About two weeks into its release, it’s evident that NBA 2K21 has once again shown why the 2K dev team takes such pride in showing out during next-gen console launches. They did it with NBA 2K14 and have once again done it here — albeit with some of the same technical flaws online as there was with NBA 2K14, but at least this time they did not strip away features in the process. Claiming that the game was rebuilt from the ground up feels like a bit of a stretch after having some time with 2K21, but what’s been done is definitely a large amount of work to ensure we weren’t getting the same game all over again. Let’s take a look at what does or does not make 2K a trendsetter with my NBA 2K21 next-gen review.
NBA 2K21 Next-Gen Review – What I Like
This is arguably the best NBA 2K we’ve ever had out of the gates on the court, especially for head-to-head games in an NBA setting. Yes, the improvement overall is perhaps due to the increased capabilities that next-gen tech allows, but it more feels like 2K finally just stopped avoiding some legacy issues. Beyond the gameplay, the 2K developers tried to get as much content into this version of NBA 2K21 as possible. This has led to maybe more technical bugs than even a normal 2K release, but considering it’s new tech and a lot of new stuff was added, I’m willing to give them a little bit of a pass here in year one.
Let’s look at the key areas of the gameplay that have improved or been made better by next-gen tech.
Dribbling – I spoke about the control being given back to the player in NBA 2K21 current gen. The next-gen version of 2K21 takes all the goodness of the dribbling we experienced in current gen and envelops it with further control over your dribbling. Skills on the sticks come back into play here as well. The speed that you dribble with the right stick will control how slowly or quickly your player in game pulls off their dribble moves. This delivers a whole new level of intricacy to dribbling, and this is where skill gap comes back into play as well. Dribbling is fantastic thanks to the addition of this new dribbling mechanic.
Shooting – It can be argued that most people had a hard time shooting on current gen. Throw in shot aiming and the (re)discovery of people using mods to shoot perfectly and the game was virtually ruined. Next-gen shooting has received all the updates to allow shooting to return to a more balanced playing field, thanks to the outcries of the community through the first three months of 2K21 current gen. We’ve got a bigger shooting meter with a much more identifiable green window.
You choose from first launch of the game if you want to go with shot aiming or shot timing. Improvements within shooting itself with the stick lends to more depth when you use shot aiming, including ball trajectory. This makes learning the shot aim mechanic more worthwhile and deeply rewarding. After playing with the aim mechanic for a bit, I actually got the hang of it, and it feels much better than it did on current gen. I could even argue if you’re really good at both aiming and timing on shots, you get two very good chances at a green on every shot now, which feels perhaps overpowered. I will be interested to see how people feel about shooting in a couple more weeks when people really increase their skill, and the skill gap between the “great” and “good” players maybe increases.
Defense – Improvements here are so much more rewarding than they were on current gen. I don’t feel canned into animations as I did before. The battle between dribbler and defender feels more realistic, and I’ve never felt at any time that I was cheated out of a good defensive stop — at least when it just comes to the on-ball defense out on the perimeter. As much as the ball handlers have to work to get by you, you also feel like you have just as good of a chance to stop them on defense.
I actually feel that anticipating where a dribbler is trying to go and getting to the spot with the improved movement of NBA 2K21 next gen leads to much better results than we’ve become accustomed to (see below). Spamming the steal button and mistiming these attempts leads to quick fouls, which I felt were getting called more than before. This is definitely an improvement for me because steals should be rewarding, not something achieved by using a flawed mechanic (standing in the path of the dribbler so body contact knocks the ball out like on current gen). On top of that, we can finally draw some consistent charges again, which has been long overdue. Lastly, the ball feels a little looser overall, so while I would still love even more if the ball felt like its own object, it’s better than it was.
Now, when it comes to defending dunks and all that, we’ll get to that in a bit…
Rebounding – Dare I say that the 2K dev team has finally sorted out rebounding and the legacy issues this area of gameplay has had for years? Well, not quite. But it sure does feel better than it used to. Not once playing did I feel that the ball was going to hit the rim and then fall to the hardwood for multiple bounces with no players in sight. I almost always see players who are in position to have a chance at the ball tracking it and making the play to bring in the board, sometimes even getting into small self-tip battles. If there’s a clean rebound to be had, your player goes up and grabs it without question.
I’m no Dennis Rodman, but I understood each time a board was grabbed and the positioning needed to get it. One of the biggest areas that needed improvement finally got the love that it deserved. Now, that does not translate to the AI wholesale. Clint Capela and Andre Drummond still feel like elite-level players (like, you want these guys over almost any other centers in the game) because they just get so many offensive rebounds they have no right getting to. This is because things like 3-pointers still lead to bigs soaring from the top of the key deep into the paint for rebounds, and you’ll see those same legacy instances of certain centers getting 3-4 offensive rebounds on one possession here and there. Basically, the AI players need to do a better job boxing out for long rebounds, or 2K still needs to get away from huge players like Capela being able to get from the top of the key to deep in the paint with explosive jumping and speed all while perfectly tracking the trajectory of a rebound. This also probably includes slowing down the speed of a player’s second jump.
Movement – With the addition of foot planting and improvements in size and weight recognition, the next-gen version of 2K21 plays incredibly well. You can see and feel the improvements over current gen almost instantly when you get into a game. Everything you do on the court just feels better and more organic. It’s clear that the type of movement we wanted before wasn’t possible until the tech improved, and it looks like we’ve now gotten it with next gen.
Impact Engine – In basketball, the small things matter as much as the big things: setting the right screen, making the right cut, switching off of a defender at the right time, getting through a hedge. These are all parts of the game as much as shooting, dribbling, and rebounding are and they’re just as important. With the introduction and execution of the Impact Engine, the 2K dev team has allowed contact and movement, both subtle and profound, to stand out and have their place in games like we see in real life. The dynamic that it brings to each game is amazing. We were apparently only capable of getting this on NBA 2K21 next gen and it’s been implemented quite well.
Now, let’s just get even more shooting fouls into the game as people try to slide under you on contests or speed out to try and block your jumpers with no body control whatsoever.
Modes And Features
MyCareer – The story for MyCareer is disappointingly the same, albeit with the addition and inclusion of the G-League. Everything holds true to what we saw in the current-gen version, but the addition of the G-League and return of some of the more outlandish co-stars from previous MyCareer stories leads to an extra touch of depth that locks the story in as being arguably the best MyCareer that NBA 2K has had since the mode’s inception.
MyPlayer Builder – Unexpected but greatly welcomed was the revamp and reworking of the MyPlayer Builder. Players now have full control over their builds and we are no longer completely restricted to builds through pie charts. There are still some restrictions on things so that you can’t go make a completely overpowered build, but there are some builds out there that are pretty strong. The power forward position looks to be the most lenient in terms of creating a strong build.
Now, I could argue that because we can build these balanced builds that everyone feels a little too similar in terms of being forwards with all-around skills, but maybe bigs and smaller players will find a home soon enough.
MyNBA – With the evolution that led to the all encompassing MyNBA, the depth of this mode is simply incredible. MyGM and MyLeague were already ridiculously deep game modes before, but the combination of the two modes into one “super” mode is crazy. Sim Nation and franchise fans should be rejoicing at the sheer amount of depth that the 2K team has given us, once again separating themselves from every other sports gaming franchise out there to date.
That being said, I know this mode is for sure full of bugs the community will continue to discover, and we also know with quite a bit of certainty that progression is rather messed up as you advance through seasons. This is most likely due to inflated progression ratings and an inflated roster overall in terms of ratings for players in the base roster, so this maybe can be saved by the community creating a new roster for MyNBA. Again, even though 2K has notoriously had rather buggy franchise modes, I’m being a little lenient since this is a new version of franchise mode that most likely was developed on a very tight timetable.
The City – I have not really jumped into The City myself, in part due to the frame-rate issues that hopefully have been fixed up with the latest patch, but the ambition and evolution of the Neighborhood is markedly a huge one for next gen. The City is a massively robust experience for players to engage in, including RPG elements and the return of Affiliations. With the amount of players on next gen not currently as numerous as we’ll probably see in the upcoming months, if you have the luxury of being able to play in The City right now you should take full advantage of it. It’s really something incredible to behold.
The WNBA – The WNBA experience in NBA 2K21 next gen is still a bit late in my opinion, but I now understand why this was done. The introduction of WNBA MyCareer, MyWNBA and The W, an online 3-on-3 experience, shows why we had to wait just a little longer to play these modes.
Incorporate all the gameplay improvements and you’ve got yourself a whole new way to enjoy NBA 2K21. This is especially exciting for me as a father of two daughters who enjoy basketball. Being able to show them that they’re represented in a video game is something I’ve been looking forward to. I have no doubts that the 2K dev team will expand and improve on the modes here. On top of that, the WNBA gameplay feels great and it might even be the most balanced gameplay in all of 2K21.
Arena Ambience – If you attend any sporting event, one of the most important things besides the action is the ambience around it. The fans, the vendors, the arena itself. Everything matters. NBA 2K21 next gen really takes everything around the play on the court to the next level. With the great improvement in graphics, everything looks incredible, except for some of the colors. 2K has routinely struggled with reds in particular over the years, and this continues on next gen. This maybe has something to do with HDR, but some reds being more pink (as just an example) is not new to next gen.
Commentary Teams – We’ve got four commentary teams at our disposable now. FOUR. Throw in special guests during commentary, and you’ll have way more audio fluency than we’ve become accustomed to. It’s an addition that is welcomed for those of us who enjoy commentary while we play our games.
Incredible Visuals – Next-gen NBA 2K21 looks absolutely incredible. If you’re lucky enough to have a good 4K TV and are running NBA 2K21 next gen with HDR settings, you’re going to see an awesome visual product. Several times I looked at replays or stills and found myself identifying and admiring some of the smallest nuances, like veins popping out of a player’s neck as he went up for a dunk. If you want to show off the increase in graphical power that the next-gen consoles are giving us, NBA 2K21 next gen would be the perfect game to show off.
NBA 2K21 Next-Gen Review – What I Don’t Like
Unfortunately, for as much good that there is with NBA 2K21 next gen, there’s definitely some things that aren’t so great at all, and it does go beyond just the multitude of technical issues. There’s also some more fundamental issues that hopefully get addressed at some point.
AI Still Needs Work – AI teammates still make questionable decisions that are infuriating and disappointing to see as we’re moving into next gen with more powerful technology. Rotations and paint protection are still being treated as optional on the defensive side of the ball. Double team help and reactions are not as polished as they should be. Offensively, I’ve noticed times when spacing while running plays isn’t where it should be at. The 2K dev team needs to figure out how to balance out the AI so that better decisions are made by your teammates around you.
Poster Dunks – This has been talked about so much I hardly feel the need to say much. Getting dunked on is happening a bit too frequently, and there was a patch today that maybe will help minimize that a bit. Part of the issue was that there was a severe lack of actual bigs on the court in some of these Rec/City games, but I was also seeing it a bit too much in regular NBA games. In part, it feels like an animation priority issue where the dunk animation is almost overriding anything else that gets in its way. We’ll continue to monitor this moving forward.
Pick-And-Roll Defense – The pick-and-roll defense did improve a bit after a roster update where 2K must have weaseled in a little tuning, but some more work could still go into this area. The rotations could be more logical (helping off the non-shooter on the wing rather than the deadly corner shooter), and in general AI defenses still need to be in better help position overall, but it’s not as bad as it was at launch. Because pick and rolls are such a huge part of the five-on-five game, obviously a ton of tuning and tweaking should constantly be going into this element of the game.
Fast-Break Defense, But Really Passing – This is improved overall, but we could still use even a bit more here in the future. I don’t expect too much to change here, but the big thing is players are tracking back regularly now and home-run passes are not as frequent. However, long outlets are still too effective because almost everyone can still nail them with accuracy, and this still leads to lots of easy jumpers in semi-transition that should be more reserved for better playmakers.
However, missing the second free throw no longer means an easy bucket the other way, and that was a long-time legacy issue until this release. I pinpoint passing here as the overall culprit because things like jump passes are too accurate as well here, so maybe passing accuracy overall is still just a little too high.
ACE And Defensive Settings Confusion – After years and years, ACE (adaptive coaching engine) still turns itself on at the start of games, even after you turn it off in the settings before games. This is more annoying on next-gen consoles because it’s actually a little harder to turn ACE off overall in any setting. The defensive settings for individual players are also not all working correctly. Things like “leave him” and “pre-rotate” simply are not working as of now and need a patch.
Modes And Features
No Continuation of MyNBA Saves – I’m pinning this directly to the new MyNBA, but not being able to continue a franchise from a previous version of NBA 2K strikes me as a bad choice. Just off the depth of the mode, being able to carry your save over would be fantastic. MLB The Show has been doing this for years now and other games really need to catch up.
Servers – Once again NBA 2K was plagued by servers and connectivity issues at launch. As it stands now, players have been getting kicked out of The City and MyTeam online games at various points. Players had also been reporting choppy gameplay when in The City (again, hopefully fixed in today’s patch). We also have Play Now Online games simply not counting results, which seems especially prevalent on the PS5.
This is nothing new when it comes to NBA 2K, and it honestly is surprising that more of an investment in server stability has not been a focus by the 2K team, especially considering that a large portion of play requires connectivity to the 2K servers. This needs to be addressed and put to bed once and for all, but I don’t think it’s something we’ll see an improvement in this year.
No Online WNBA Play Now – I noticed that there isn’t an option in Play Now for the WNBA. This is confusing as I don’t think it would have been hard to implement this game option considering the expansion that was made towards the WNBA in NBA 2K21 next gen. I’d think it’ll be added for NBA 2K22 but that’s something we’ll have to wait and see about because it was already strange it was not included in the current-gen version of the game this year.
MyCareer Story – As much as I liked the MyCareer story, I’m disappointed that NBA 2K21 next gen has the exact same story as the current gen version, right down to the exact same cutscenes. With the increase in power for these new consoles, this could have been a chance for the 2K dev team to tailor a new story arc that could have put the next gen on full display. We’ll have to wait until NBA 2K22 to see what the dev and creative teams come up with for a new story.
The VC Issue – It’s starting to get old, but my complaints about this aren’t going to change until we see some improvements in this area. Specifically with MyCareer and The City, the necessity to purchase VC with real-world money to stay competitive is really deceptive and ridiculous. This is no different in NBA 2K21 next gen, and with this game having both a current-gen and next-gen version, the VC issue might be the worst we’ve seen.
Players undoubtedly spent money on their builds on current-gen versions to enjoy the game, carrying over whatever VC they had left to next gen. If you don’t have enough VC for your new MyPlayer, you’re stuck either grinding out to earn VC or paying for more to build up your player. Gear for your player is insanely expensive as well. Yes, premium brands like Bape are expensive in real life, but paying 10K VC for a custom pair of Jordans that you’ve made in the Shoe Creator or 10K VC for a backpack is just crazy to me.
I don’t mind the VC system in terms of spending money for cosmetics, but I feel like there needs to be a look at balancing out how much things cost so that it’s more realistic for players to enjoy their experience without feeling like they have to spend real money to enjoy their time with the game. In addition, it’s time to be able to re-spec your player without fear of having to spend $50 again to work on someone from scratch.
Some Lousy Player Scans – This exact thing was addressed by 2K developer Erick Boenisch, but Covid inevitably affected 2K’s ability to get players in to get updated face scans. It looks like the 2K dev team will be working on getting these done in the upcoming weeks and months, so that should solve some of the more questionable player models we’ve seen.
Updated Presentation Packages For Pregame And Halftime Still Lacking – It’s odd we did not see an upgrade to pregame and halftime for NBA 2K21 next gen because it feels like it would be a great moment to show off the graphics from camera angles we would not see during gameplay. With all the power that next-gen consoles boast — near-instant load times and the graphics we’re already seeing — I don’t feel like there’s a valid reason as to why these two presentation areas were not improved.
We should have a full halftime show with recaps and check-ins on other ongoing games. During a season, a weekly recap show should be shown to talk about the past week in the NBA, or just a news show in general like The Jump on ESPN. The improvement in the arena immersion and entrances there was a nice touch, but these improvements could and should have extended to game broadcasts themselves.
NBA 2K21 next gen is a much better game than NBA 2K21 current gen. I instantly felt differences in almost every area I checked out. In saying this, there are still some areas of improvement needed. Some of the things were out of everyone’s control due to the current pandemic around the world and a tight development schedule. Some areas of improvement definitely sit on the 2K team to correct, and some of them have been areas of concern for several years now. Let’s hope that changes for the better are made to improve the next-gen experience for all.