NBA 2K21 is more of the same. This is a common saying about annualized sports games, but it rings more true this year. While that's a good thing in some ways, as it doesn't change the outstanding on-court experience that accurately reflects the style and play of NBA basketball. It also repeats the mistakes of its predecessor. NBA 2K21 is still a chaotic mess off the court. It's mired in pay-to-win microtransactions, which leave me with a bad taste. While the addition of shot-stick aim and a MyCareer skin are both nice, it's getting harder to overlook the fact that there have been no major upgrades to key game modes. The focus on monetization is only increasing.
NBA 2K21 has a few minor upgrades between the baskets but it is very familiar if you have played any of its recent-year iterations. The shot-stick aiming is my favorite feature. It allows you to aim shots instead of just timing them. It's difficult to master, which makes it a great learning tool for players who are already experienced. A green shot is a shot that hits the target in the meter. This is incredibly satisfying.
A few legacy issues are still stubbornly present, which is why the infrequent updates can be so frustrating. Post-play can be frustrating, especially when you are playing against someone online or offline. It's too easy to get the ball in the paint. Except for awkward plays in which the ball hits the back of an opponent, passes almost always reach interior areas without any interference. The start-up of animations once the ball reaches the post is too slow and lacks urgency. Instead of moving quickly to the basket for a layup or a dunk, players will slow down and move awkwardly towards the basket. If there is any open space between the player's basket and their basket, they should always aim straight at it. This is not the case in NBA 2K21.
There's also the constant mismanagement of clock management by the CPU, which is still a problem. Sometimes, a player may hold on to the ball without any urgency five feet from the three-point line, as the clock ticks down. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the CPU may take the ball and walk into backcourt to commit a violation. Another problem I observed was that players often behave strangely when they are in transition. It could be someone slowing down, even if they have a number advantage, or three-point shooters collapsing from the arc and crowding out the interior. There is often no logic to the A.I. decision making in transition play. The CPU can also be too aggressive with double teams, making finding open teammates far easier. This problem has been a problem for many years and it is still very apparent. NBA 2K21 looks so much like a game that NBA basketball is played, that it can be quite jarring when things go wrong.
Despite this, I have noticed that players who are not controlled behave more realistically with the ball. It was great fun to find open teammates. They would curl around screens and make solid cuts to the basket. Or, they might slunk quietly to the baseline to take a corner three point shot. My A.I. was a delight, especially in online play. My teammates created space for me and made it possible for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can isolate more effectively. These are the little things that allow NBA 2K21 to emulate a true game of basketball.
It is sad that almost everything else outside of the on-court experience pales by comparison. The MyCareer campaigns for NBA 2K have been something I look forward to over the years. They are well-written, polished and fun. The campaign this year, The Long Shadow, was a huge disappointment. Junior is a promising young talent who lives in the shadow of his father. Between his high school play and the NBA Draft, The Long Shadow doesn't spend much time exploring any of its characters. Instead, it focuses on Junior's college love story, where he awkwardly follows after his girlfriend to proclaim his love like something from a Hallmark movie. The premise is genuinely touching, which is a shame. However, it's too superficial for The Long Shadow to serve any other purpose than to allow them to wear college uniforms and play a few games. Although it is nice to see some college sports again in a videogame, that's all. There's an alternative: skip this story and jump straight to the NBA Draft.
If you ignore the terrible microtransactions, the rest of MyCareer mode can be quite good. Venice Beach now has the Neighborhood, which is a free-roam zone where you can play online matches and modify your character. It's nice to have a change of scenery, especially since you spend so much time there. The courts are beautiful, the colors are vivid, and the cool backdrop is soothing. I had a lot fun exploring the area, purchasing new gear for my player, and playing in pick-up game. It is nice to be able to walk around The Neighborhood, but it still contains many of the same elements as last year's game. Although it looks different, there's not much to do.
It is difficult to ignore the microtransactions because NBA 2K21 will not let you forget about its monetization train wreck. Virtual Currency (VC) is used in everything you do in MyCareer, from character upgrades to attire purchases to haircuts. To compete at a high level within The Neighborhood, you need to have upgraded attributes. However, earning VC to purchase those would be a tedious process. There are a few ways to get VC. You can play games with your NBA team and meet daily goals. But that's just a fraction of the options. The fact that the mode is focused on paid-for currency is really a shame. MyCareer offers so many possibilities as a deep create a player mode, if only it were less tedious.
MyTeam has thankfully moved away from its dreadful casino look last year. However, it forces you to make a choice between doing mundane tasks and spending real money on VC. VC can be used to advance players or to buy packs that unlock more. MyTeam seems to have placed an emphasis on customization this year. You can now choose different skill paths to your evolution cards, such focusing on playmaking or athleticism. This should help players find the right fit for their playing style. MyTeam also has a "seasonal" component, which will allegedly bring new modes to the site as they develop. MyTeam needs more fun ways to improve and create cards.
Because VC is so expensive to buy, almost everything in MyCareer or MyTeam needs it. Even at a discounted rate (20% for those who spend more), $20 will only get you a few dozen MyCareer points. But, when you consider the fact that I spent six hours on MyCareer just to improve a few points, NBA 2K21 is a tempting option. It will be a long grind for VC and a lot more money for those who want to play at a high level within the first few months. It is a bad idea to allow people to progress a character in competitive games.
It's not surprising that microtransactions have left the modes untouched, such as MyLeague. They have received no significant upgrades. MyLeague is a good simulation but lacks the real-life experience that makes the NBA so enjoyable to watch. Every NBA season has stories. Whether it's LeBron leaving Cleveland in 2010 or Kawhi Leonard’s storybook year in Toronto Raptors in 2019, these stories are a part of every season. MyLeague should feel alive and dynamic. It's beginning to feel, even though I have been a huge fan of this mode for many years, like I've been doing it for years and there's no hope of moving forward.
MyLeague, for example, doesn't offer the option to use WNBA. Why can't we keep playing with a franchise after the first season? I am a huge fan of the Seattle Storm and have been a long-time fan. What NBA 2K has done for its WNBA gameplay is amazing. Players like Sue Bird, Natasha Howard and others look and feel like real-life counterparts. For an extra change of pace, the WNBA has its own announcers. The excitement about the WNBA's inclusion is dampened by the inability to play in MyLeague or online with these teams.
Online play is so stable that I doubt I would ever again find myself playing against a CPU opponent. Playing against other players is the best way to enjoy NBA 2K21. This is only reinforced by the gameplay tweaks made to this year's iteration. Online play is still a problem in NBA 2K21, which has become a frustrating tradition. My game disconnected several times after I started it, even though I was connected to the internet. There were times when I was roaming The Neighborhood and had to go to loading screens. It seems like the skill gap between players who want to learn mechanics is growing, which is a good thing. Anyone who tries to win by brute force, running up and down the court in an attempt to get ahead is likely to have a hard time.
NBA 2K21's gameplay is some of the most enjoyable in video games history. This has been the case for many years. While this year's version improves on a few things, including the aimed shooting mechanics, there has not been much movement. It's also a shame that 2K doesn't focus on the enjoyment you have on the court but on how much money can be taken from your pocket in MyCareer or MyTeam modes. These modes aren't worth the effort. The new consoles may bring the franchise a fresh start, but for now I am more pessimistic than ever about its future.