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NBA 2K21 Review - A 'Season Update' Should Have Been the Play Here

nba 2k21 review

NBA 2K21

NBA 2K21 Review - A 'Season Update' Should Have Been the Play Here

Now a couple weeks removed from the launch of NBA 2K21, it’s fair to say we didn’t experience the nightmare launch that plagued NBA 2K20. Still, I wanted to let the game breathe before I really wrote this NBA 2K21 review because I wanted to ensure that any issues that could possibly show up would have time to be rectified before I dissected the game (plus 2K likes patching early and often).

The NBA 2K21 developers had a tough task this year because we’re also on the brink of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S coming out. Next-generation systems are about to make their debut, so that means that next-gen NBA 2K21 will offer better graphics, faster load times and a whole new experience that will apparently leave us in awe in the near future. However, this also meant current-gen NBA 2K21 was left in the lurch and in an especially awkward spot since we’re still in the midst of “last year’s” NBA season still ongoing.

With that in mind, let’s get into this review.

NBA 2K21 Review – What I Like

Before I jump into what I’ve liked so far in NBA 2K21, I’m going to again reiterate what I’ve said in several different articles and places since the game has been out. If you’re expecting an overhaul compared to NBA 2K20, you’ll be disappointed. You can consider this year’s current-gen iteration to be NBA 2K20.5. There are some improvements in areas over last year but a good bit of the game is cut and paste. This, again, is mainly due to the fact that most of the resources within the 2K dev team have most likely been put towards the next-gen version of NBA 2K21 that we’ll be getting our hands on in a couple of months.

Gameplay

nba 2k21 review

Dribbling – We’re back to having greater control over dribble moves and chaining dribbling, reminiscent to NBA 2K17. This is easily one of the best changes made to NBA 2K21. Dribble moves and dribbling altogether feels very smooth, even after improvements were made to the dribbling suite in NBA 2K20. The addition of Signature iso moves was a smart play by the 2K team, and being able to execute them while walking or running up court has proved to be a great way to set up defenders and break them down. You need to have an elite ball handler to pull off the best moves, and for your MyPlayer you’ll need an 85 ball handle rating or higher to achieve this.

The separation in ball handling from the elite, good, mediocre and awful ball handlers is very obvious and visible on court, and it’s awesome that the differentiation is more spread out this year. It really does appear that players are no longer locked into animation links and now have true freedom in how they want to pull off dribble moves. If you can master the sticks and iso moves, you’ll own anybody that tries to cover you, leaving them in the dust with their ankles tied up.

nba 2k21 review

Movement – The 2K dev team again made strides in improving player movement and animations on the court. This is more noticeable when playing modes like Play Now or in MyCareer games, but you can also see better movement in the Neighborhood, latency aside. I noticed new animations in several different areas including rebounding battles, defenders trying to beat screens, and player movement during plays and freelance offense.

Shooting – This is going to be hitting both in things I liked and didn’t like. What I like about shooting this year is the adjustments that Mike Wang and company made in the hit percentages for shooters based on their rating(s). What we’ve seen in the last few years of NBA 2K, specifically in the Neighborhood, is players and builds that shouldn’t be able to shoot but can. The attempt at balancing this was to introduce shot targeting with the Pro Stick. This has been a controversial change, and I personally do not like the stick (but I understand its merits), and it’s good that the skill gap was initially widened with this addition.

In seeing the above, I do like the basic logic being used here, but the above also speaks to why I don’t like shooting — more on this in a later section.

Modes And Features

MyCareer– The MyCareer story this year was a decent enough outing, one that I felt was one of the best outputs since the MyCareer story narrative was introduced. Once again featuring a good cast of actors, including Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy), Michael K. Williams (The Wire) and Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy), you can expect great voice acting. The narrative sees a return of high school basketball leading to college, and finally the NBA. It’d be nice to see the experience last a little longer, but what we received this year was a good production despite its length.

MyTeam – Although I didn’t delve too much into MyTeam, this year’s iteration in NBA 2K21 is arguably the best version of the mode since its inception. You could consider MyTeam this year to be the best overall mode in NBA 2K21 current gen, based off of its depth and new features. Returning fans of the mode should be more than happy with the newly added Seasons mode, as well as The Exchange.

NBA-2K21- MyTEAM Customizable Evolution

It’ll be hard to get bored of MyTeam this year as you try to amass a solid deck of cards — assuming you don’t get tired of the gameplay. You now have the ability to customize badges for players with badge cards, and you also have the ability to customize Evolutions. Newcomers to the mode will be able to quickly pick up on old and new features in the mode and will also enjoy what it has to offer.

Presentation

As mentioned above, the strong characters that were cast for this year’s MyCareer story lead to great and believable voice acting. The revamped Neighborhood, now known as 2K Beach, was a much needed upgrade to the same scene we were accustomed to for the last couple years of NBA 2K. The seaside basketball paradise, lined with chic condos, gives off Venice Beach vibes.

NBA 2K21 Review – What I Don’t Like

Unfortunately, the game falls short on several fronts, including within the areas that I did in fact like. I’ll throw in another (cautious) reminder to mention that with the next-generation version of the game about two months away, that we should expect a refined and polished version of NBA 2K21 on the new incoming systems. I’m using the word “expect” because I feel at this point it would be inexcusable for the 2K team to put out a product that doesn’t blow away the current-gen version of 2K21 after the way the conversation about the two versions has been framed.

Let’s take a look at the things that didn’t work out so well for NBA 2K21 current gen.

Gameplay

Defensive Movement – Despite a refined movement system, one of the issues that continues to plague the game is defensive sliding. This really comes to the forefront and rears its ugly head when you’re playing on the courts in the Neighborhood. I’m not sure if this is an issue due to latency or a lack of balance between offense and defense within the Park, but the fact that your character slides from side to side is downright infuriating.

It’s obvious that a player’s defensive rating and badges (which I have my gripes about) matter and affect how you perform defensively, but having ratings in the low 80s and higher and still not being able to stay in front of a ball handler just doesn’t make sense. If you’re up against an elite ball handler and your defensive ratings are below the 80 threshold, then I feel that it makes sense that the ball handler will beat you with a quick dribble move and blow by you. In turn, if your rating is 77 or higher then your ability to stay in front of your man should go up as your rating increases, especially if you’ve got the Clamps badge equipped. Instead, a mistimed movement leads to your man moving three to five steps past your matchup, leaving him wide open to pop a shot or drive to the basket.

nba 2k21 review

I currently have the highly used Playmaking Shot Creator point guard build that has high dribbling capabilities, so I would expect my player to beat almost all matchups defensively with my dribble moves. The fact that I can cross over most players, including Lockdown defensive builds, is satisfying but perplexing. A player that creates a Lockdown build at either the point guard or shooting guard position should be able to guard against dribble moves more efficiently than all other builds. Unfortunately, the sliding on defense makes this an issue.

Shooting has garnered an almost absurd amount of attention by the community and the devs as an area that needs to be improved. The fact that much less love is being given to the large amount of complaints with defensive sliding is both irritating and concerning. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing in the Neighborhood, that feeling of joy can be ruined quickly by constant defensive errors due to sliding.

nba 2k21 demo block

Defensive AI Logic – NBA 2K has come a long way when it comes to AI logic on both sides of the ball, but one area that needs refinement is on the defensive end when it comes to double teams (and transition defense). Again, seen most often in MyCareer NBA games, if you score two to three baskets consecutively, or dish off four to five assists consecutively, your AI opponent will double team your player aggressively. Rotations happen off these double teams, but not nearly enough.

Double teams do happen in the NBA, but I don’t remember the last time I saw a coach call double teams on a player for every single offensive possession they had after they scored a few consecutive baskets. It still unfortunately feels like the defensive side of the ball isn’t as up to speed as the offensive side. The 2K dev team needs to figure out how they can fix this AI logic to bring greater balance to the game.

nba 2k21 review

Rebounding – I feel like great improvement has been made to the rebounding logic within NBA 2K, but it seems like legacy issues still continue to affect the game. Too many balls bounce haplessly towards the sideline without being caught off of an errant shot. It’s quite rare to see balls bounce off the hardwood and towards the sideline without being corralled by a player in real life, so seeing it happen so much still within NBA 2K21 is disappointing.

Passing – I felt like passing had improved during my initial sessions playing NBA 2K21, but my opinion here has changed over time. Chest passes and overhead passes seem to float too often and don’t have the zip they should, especially when in close proximity to the player you’re trying to pass to. I find that far too often I have passes that are intercepted because they’re thrown way too gently. These are professional basketball players, and even some of the lesser skilled players in the NBA can throw a nice crisp pass. That should hold true in NBA 2K.

Stealing – Having to block the ball handler’s dribble and/or path, and running into them or creating a collision with the dribbling hand to steal the ball is still the most effective way to get a steal. That hasn’t changed and holds its place in NBA 2K21. Another annoyingly consistent way to get steals, particularly in the Neighborhood, is to swipe at the ball right after a rebound. There’s a high chance you’ll steal the ball right back for your team, leading to quick points. I’m not quite sure which stealing method is more frustrating, but stealing off rebounds in the Neighborhood causes more issues as it leads to beef from your teammates if you’re the unlucky one who gets robbed.

nba 2k21 review

Shooting – The hottest topic in NBA 2K21, shooting isn’t so much a problem. Rather, it’s the mechanics of shooting in this year’s game and all the mixed messages around it (including the patch changes). The implementation of shot aiming with the Pro Stick was brought in to bring a true skill gap to the shooting in the game. NBA 2K18 to NBA 2K20 saw the use of shot timing, which could be mastered if you learned the shot you were using. NBA 2K21 brings back the failed shot aiming experiment from NBA 2K17 — and it is for sure implemented better than it was then — but I still don’t like it.

Right from the demo, many players griped about the complexity of the aiming stick, while some figured out the stick and its inconsistencies regardless of skill:

(Note, this was fixed in the actual shipped version of the game, I’m just using it since it’s a well-known example.)

After the game came out, a patch was released to make shooting easier on lower difficulties and within modes offline, but left shooting the same for the Neighborhood and higher difficulty levels. Many players continued to complain about how difficult shooting was, transitioning their gripes to the fact that too many “white” releases were going in and that not as many “green” or excellent releases were going in. Mike Wang did mention in a tweet that it would be much more complicated to hit green releases:

Beyond the basic mechanics, an “exploit” that players have been taking advantage of are fading shots. It’s quite easy to take a fading shot and achieve a “green” release. Players have been spamming the shot, hitting fading 3 pointers continuously. This issue is supposed to be addressed in a patch that was supposed to have come out last week but has yet to be released.

All in all, this still goes beyond shooting mechanics to me though. Players who have a decent shooting rating should be hitting shots at a lower, infrequent percentage. Players with better ratings should be hitting at higher frequencies. Any player with a shooting rating under 73 should be hitting at a very low percentage.

Mike Wang talked about this in replies to a couple tweets about shooting.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case thus far. The Pro Stick aiming mechanic is, in my opinion, flawed. If mastered, it can allow players with lower ratings to hit shots more consistently than they should (especially with the meter off now). You’ll always have some sort of adjustment needed within some areas when a 2K game is released, and shooting is the damaged area that needs the most love to fix — coming into a near tie with the defensive sliding issue I spoke to above.

Badges – I’m torn on the whole badge system. Badges are meant to work in tandem with your player ratings, but then boost given areas of focus to take you to an elite level. Instead, I feel like badges are an “end all” that literally make or break a player. You can’t do anything well unless you have the necessary badges that take your player to that next level.

There was supposed to have been balancing and tweaking done for the badges in the game so that they would all be viable and have a use but that simply has not happened. There are badges that are still completely useless and don’t appear to enhance the abilities they claim to. Ankle Breaker is the perfect example, as it didn’t work at all in NBA 2K20 and still doesn’t work in NBA 2K21 to this point. The same patch the community is waiting on to fix fade shots is also supposedly going to address ankle breakers themselves, which should then in turn make the badge viable again. We’ll have to wait and see if this happens.

There needs to be a better system in place to have balance for badges in the game, as well as a better implementation of how badges negate each other on both sides of the ball. Some badges are still too overpowered, despite having been adjusted. Hopefully, next gen will lead to balance and cohesion with the badge system that we don’t have now.

Microtransactions

I talk about microtransactions every year at this point, so I won’t go into depth at this point. The MyPlayer/MyCareer suite works exclusively off of VC, requiring you to spend every piece of VC you earn just to stay on par with the rest of the world. Attributes to improve your player’s overall require VC. Want to stay ahead of the curve in MyTeam? Spend VC to get packs and upgrades and you might be able to make a name for yourself.

In the Neighborhood you’re charged exorbitant amounts of VC for gear that has been in the game for what seems like the last two years. There have been new brands introduced into the game and some returning brands, but the price for these products are high. One thing that grinds my gears is the fact that you STILL have to pay 10K VC to buy a pair of shoes in the 2K Shoe Store that you’ve created in the Shoe Creator. Even if you’ve acquired a shoe deal with a big name like Jordan or Nike for your MyCareer player and you’ve gained the ability to get shoes from your respective brand for free, you still have to pay for a custom pair you’ve designed. It doesn’t make sense to me. Putting things like that behind a paywall is a greedy move.

At the end of the day, VC is here to stay and there’s nothing we can unfortunately do about it. That being said, it doesn’t mean we have to like it in this form.

Presentation

nba 2k21 demo starting lineups

This applies specifically to MyCareer, but I’d like to hear the reasoning behind removing all the interactions and cutscenes with your agent, endorsement reps and events for your endorsements. The assets are there as they were used last year, so why not include them in the current-gen version of the game since you’ve already copied a large part of NBA 2K20 to make 2K21? I’m under the impression that NBA 2K21 next gen will have all of these things and then some, but it’s a very dangerous assumption that I’m making.

In terms of during the actual games, copy and paste jobs were definitely applied for a ton of commentary and presentation, as well as for pregame and postgame introductions. The halftime presentation is also the exact same. The main menus almost instantly reminded me of eFootball PES based on how basic and boring (yet tidy) they were. I expect to see an improvement in these areas on next gen.

Bottom Line

Despite the fact that I’m (mostly) enjoying my time with NBA 2K21, the game falls short in being a “new” iteration of the yearly game and is really a holdover until the next-gen version is released. Out of everything offered on current gen, the only thing that really makes NBA 2K21 worth the price is the revamped and deepened MyTeam mode. The Neighborhood redesign is definitely a welcomed sight and the Pro Stick aiming mechanic seeks to separate the skilled players from the more casual player, but the game simply is not worth the full price of admission.

Had the 2K team decided to pull an eFootball PES move and patch NBA 2K20 to NBA 2K21, I think I’d have felt a little better about the product we currently have. Instead, we were given a slightly improved but underwhelming current-gen game. If you were on the fence about getting NBA 2K21 for current gen and are getting yourself a PS5 or Xbox Series X, wait it out for the extra month and a half and see what the game looks like then.

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  1. I don't understand why people seem to be okay with the aesthetics of the game. It's supposed to be the 2020-21 season and new uniforms weren't added for the teams that announced them. Players still have dated hairstyles and all of those old shoes are still taking up space in the shoe menus. Are those players with dated hairstyles gonna be that way on next gen? Hopefully we'll be able to use custom rosters in MyCareer and be able to edit the appearance of those awful, fake looking rookies with way to much gear and football numbers. 
    We should be able to sell shoes back for slightly less VC, especially if the color way changes like the Jordan 11 Concorde that I have to make in the shoe creator every year and spend 10K VC on.
    When you unlock jersey selection after 10 games or so, you should be able to change up your uniform like how it is in Quick Play.
    And I better be able to load manage my 21 y/o rookie like he's Zion! 
    Also, Miles Bridges still can't dunk!
    I have to agree with you. I have been saying the same thing about Madden. At least, if you are going have a Season update, I can continue with my current player. I haven't been able to put up a hall of fame My player since 2k16. I would like them to have a season update and maybe even formulate a story mode that stems from having a player already in the NBA. Maybe a my player season 2 or a my player called the Big Ticket, where it starts you in a bidding war with teams. Go for the big money rebuild or the less money contenders. I can enjoy a good High School to pro story like 2K21. I'm just done with making it to the NBA every year. We get it, getting to the league is hard, but staying in the league is even harder. I think the player movement and smoothness of the gameplay is warranted the discussion of it not being just like 2k20. The gap between the 2 isn't a $59.99 difference. Especially when they still have identical player create a player faces, accessories (absent the headband wrap), hairstyles, player models, lack of tattoos, etc. The fact they give you great player model choices for my player but have not brought that over to create a player. Still wish I could use my "My Player" in the other modes. I would like to have my guy as a free agent in franchise mode or the main guy on my "My Team". I dig the My Neighborhood but can't help look at it as a missed opportunity. I would love to have that My Neighborhood feel as a single player addition to My Player that gives your guy something to do as an individual experience. Sign those contracts and get deals to increase the world around you. Why can't I buy some of those store fronts that may give me a single player experience. Buy a house with a court in the backyard. By a sports car to cruise a living world with NPC's that intereact with you. Little GTA style in a sense. They had a football before, why can't I play some football or pickup ball at the park without going online. Online should be its own world, not something forced upon us. The last tropical storm knocked out my internet service but not my power for 4 days. No My player love for me. A season update format like AFL and other games is a great option. Especially if nothing major is going on under the hood. Excellent article. I am glad there are other people in the world with a strong voice to speak out on these types of social issues. A new great sports game is what the world needs right now. The first Presidential candidate that promises to bring 2K football back or force NBA 2K to give us new tats for our create a player, gets my vote on election night.
    I agree with most of this, but I think a lot more could be said on shooting.
    They introduced aiming, then changed it which messed up and discouraged of the people who were trying to give it a chance.  Maybe it's a park thing with people shooting with aiming, but in 300 games of rec and another 10 pro-am, and I've never seen an effective aim shooter, high or low 3 point rating.  The fadeaways you mention are rampant among button shooters.  Basically no one is using aiming.
    On top of that, the reviewer doesn't really address the ridiculously high rates that good shooters are getting on 3 pointers.  Maybe because he's using a playmaking shot creator which is the most exploited build in the game.  Also not mentioned is the fact that currently that build, plus two big builds, paint beast and glass cleaning finisher,  make up over of the myplayers in the game.
    The lack of variety is driven by two factors.  One, high shooters shoot such a higher percentage than those with 'average ratings (70-80) that its simply an imperative that all but the most skilled players take those shooting builds.  We are talking about for a 75 rating + badges to for a 90+badges.  At the other end for big men, any kind of standing layup, dunk or post shot is completely nerfed by a decent defensive player.  So the inside game consists of rebound/miss/rebound/miss/rebound/miss/rebound/make sequences dominated by those two builds.
    We definitely didn't get a lot of updated aesthetics due to Covid. The uncertainty of how the 2020-21 will go is the leading factor here...the NBA still hasn't decided on a firm date for the Combine, the NBA Draft or a start date to next season. I'm sure the 2K team will update those things when the new season starts.
    dwillis81
    I don't understand why people seem to be okay with the aesthetics of the game. It's supposed to be the 2020-21 season and new uniforms weren't added for the teams that announced them. Players still have dated hairstyles and all of those old shoes are still taking up space in the shoe menus. Are those players with dated hairstyles gonna be that way on next gen? Hopefully we'll be able to use custom rosters in MyCareer and be able to edit the appearance of those awful, fake looking rookies with way to much gear and football numbers.*
    We should be able to sell shoes back for slightly less VC, especially if the color way changes like the Jordan 11 Concorde that I have to make in the shoe creator every year and spend 10K VC on.
    When you unlock jersey selection after 10 games or so, you should be able to change up your uniform like how it is in Quick Play.
    And I better be able to load manage my 21 y/o rookie like he's Zion!*
    Also, Miles Bridges still can't dunk!

    Sent from my SM-G986W using Operation Sports mobile app
    I didn't speak to the high rate that shooting builds are getting because, based off Mike Wang's own words, that's what is supposed to happen. Shooters should be able to shoot at a higher percentage as I mentioned in the article, albeit not at a 90% clip...even the best shooters in the NBA, especially from 3, shoot in MAYBE the 42-47% range. Most definitely agree with you on the Play Shot, Paint Beast and Glass Locks being the meta right now. Much worse than last year to boot. I made a Play Shot with the main intention of running point with my friends when we were going to step into the Rec/Pro-Am. I didn't realize it'd be as OP as it currently is. I think a part of the problem is the imbalance between offense and defense, as well as the imbalance of the badges on offense and defense. We STILL haven't gotten patch 2 but I can only imagine a nerf coming down the pipes to kill the metas and create more "balance", which will cause a whole new wave of complaints from the community for sure.
    Erithtotl
    I agree with most of this, but I think a lot more could be said on shooting.
    They introduced aiming, then changed it which messed up and discouraged of the people who were trying to give it a chance.* Maybe it's a park thing with people shooting with aiming, but in 300 games of rec and another 10 pro-am, and I've never seen an effective aim shooter, high or low 3 point rating.* The fadeaways you mention are rampant among button shooters.* Basically no one is using aiming.
    On top of that, the reviewer doesn't really address the ridiculously high rates that good shooters are getting on 3 pointers.* Maybe because he's using a playmaking shot creator which is the most exploited build in the game.* Also not mentioned is the fact that currently that build, plus two big builds, paint beast and glass cleaning finisher,* make up over of the myplayers in the game.
    The lack of variety is driven by two factors.* One, high shooters shoot such a higher percentage than those with 'average ratings (70-80) that its simply an imperative that all but the most skilled players take those shooting builds.* We are talking about for a 75 rating + badges to for a 90+badges.* At the other end for big men, any kind of standing layup, dunk or post shot is completely nerfed by a decent defensive player.* So the inside game consists of rebound/miss/rebound/miss/rebound/miss/rebound/make sequences dominated by those two builds.

    Sent from my SM-G986W using Operation Sports mobile app

A father, dedicated sports fan and gamer. FIFA, Madden, NHL, NBA 2K are what I play majority of the time. Manchester United runs in my blood. Chicago Bulls and Denver Broncos drape the walls of my man cave. Play hard, or don't play at all.

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