears that this mode has been neglected in favor of others. And then there’s 2K Beach, a re-designed version of The Neighborhood, where players can head into rec action on the sunny shorelines, a brand-new atmosphere. The change might be minor, especially since 2K Beach offers most of what The Neighborhood did in the past, but the aesthetic mix-up is a welcome addition.

The verdict

Image via 2K

While the launch of NBA 2K21 was smoother than last year’s title, there’s still much work to be done. Yes, there are some positives to take away from 2K21, but the bottom line is that there aren’t a whole lot of meaningful tweaks that differentiate it from NBA 2K20. While shooting does feel significantly different, there’s a lot more, such as the animations, graphics, and the meta, that just feels too similar to the past. 

For users who have been frustrated with the series, the good news regarding the NBA 2K franchise is that Take-Two and the developers are touting a brand new experience for the next-generation version of 2K21. However, in order for the next-gen version to be a success, it’s going to need to stand out and be different from its predecessor.

Final score:

6 / 10

+ MyCareer still stands as one of the most immersive career modes among AAA sports games.
+ MyTeam additions, as well as the introduction of 2K Beach, freshen up the gaming experience.
Most of the animations and graphics are unchanged from previous years.
MyLeague and MyPlayer badges remain untouched.
The addition of the Pro Stick is not enough to fix the gameplay flaws.
Disclosure: Gamepur was provided with a game code for review purposes.